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 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 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 believe 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. But I would like to try to shine a different light on why we may experience “work envy” and how we might 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.

Snow-Capped Peaks in Distance

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 American 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.]


The Ditch

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, more like thirty feet—shallow, drainage ditch. I was doing so because before we bought this house, I was enough of a schmo to believe the strategic silence or maybe it was artful verbal dodging, 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. Grrrrrrr!

[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.]

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?

All right, I admit it, when I was digging “the inglorious ditch of my stupidity” (and thus, at least in my mind, will 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 building up over my small-town house’s foundation during the too-frequent thunderstorms in my part of the Deep South region here in the US.

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

IT ALL GETS DOWN TO WHAT WE CAN’T SEE.

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.

So since I am 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.

IT’S ALSO 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, the questions about “important work,” “to whom,” and “Why—in the end—is it judged to be truly so?” are questions which I am convinced will be perfectly sorted out. Our individual “work” and works will only then be seen in their true light regarding Importance and Significance. So while we can make some fairly surface level comparisons about our work versus the work of others, lacking perfect present knowledge of all of the circumstances, actions, and motives surrounding the work of others, frankly—more times than not—I believe that we would be better off stopping with the comparing before it even gets started.

BUT, BACK DOWN HERE, NOW WHAT?

I end with three steps which—if you share this same struggle—I hope you may 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 your work, and ultimately about yourself, to a higher standard than any petty comparisons to, for instance, what other people “do,” what they drive, where they live, how good-looking they are, how physically fit they are, how clean they keep their house . . .   You get the idea.
  3. When (not if) you find yourself doing what I said you should not do (see step 1), Stop it!, go immediately to step 2 and do that over and over again until you (and maybe others around you) start noticing some strange—in a good way—changes in yourself.

If you are wondering about the “higher standard” mentioned in step 2, well, that will have to wait for another day and another post. When we examine those two words, we will by default have to confront the concept of paradox, and then—over time, if we set out to walk such a paradoxical path through life—we may see how hugely important the “higher standard” is in how kindly we judge ourselves over time. In any case, in our human bodies as we dwell here on Earth, even if we feel as though we fully understand the nature of the paradox, and the breadth and depth of the “higher standard,” with help, we might execute steps 1 and 2 correctly; most of the time, but not perfectly.

Truly, “we’re still human, after all.”

[not just a cliché]


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)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *