Is A Bit Of Envy Good Or Bad For Motivation?

by Dr. Rick Kirschner on June 8, 2011


I read an interesting article on Psyblog a few days ago.  Titled ‘Why Envy Motivates Us,’ with its key point being “Choose your heroes carefully, or admiration may kill your motivation to succeed.”

If you’re familiar with the motivational model I developed for the Insider’s Guide To The Art Of Persuasion, some of which gets explored in my new book ‘How To Click With People: The Secret To Better Relationships In Business And In Life,’ I offer a two sided (fear and desire) six-leveled model of motivation.  Envy does not appear in it.  I was intrigued.

The author of the article talks about how the the founder of the fashion label Diesel had described how difficult it was in the early days of building his business, and how many times he cried when things went against him.  Yet somehow he went on to grow a business now worth billions of dollars.  The question the author asks is, how did he carry on?

The answer, unsurprisingly, is a bit of hero worship kept him going.  It was his admiration for Joseph Armani that moved and inspired him.  Using my model, that means he was motivated by the desire to follow in Armani’s footsteps.

The author of the article then references the philosopher Kierkegaard, who believed that admiration for someone is like admitting defeat, that when you look up to someone, whether for their deeds or their position in society, you are essentially admitting defeat, because you can’t meet the standard they set.  And on the flip side of admiration is envy, which is actually painful, whereas admiration, where our aspirations lift our sights to higher ground. The author claims that in that transition, we lose the motivational power of envy.

Here’s what I know.  Jealousy is destructive.  I’ve lost relationships because of these emotions, so I know this first hand.  And I’ve seen the damage done in the lives of others as well.   But envy?  According to research on envy, there are two kinds, benign and malignant.  Malignant envy is when you think someone doesn’t deserve their achievement of position, place or wealth. Benign envy is when you think they do deserve the good that has come to them, and want some of it for yourself.   And the trick, it supposedly turns out, is to envy someone who you don’t think is out of your league, but who you do think is deserving of their success.

I’ve done this to a degree.  I had someone in mind a few years ago, I painted a target on them in my mind, as in “I’m coming for you!” and set out to make it happen.  But here’s where I differ with the article.  Though it seemed to me that this person didn’t deserve all his success, but did deserve some of it.  The reason I painted a target on him was for the undeserved part.  And I didn’t experience my envy as malignant.  Instead, it moved me.  It inspired me.  I wanted to show him what I considered the better way.  (Desire, Values)  And allowing him to do what he had done and have it go unanswered by me would have been wrong. (Fear, Values)  Then there was the question:  Could I succeed?  Would I fail?  Only by trying could I find out.  (Desire, Challenge)

Using envy worked for me, perhaps better than anything I’d used before, but only because I connected my actual motivations to it.  Rather than basing my actions on a strictly emotional choice, as the article portrays envy, I chose to engage my motivation because of I had that emotion.  And  I consider what I was able to achieve from that point on to be substantial, and I otherwise doubt I’d have had the staying power to get the results I was after (and did obtain!)

How about you?  Envious much?  How does it effect you?  How does it effect your relationships?  Your feedback, comments and questions are most welcome.  Even if they create a little envy for those in the habit of keeping their silence.

Be well,


Ref: Why Envy Outperforms Admiration,

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