The day my envy disappeared and I started living my own life

I lived much of my life as an envious person.

A large part of my self-esteem was derived from comparison to other people. In every respect I could always see people who were doing better than me and I didn’t like it.

It’s painful to write this, but the truth is that I smiled through gritted teeth when I learned of other’s successes. Unless, of course, I knew their success was still inferior to my own achievements. Those moments provided me with pale, fleeting validation.

One way to think about envy is that it’s rooted in a lack of self-awareness. A lack of consciousness about what you truly, deeply need. Disconnected from this self-knowledge the focus becomes external.

We project our unmet needs onto other people, onto objects, and onto money. We see in them the person we want to be.

I fumbled my way towards overcoming my envy. Unaware that I was even living this way, I clawed my way out of it not with some dramatic spiritual awakening. I simply connected to a deeper yearning within myself and instinctively followed it.

In my case, it was connecting to two deeper needs: one was for good old fashioned adventure, and the other was for work with a deeper sense of meaning.

At the point this happened in my life, I had been running a business I founded for 10 years. I needed a proper break. The adventure had to come first.

I just about caught myself before I made what I now know is a classic mistake: Believing that I needed money first, before I could meet my needs.

This is never, ever true. I learned years later from Peter Koenig a simple truth:

There is always a next step towards meeting your needs and realising your ideas — with and without money.

The simple decision I made was that I needed to leave my company and set off on an adventure, even if I had almost no money. That decision made the next step unwavering. It felt like there was nothing that could stop me.

As it happened, I was fortunate enough to able to sell some shares in the company on my way out. It wasn’t a mega bucks Silicon Valley-style exit. Far from it. But it was a decent sum for a young man heading off on an adventure.

Sure, I had some big-ticket experiences like scuba diving in the remote Wolf and Darwin islands in the far north of Galapagos. Yet time and again, the best adventures I had cost next to nothing: Volunteering with an eco-tourism trekking outfit in Bolivia; solo hiking in rural Ecuador; and road-tripping through New Ireland province in Papua New Guinea. And of course, it was as much about the people I met along the way. The new friendships and shared experiences.

A weird thing had happened to me when I returned. When I heard good news from other’s lives, my smile had become genuine. This was weird because until then, I had never even been aware that the smile wasn’t authentic before. It was a painfully awkward realisation, yet a wonderful feeling.

And it wasn’t because I believed my new experiences trumped anything somebody else had done. There’s always someone who’s sold their company for more money, trekked to somewhere more remote, had a more adrenaline-fuelled escapade, or seen more exotic wildlife than you.

None of that mattered to me any longer, because I knew that I was on my own journey, connected to what I really needed in life.

I’d begun to acquire a new lens for looking externally at the lives of others. I found the tendency to envy had completely vanished. Instead, I have become curious about people and their needs and desires. I wonder whether they’re listening inwardly to themselves and living a life that’s true to themselves, or if they’re lost on autopilot. If they’re trying to make the money work before they can live the life they really want, or if they’re playing out a story from their past which no longer serves them.

Today, the people I admire the most are people who I see are conscious enough to connect to their needs and those of others, and live a creative life in pursuit of their ideas.

The wonderful thing about people on a connected and creative journey is that rather than tempting you back towards envy, they simply become an inspiration. When I’m around people like that I find I want to hear more about what they’ve done and what they plan to do. They draw you into their wild schemes. They ask for your help, and encourage you to live a creative life too. They support others in realising their ideas. They’re the vulnerable visionaries, and the truly creative entrepreneurs.

So how about you? Do you notice envy in your reactions to other people who are doing well? Are you living the life you want to live today, not waiting to start tomorrow or when you have the money? Are you playing out a script from your childhood — unconsciously still trying to win validation from a parent? Are you avoiding a side of your character you’re afraid or ashamed of?

This are big questions. The answers may not be completely clear. Yet there’s a simple place to start. Just ask yourself this question:

What do I really need?

And tell the truth.

Then take the next step.

Tom Nixon coaches and advises entrepreneurs and other founders on the creative part of their role: holding a vision and taking responsibility for realising it. He’s also the founder of Maptio, a tool for people building self-managing organisations with greater autonomy, responsibility, creativity and collaboration. Sign up for early, pre-release access to Maptio here.

Thanks to Charles Davies who first provoked me to ask what I really need. Check out his Very Clear Ideas process for a neat way to get clear on your needs. It’s awesome, and I also use it with my own clients.