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Engagement as an Antidote to Envy

Several months ago, Charlie Munger eloquently shared his views on the world at the Daily Journal annual meeting:

“The world is not driven by greed, it's driven by envy.”

— Charlie Munger

Regardless of how much better off we are today than people from centuries, decades, or even years ago, people are still not satisfied. The world isn’t full of happiness. We covet the possessions, relationships, and lives of others. As Munger points out, this isn’t a new phenomenon. So old, in fact, it’s written into the Ten Commandments.

Jealousy survived in our genetic code thanks to its effectiveness as a motivator. Where it exists, it drives action. It creates an internal drive to better our neighbor, inspiring hard work at its best or blatant theft at its worst.

In light of that, it’s natural to view another’s achievements and feel inferior. In specific situations and explicit goals, that’s valuable. It builds competition. But generalizing to life is mistaken. There is no best way to live, no one is winning.

The Grass is Always Greener

More than ever, the world highlights the aspects of our lives that are inadequate. We view career, family, and personal goals of others in isolation but their sacrifices are barely a footnote. Our lives are sliced to pieces and each is compare to the best. Poorer than some, less cultured than others.

I’ve suffered mightily from this. In one moment, I’m envious of a friend’s career, someone whose focus and dedication has led to great accomplishments. Minutes, even seconds, later I’m jealous of another friend who’s rejected the rat race to build relationships and grow internally. I simultaneously feel inferior to both. My better judgment knows it’s a trick, but a sinister one that still takes hold.

In that moment, personal accomplishments and progress fall away and I’m left feeling defeated. Motivated, sure, but also critical of the choices in a single area of my life. Worst of all, I begin to ruminate, running through the missteps as if there was a better way. I look for support by judging others. I must be a better father, more well-read, or kinder. But it’s a mirage I’m all too aware of. My only conviction is

that in one particular aspect, on a specific scale, I’m losing.

None Better Than Another

Whether we decide to spend time as an artist or a banker, traveling the world or firmly settling down, life does not have a scoreboard. Money, the great differentiator, isn’t even loosely correlated with success. It brings comfort and opportunity. It leads to unique perspectives that color our lives. But the rich and the poor both suffer and flourish.

So, while we want to succeed in all areas, the truth is that any measure of success is irrelevant to a life well-lived.

Superior Living

Quality of life comes not from achieving a set of defined goals, but the intensity of our living. Being engaged. If we’re

more deeply engrossed, we are genuinely more alive.

This doesn't mean we need to live with a short term outlook or shallow aspirations. We can be present throughout a years-long journey to the top of a company, during hours in a book, or for a single second while enjoying a scent in the air. None is superior to the next.

This is the bedrock that keeps my envy in check. Jealousy is a distraction if I’m convinced that the best way to live comes from being present. It doesn’t matter where I stack up or the pace of my achievements, what matters is my attention.

Constant engagement is much easier said than done. A few points keep me aligned in this nonstop wrestling match:

  • Prioritize living: I only criticize myself when I’m lost in my own head or consuming life passively. Thankfully, it’s usually easy to spot because I quickly become cranky, curt, and short tempered. These moments prevent me from living. They suck away the vibrancy of life. The opportuniti

es. There are endless adventures, being disconnected from those possibilities always proves to be a losing path.

  • Schedules differ: Accomplishment is satisfying but on what timeline? Everyone’s march through life is unique, not only in what we do but when. As we all have different backgrounds and perspectives, how can we expect to live in lock-step with each other? There’s no correct time to focus on a career, and perhaps it’s never appropriate. No proper age to settle into a long term relationship or season in life to travel the world. Our schedules are our own and acknowledging that lifts the chains of anxiety and allows attention on today.

  • The best things in life are free: As I mentioned in a recent post, my life is at its peak when I’m enjoying the simple pleasures. Reading over a coffee or learning a new skill. Walking with friends or striking a bond with strangers. Those are the thrills of my life, the fire ignited. And rarely, if ever, have any particular accomplishments been a precursor. It may feel like membership in certain circles or communities is required, but typically that’s our mind giving allowance for our envy. The truth is, it’s all right in front of us.

The only absolute truth is right now. The question then, is not what or when, but how we spend this very moment. Curious, loving, and most of all, engaged.


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