Work Envy: From the Ditch of My Discontent

Envy is nothing to joke about—after all, it’s one of the Seven Deadly Sins, right? In this post, I do admit to taking a somewhat light-hearted look (but with a serious twist) at what happens when a guy looked at another guy’s work, and wished he got to do that cool stuff instead of his own boring stuff. The results, reflection, and conclusions in the “Part II” post of this two-part miniseries may lead you to re-think your own approach when you feel Work Envy encroaching in your world.

“Ninety-seven percent of doctors surveyed agree that we all experience the disorder known as ‘Work Envy,’ (WE) in some form, an average of 1.87 days per week.”

From A Well Known, Highly Respected Medical Journal

First of all, the statistic I just quoted is a complete, shameful fabrication made up to get your attention and compel you to read on. Wait, wait, before you go, I’m sorry, but I’ve been getting some really interesting insights lately in this whole “work” area, and I believe I’ve spotted some keys to getting a “kick” out of our work, rather than being disgruntled and “kicked around” by how we see our work. So, if you forgive me, and are still here, please consider the story of two real people below.

Have you ever thought that you wanted someone else’s job—at least for a day or two? I have, and I really wanted it one day a couple of weeks ago. If my wife had asked me that evening, “How do you feel about what you got done [implied: your ‘work’] today?” I would have probably answered “Aaah, it was okay.”

In the far distance west of here, if my dear friend Jonathan’s (not his real name) wife had asked him that same question, on that same evening, well, I really don’t know what he would have said. Different things press different “Woohoo! Job well done!” buttons in each of us. And I have learned that, without fail, each one of us is singularly different from everyone else in humanity past, humanity present, and humanity future, and therefore have different reasoning and factors shaping what we think, say, and do while thinking about our work. Yet, I also observe that in many ways, we are very much the same. In the end, it’s a pretty complex soup and while we’re not going to figure it all out here in one post, I would like to shine a different light on why we may experience “work envy” and how to minimize its damage.

(NOTE: In this example — The Sublime Precedes the Ridiculous)

As you think about your work, and certainly as I think about mine, we know that each day of life has its share of mundane, sometimes boring, routine stuff that needs to be done. For example, let us consider what my friend and I were doing—half a country apart—on that day I referred to earlier.

Jonathan, the wind whipping through his sun-bleached hair, was underneath the big sky, riding the fence line surrounding his Massive Spread.

[NOTE: Due to my respect for the actual facts, whether he was riding on an actual horse or one of those squatty, gas-powered, metal, plastic, and rubber horse wannabes I don’t know. I personally prefer to think of him on a horse (a buckskin stallion, with dark mane and four black socks) and for the purposes of our exploration, I think it might be helpful for you to do likewise.]

Yeah, there he was out there, majestic, snow-capped peaks in the distance, inspecting and repairing fences to keep the beeves from bustin’ out onto the open range (as best I can figure, that word—“beeves”—is the plural of “beef” and is what trail boss Gil Favor of the 1959–1965 western TV series Rawhide called ‘em. This was Jonathan’s routine work task.

[And yes, that is Aaron Copland’s Fanfare for the Common Man thundering from the heavens in your imagination right now as you picture the scene.]

Meanwhile, twelve hundred miles east/southeast, across The Big Muddy, I was in my yard (with other aging but mostly handsome, middle-class family dwellings in the not too distant distance) digging a little—not miles but more like thirty feet—shallow, drainage ditch. I was doing so because years ago, I was enough of a schmo to believe the strategic silence or artful verbal dodging (I have forgotten which) of a particular realtor when I commented to him that this property must “surely now have, has had, or will have drainage issues based on the bizarre contours of the crazily sloped back yard” of this, my “spread”.

The sad fact, in retrospect, was that in my puny little ditch project—my routine work task in our example—I wasn’t expending my sweat in guarding and keeping something valuable in, tending and nurturing it for accumulated family wealth and security (like my buddy Jonathan). No, I was desperately, begrudgingly trying to rid myself of a could’ve-been-avoided plague, lest it surely bankrupt me. Aargh!

[Yes, that’s Lady Gaga’s Perfect Illusion whining way too loudly over the cracked speakers of a passing Kia Forte Koup in your mental video of my pathetic plight right now.]

Thoughtful reflection can be a good thing, but . . .

Don’t we all sometimes—in the inner recesses of our minds—do what I just described: downplay, minimize, or criticize what we do, how we look, where and in what estate we live, etc. as we look at and talk to friends, acquaintances, and strangers around us? Yes, I think we all are guilty sometimes; but me? I’m world class—and not in a good way—in these Olympics of Work Envy (otherwise known as the introspective sport of “Is what I ‘do’ enough?”). In this competition, the most warped, small, and self-limiting view of one’s own work proves the champion.

