Why It Pays To Confront Your Professional Jealousy

mm Russ Finkelstein

A lot of our shared language around careers is very bleached-smile positive and feels like it could have been lifted from Dale Carnegie’s famous book, How To Win Friends And Influence People.

As a career coach, it’s important for me to get people to feel positive and clear as they look to make the next step in their careers so I will often catch myself sounding like a gay, Jewish version of Dale Carnegie when I’m being motivational. You can do it! I earnestly believe that we all do have the ability to make our work lives much, much better.

And yet it’s important to be honest about how you/I/we sometimes/often feel about others/everyone.

You see, at ClearlyNext, we are trying to create a new kind of space for people to have honest dialogues about the things that really hold them back in their careers and fortunately, as one of the founders of ClearlyNext, I’m in a position where I can talk frankly and try to show real leadership by sharing my own professional experience on some of the trickier issues. So: It’s time for us to talk about your professional jealousy. About your green-eyed monster, if you will.

Unless you’re the Dalai Lama, I know that you have someone in your career of whom you’re professionally jealous. I want you to bring that person to mind, now, please, as you continue reading.

Before we talk about your professional jealousy, I’m going to reassure you that we all feel it, by talking about my own. I have a very good friend who runs an organization in the social enterprise space. During a conversation a few weeks ago he shared with me that his work is going very well and that he’s been showered with grants to fund his important work, and there’s been an influx of inquiries from fellowships curious to include him.

I congratulated him but underneath, I felt the pang of jealousy stabbing at my liver, sharp as a hot knife into butter. I’d say I feel professionally jealous like this about once a year and I can never predict when it is going to show up. While it’s unsettling, I see it as an opportunity to understand myself better and so should you.

I like this man a lot. I believe in his mission and consider him a good friend that I chat with weekly even though we live on opposite ends of the country. I’ve gone to great lengths over the years to help him succeed, made introductions to people who further his work, reviewing proposals and talking strategy and in general, acting as a booster. Likewise, I trust him completely. Still, during one of our regular calls I found myself switching a bit from the role of cheerleader to opponent; why wasn’t I awarded the win and associated spoils?  

Shakespeare’s Othello, is a fascinating meditation on the uniquely destructive power of jealousy. The lead character (spoiler alert) ends up strangling his wife to death with no other motive than pure jealousy, having been egged on by a deeply malicious co-worker. What the play teaches is that a person can be set up for success, they can even preside over a whole kingdom. But if they allow self-doubt to spiral and give in to jealousy, however baseless, the kingdom is lost.

When you next feel the stab of jealousy in your career, do not ignore it. In fact, think of that person you are jealous of, right now, and consider what it is about them that has you jealous. Consider jealousy as a big yellow caution light that you are unhappy and use that as a sign to move towards getting clarity about how you can navigate some of the next steps in your career.

Right after my call with my friend I took some time to consider what the Hell happened. I realized that I wanted strangers throwing their opportunities at me and missed that feeling of being the new exciting person that’s out there. I craved that sudden surge of recognition. I want all the right people to admire me and see me as an innovator. I want the halls filled with people saying, “Russ Finkelstein is really doing great work.”

And yet that has nothing to do with his accomplishments. Our work is completely different. He’s a perfect person to do exactly what he is doing and what he is called to do does not call to me.

Rather, I need to direct myself at realizing the success he is having in my own work. To get those things, there are concrete steps I can take. There are strategies I can pursue. But this all starts with being honest about what I want. It’s how I set myself some professional goals.

Did the target of your jealousy just get a job or promotion you had also gone for? Why didn’t you get it? What do you need to do to ensure you might be in line for such a position, next time? Unless they pulled a devious trick to position themselves, and this happens far less often than movies or television would suggest, the blame is on you.

I have a colleague who was jealous throughout his college career of a more outgoing classmate, one who worked at the college radio station and had a significantly larger number of friends and a girlfriend who represented an ideal to him.

Fifteen years later, my colleague went to work for the college buddy, of whom he’d been jealous. They worked together for two years until he finally realized that his former classmate was simply more outgoing than he was, and that his network and dating success were largely the result of that natural tendency.

My friend realized that despite other talents, he’d been a little too inwardly focused in his life, and career, and resolved to consciously reach out and broaden and deepen relationships in both moving forward. He learned from his jealousy and was able to develop an extensive network, which has been a crucial part of his career advancement. I saw him a few years ago serving as the very smooth and funny moderator for a mayoral debate. He told me it’s only recently that he realized a big reason he’d gone to work for this guy in the first place was that he had wanted to get to the bottom of why he’d always been so jealous of him!

Jealousy unchecked can turn into this kind of strange side-trip that may not lead to any place productive, or it can turn into the ‘jealous rage’ and there are very, very few situation where rage is a productive workplace emotion.

Here’s how you take the warning signal or green-eyed monster of jealousy and turn it into a green light to move forward in a positive way in your life.

  1. Recognize the feeling as jealousy. It can be easy to miss this and read it instead as a justifiable reaction to some sleight against you. We human are amazing at justifying many of our mistakes. Resist the temptation.  
  2. Unpack it. Ask yourself what exactly it is that has you jealous, then figure out what changes you need to make to be more like the person of whom you’re jealous.
  3. Take action. Move in that direction. Make plans. Have a buddy hold you accountable, if necessary.
  4. Be mindful that you might become passive aggressive towards the focus of your jealousy. Moderate your behavior around the person of whom you are jealous, be conscious of your interactions and make an extra effort to be nice.
  5. Notice the jealousy every time it comes up, take a deep breath, and focus on your plans and strategies to move towards those goals. Put the energy into those constructive things.

I saw the recipient of my jealous reaction last week at a conference. Several people came up to me thanking me for having made an introduction to them and sharing how impressed they are with him and his work. And I felt…so happy for him. He’s working hard at the path that he wants to follow and I am doing the same. I actually even spoke with him about writing this piece and how interesting it was to process the experience.

Now think about your life and the lives of those you care about most. Consider the cost of all the missed opportunity because people spun their wheels over the years, feeling jealous. Imagine the return on the investment of your time from getting to the bottom of those feelings, and acting constructively on them.

There you go. I’m sounding like Dale Carnegie again. But jealousy really can be one of the most extraordinary of professional motivators, if you learn to harness and focus that emotion in constructive ways. And the truth is I have too many people in my life doing astounding things that I don’t have the capacity to be jealous of them, nor would I want to miss out on the fun of being genuinely happy for them.

I wish you the very best with it.

Russ Finkelstein is Managing Director of ClearlyNext, a guided online career program that helps people of all backgrounds and incomes figure out what to do next. Read more >