Envy Is An Asset

"Oh man, can you believe it's been four years since [Hank] joined the company?" I asked a co-worker the other day.

"Yep! God, remember how you were when he started?"

"I....no. What do you mean?"

"You were always talking about how much stuff he knew, how you'd never catch up, etc. — saying he'd put you out of a job."

"No, you're thinking of [Dean]. I know I did that when HE started."

"Hah, you did that with both of them, then."

"Huh. And now I always say that about-"

"Exactly!"

When your company works hard to attract and hire the smartest people possible, sooner or later you may find yourself with a co-worker who flat-out scares you. Maybe they have a strong background in something you're weak in, maybe they're an extraordinarily hard worker, maybe they talk over your head and confuse you. It might not even be a co-worker - it could just be someone you met at a conference, a meetup, or started following online.

This sort of upset to your self-percieved awesomeness can raise a lot of questions: Is this what everyone 'out there' is like? Are you out of touch, weak, softened by job security? Are you just (gulp) not good enough for this line of work?

For me, it leads to a period of ability anxiety; the feeling that I have to catch up, maybe spend a weekend learning the tool X was talking about on Friday, contribute to a big framework, write something in the hottest new language. It's easy to lose sight of what I love about my work in a mad, unsuccessful scramble to match so-and-so's toolkit of superior knowledge, ideas, and abilities.

But, as my opening dialogue hinted, the anxiety eventually melts away, and it's almost never because I bought a bunch of books and read some Node tutorials or whatever. After going through this process a few times as a designer, and now, several times as a developer, I've picked up a few tricks that help turn envy and intimidation into tools. Step one:

Admit it

If you meet someone who's a better illustrator than you, or a better programmer, or effortlessly creates perfect typographic layouts, for God's sake admit it to yourself. Tell other people how great they are. Retweet them. Don't balance it with "well, but I'm better at Z, so we're on equal footing" or "well, they're not working in an agency atmosphere" or some qualifying nonsense — enjoy the fact that you know, and have access to, someone with an admirable skill. When you're balled up in anxiety over your ability to do equivalent work, flat-out admitting that someone else is better can be a huge relief. It puts everything in perspective, re-aligns your mindset with reality, and moves you on to the next step.

Make friends with them

It's easy to be bitter, even unconsciously, towards someone who you feel threatens your self-image, or even (if you're paranoid) your job. Fight it, and be nice to them. One of the best favors you can do yourself is spending time with people who kick ass in some particular way that you do not.

Say "I don't know what that is."

This is the best discovery I made - when someone drops a JS framework, design pattern, or fancy art school term on you in casual conversation, just be brutally honest and say you don't know what it means, or that you haven't looked into it. I've wasted way too many conversations at conferences pretending I knew about some testing library because I'd read the top of the readme, when I could have just said, "I have no idea, please tell me what you mean." People love explaining things they know.

Steal from their process

At SXSW this year, I had the opportunity to see Tim Ferriss talk about his 4-Hour Chef experience, and one thing he said really stuck out for me. When Tim wanted to learn how to be as good as a renowned NYC chef, he said, roughly, "I knew I could never copy what he did: he was too good, and he'd spent a lifetime learning to do this. So I tried to learn his process." Ferriss investigated the things his subject did every day that enhanced and sharpened the skill, instead of fixating on the skill itself. It's a strong point that really stuck with me.

People with great ability have great process — they get up at the right time, focus on the right things, and they have their own little rules that work into everything they do. Great runners don't just run fast, they run regularly. Effective managers don't just manage people well, they manage their time well. The easiest thing to learn from an exceptional individual is how they organize and focus their resources.

What's more is, people with effective processes love talking about them. If a coworker always has an awesome premade lunch, ask how they manage to create it and still fit in other activities. If a developer submits a single-day pull request with a thousand lines of new code, ask them how they chunk tasks, how they think about overall problems, how they space out their email checking and feed reading. Every effective person has a process, and it's usually highly stealable. What's more, it exposes cracks in your own process where you might be losing time, focus, or just general happiness.

Afterthoughts

I've had enough conversations about envy anxiety to know that it's not unique to me - people naturally compare themselves to others and draw some amount of self-worth from the result. Is this something that's affected you? If so, how did the situation work out? I'd love to hear.

Doug Avery

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Posted in Article Category: #Strategy
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