What about you? Do you, or does someone you know and love, stress because you/they cannot be happily (much less joyfully) content with doing “small things” sometimes, or even most of the time. Do you stress that you are not doing “grand things” all the time as we imagine the lives of those for whom we have great respect? Finally, do you fret because you feel like you’re only doing “really big” things—as you have defined them—very rarely or never?

Alright, I admit it, when I was digging “the inglorious ditch of my stupidity” (and thus shall it ever be known) and compared it to my friend Jonathan’s “riding fence” in advance of an incoming, late spring blizzard on the High Plains, I felt really small and weak. He was Clint Eastwood. I was Woody Allen. He was an important, heroic, larger than life player—a key cog in the big machinery of an honorable, historic, and rugged industry. I was just a below average white guy trying to keep water from pooling up against the back of his small-town house’s foundation during the too-frequent, hot, muggy southeastern US thunderstorms.

So then what, or better yet, where is the answer for the WEQ (work envy quagmire)?

It’s really all about what we can’t see.

In winding this down, let me leave you with a quote, try to connect some dots, and then we’re done for now.

God judges persons differently than humans do. Men and women look at the face; God looks into the heart. 1

I would consider my friend Jonathan as more than a very good friend and yet, I really have no idea what goes on within his house or his office there on the ranch. And I only have some conversations, personal observations, and guesses about what goes on in the space between his ears (see “the heart” in the quote above). For these reasons, I really don’t have a good basis of comparison for how “important” his work is versus how “important” my work is. Being neither a mind reader, nor some kind of superhuman being, able to transport myself invisibly across vast distances and intimately observe not only actions, but motives in the hearts of others, I have a problem. If I continue to demand of my brain and logic to know how I, and others, compare and stack up in this whole “work” arena, I am spinning my wheels (at best), or on a fool’s errand—one doomed to fail to give a satisfying answer and also certain to render me ineffective at how I am supposed to be doing my own work—at worst.

And it’s about what we can’t know (in this life anyway).

Ultimately and in the final analysis after Jonathan has breathed his last, and I likewise, “‘Important Work’ to whom?” and “Why—in the end—judged to be truly so?” are questions which will be perfectly sorted out. Our individual “work” and works will only then be seen in their true light regarding Importance and Significance.

But, back down here, now what?2

I will end with three steps which I hope you find helpful in lessening your stress and discomfort as you fight the battle against WE in your own world.

  1. Don’t compare how important your work is to anyone, and I really mean anyone else’s work. Why? Because you don’t know everything about what is going on in their world, relationships, and heart.
  2. Do hold your views about yourself to a higher standard than comparisons to what other people “do,” what they drive, where they live, how good looking they are, how physically fit (or not) they are, how clean they keep their house . . .  You get the idea.
  3. When (not if) you find yourself doing what I told you not to do in step 1, Stop it!, go immediately to step 2 and do that; over and over again until you (and probably others around you) start noticing some strange—in a good way—changes in yourself. Clear enough?

Not quite? All right, then let me give you first a hint, and then a riddle toward “getting it” as you look back at step 2 above.

  • The Hint: Words nine and ten of step two—“higher” and “standard,” in that order—are hugely important in how kindly you judge yourself—and, by the way, others also—over time as you execute step 2 again and again. But, this hint might remain a bit mysterious as you will see in the next bullet point (which is the riddle I just mentioned).
  • The Riddle: Up is down, and down is up.

If you get the correct answer to the riddle, you will understand the hint, and if you “get” the hint, with help, you can execute steps 1 and 2 correctly; most of the time (we’re still human after all).

UPDATE: Click here for more on how to get through the swamp of Work Envy (and for the “riddle revealed”).

If you’d like to talk one-on-one about this post, email me.

  1. From The Bible, the book of 1 Samuel, chapter 16, and the second half of verse 7 (The Message – A paraphrase of the Bible by Eugene Peterson) ↩︎
  2. Don’t stop watching this blog space since I hope to deal with more of the practical side of fleshing out all these concepts [and perhaps clearing up riddles and making hints more explicit] in a later post. ↩︎

2 thoughts on “Work Envy: From the Ditch of My Discontent”

  1. I reread the riddle several times but couldn’t figure it out! Good advice though. It’s often hard to look at oneself in a positive light as compared to others. But God loves us all equally.

    1. I like riddles on occasion Jonathan, but mostly I find them very hard. (And I usually don’t “get” them.)

      But you’ve not much longer to wait for discovery of the answer to this one. Hopefully, before the setting of the sun this day, the “Part II” of the “Work Envy” post will be uploaded and live online.

      Thanks for your thoughtful comment and reminder of God’s perfect love.

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