Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Touched By A Hand, Struck By A Fist

The other day a friend of mine was telling a story about his wife.

Once upon a time, her indy apparel company was featured on one of the biggest television shows in the world. As the narrative often goes, within hours of the broadcast, the company received so many new orders that they couldn’t make shirts fast enough to keep up with the demand.

Instant publicity, instant credibility.

And yet, as that moment became the highlight of her career, it slowly became the hell of her career.

Because along with the accolades came the hatemail. Mountains of it. Complete strangers started coming from out of the woodwork to call this woman names and discredit her work and convince the world that her clothing was crap.

She was devastated.

And all she did was become successful.

But I’ll never forget what my friend said as he reflected on that period of his wife’s career. He posed an incredible moral question, one that lent a lot perspective to that experience:

Why is it that the moment you’re touched by a hand, you’re struck by a fist?

Ain’t that the truth.

Humans, after all, are habit machines that tend to behave predictably. And one of the patterns they fall into is, not everybody wants you to be successful. In fact, a certain population of the world is just waiting around––excitedly­­––for you to fail, because they feel disenfranchised by your success.

Dennis Crowley, the founder of Foursquare, recently talked about his company’s struggle with this very issue. He discovered that high expectations made everyone turn on him, famously saying, “People are in love with you, but then all of a sudden, they can’t wait to watch you fail.”

Of course, this isn’t a new thing. The hand/fist phenomenon has been around for years.

Davy Jones, the late musician and former teen heartthrob, once did an interview about the British Invasion, in which he notoriously said, “As soon as you get successful, people want to kick you in the balls and throw you in the back yard and wait for you to make a mistake. They just want you to be famous and then go away.”

Touched by a hand, struck by a fist.


The good news is, jealousy isn’t always a negative.

I read an interesting study from The Journal of Personality and Social Psychology called Getting to the Heart of the Green Eyed Monster, in which mental health professionals explored the history, causes and implications of jealousy. Their research showed that jealousy was a fundamental aspect of human social life, and its absence was actually a sign of pathology. At the heart of the green eyed monster, they say, is the desire to feel good about the self, and any threat thereof can have negative consequences on our well being.

Makes sense.

In fact, I would even take it one step further.

Jealousy, isn’t just normal­­––it’s necessary.

The root word is jalousie, which translates to “enthusiasm and love and longing.” Meaning, you have something I want, that upsets me, and now I’m motivated to work hard and get the same for myself, so thank you.

It’s kind of like listening to Tom Waits.

The man’s work is so brilliant and inspiring and unapologetic, that when I listen to his music, I literally become angry that I’m not as good as he is. To the point where I stop the song, go grab my guitar and songbook and try to improve my own work.

That’s jealousy. And when channeled productively, can serve the world well.

Where we run into trouble is when jealousy morphs into envy.

The derivative for that word is invidere, which translates to “casting an evil eye.” Meaning, you have something I want, that diminishes me, and now I’m determined to knock you down to feel better about myself, so fuck you.

It’s kind of like web trolls.

When my first book went viral, I received an inordinate amount of hatemail. Turns out, many people were surprisingly angry at a guy who wore a nametag everyday. And they felt the need to publish awful things about me, my work and my ideas.

Naturally, I was devastated.

Touched by a hand, struck by a fist.
I’m just trying to make the world friendlier. Sheesh.

Fortunately, my web developer created a clever profanity filter for the guestbook on my website. He wrote code that replaced each of the web trolls’ curse words with softer phrases like pretty pink roses and cute cuddly teddy bears. Which, ironically, enraged them even more.

Anyway, that’s envy.

And unfortunately, the more success you have, the more likely people are to respond with that instead of jealousy. It’s just this weird cultural math that humans do. Almost like clockwork, as soon as someone becomes even a little bit successful, the green eyed monster whets its retributive appetite.

I was recently watching the fascinating documentary, Downloaded, written and produced by Alex Winter. This film addresses the evolution of digital media sharing on the internet. And it features exclusive interviews with software developers and musicians about controversial file sharing software, namely, Napster.

Totally inspiring, to say the least.

And although I took copious notes on the movie, there was a passage from one of the songwriters that resonated with me, especially around the idea of jealousy and envy:

“I just felt like this was one of the great moments in human history. But of course, great moments in human history usually have an opposition that is exactly proportional to their greatness.”

Touched by a hand, struck by a fist.

And so, there may be no fighting the green eyed monster. Seems like these emotions and feelings are fundamental to human social life, and they’re here to stay.

What you can fight for, however, is the crucial choice to channel your jealousy into something productive, instead of crafting your envy into something hateful.   

Because either way, you’re burning calories.

Why not make them matter?