Success, Envy… and a Clever Strategy for Dealing With It

As you become more successful, the people who know you will change in two ways. First, they will begin to think of you as smarter than they do now. Second, some of them will begin to resent your rise in fortune.

You will probably notice the first response – the improved perception of your intellectual prowess. Friends and colleagues will seek your advice and treat it seriously. Some will come to you for financial help. Others for your opinion on business ideas. In casual conversations, people that are no brighter than you will nod in studied contemplation when you make an offhand remark. (If you are like me, you will recognize the shallowness of these reactions, but that won’t keep you from enjoying them.)

You may not notice the other common response to success. Envy.

You may be kidded now and then about what a “big shot” you’ve become. You may hear self-deprecatory comparisons about your wealth. (“It isn’t big money to you, but to little old me…”) Every once in a great while, you’ll be stung by a zinger. I cannot forget an evening some years ago when a sibling of mine, well into his second bottle of wine, lambasted me for my penchant for expensive cigar lighters. (“You think you’re too good for a Bic?”)

For most of my life, I had no idea that I was a subject of envy. I think that’s because I’ve never felt a scintilla of envy for anyone who was in any way richer or smarter or more accomplished than I was. But it should not have surprised me. Envy in human society is as common as crabgrass on suburban lawns.

Almost every day, I read or hear a statement that seems born out of envy. A negative comment about a banker or broker. (“How can he sleep at night?) Or about an author. (“How did he find a publisher? My novel is much better than his!”)I’ve even heard this sort of thing from men and women that have had great success and (one would think) no reason to be envious at all! Gore Vidal, for example, a writer and intellect I much admire, was quoted as saying: “Every time a friend succeeds, I die a little.”

Envy is a negative emotion that is almost always expressed indirectly. That’s because it is so obviously ugly and petty. And since it is both unattractive and easy to hide, it usually manifests itself in passive-aggressive behavior. People criticize you behind your back. Unfavorable rumors fly. Though envy damages those who feel it more than it damages their victims, their unfair assaults on your character hurt you, too.

You can’t entirely prevent people from being envious of you, but there are ways to reduce the amount and degree.

Let The Beatles Show You How to Let It Be

The example that leaps to mind is none other than the most successful musical group of the twentieth century.

Most people don’t realize it now, but the Beatles were not well liked by the media when they first became famous. They were pronounced “a passing phase” and a “symptom” of the era’s “uncertainty and confusion.” And according to music historian Louis Menand, they would not have disagreed. “They had,” he said, “a fairly developed sense of the freakish nature of stardom.”

Much of the attention they got from the press was intended to expose and embarrass them. But it didn’t work. In fact, it was reversed entirely by the Fab Four’s self-effacing wit.

It was not, as Menand points out, that the Beatles were humble. “They were happy to clown around in public, but they did not like being taken for fools, even a little, and they were extremely quick to detect (and rebut) a put-down.”

“The French have not made up their minds about The Beatles,” a BBC interviewer told John shortly before the band left for America. “What do you think of them?” John answered, “Oh, we like The Beatles. They’re great.”

The famous press conference at Kennedy Airport a month later – right after the group got off the plane – was an impromptu tour de force. Every question served up in the hope of making a Beatle seem stupid or self-important came right back with spin on it.

“Will you sing something?” was the first question. “No,” they all cried as one. “We need money first,” said John.

“What do you think of Beethoven?” they were asked. “I love him,” Ringo said. “Especially his poems.”

“How do you account for your success?” “We have a press agent.”

The Beatles were never really interested in being liked. But they were very much aware that their success would spurn resentment and that such resentment needed to be managed. The best skill they had for doing that was their humor.

It’s a good strategy: Try to avoid conversations that focus on what you’ve done and deflect, diminish, and dismember those you can’t avoid. By ignoring and/or belittling your own accomplishments, at least a little, you make it that much less appealing for your critics to do so.