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Jealousy and Competition.

5 December 2016

I just read a fascinating post by a friend and colleague on the way competition – especially over money and salary – influences how we feel about ourselves. It immediately struck me that I only compare up. Maybe that’s a good thing.

When I look at people who make more money than me, I do get jealous. Not of like, celebrities or CEOs or such. For me, the biggest source is when people make much more money for skills that are no more difficult to acquire than mine. MDs, for example, or lawyers. Those are skills that are impressive and valuable, but they’re not, objectively, any more difficult than what I do. Nor obviously any more important. Yet they’re better compensated. I get jealous of that.

I get jealous that managers make more than the high-skills people they manage. Being a manager is not a lazy, easy job. But it’s not any harder than being a subject matter expert in a field as an individual contributor. I don’t see that managers should make more than the people they manage except to set up a hierarchy.

So I look at people who are roughly in the same career stage (or earlier in their career stages) who make more money than I do, and I am often a bit jealous. I compare myself and find myself lacking, or I compare myself and think I see injustice. Neither is true (though, certainly, I am occasionally lacking). Economic incentives are complex, and I chose what I chose knowing it would never make me rich.

But interestingly, I never compare myself “downwards”. I never look at people with less lucrative skills or career paths and feel satisfied and superior. And what an ugly thing if I were to! We are rightly taught that we shouldn’t judge people by their salaries. We all know people who think they’re better than others because they make more money and it’s a vile and disgusting attitude.

Isn’t looking up and feeling inadequate the internal mirror of that? Aren’t I saying something ugly about myself when I look with avarice on what others have I feel is not deserved beyond what I have done as well? Instead of looking at compensation and judging people or what it says about economic incentives in society, I should look at myself and see what my attitudes say about me.

It’s easy to see an ugliness when we are denigrating others. It’s harder when we denigrate ourselves.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. B. Kiddo permalink
    5 December 2016 08:35

    I often compare myself to people with less lucrative career paths and think that it is unfair. It is unjust that I have it so easy, so good, in so so many ways, while others struggle, often working much much harder than I do. What I need to do, though, is change that feeling of the injustice of it all into more concrete action.

    I also compare ‘up’, and then yes, feel jealous or even slightly ashamed (absurd!!!) that I don’t have X Y or Z thing. <.<

    • 5 December 2016 08:44

      I don’t think that having less lucrative skills is prima facie unfair. What’s unfair – in my mind – is being deprived of the opportunity to develop the skills one desires.

  2. Aimee permalink
    5 December 2016 12:24

    It’s important to remember that which jobs or skills we choose to elevate in importance and to elevate with lots of money and prestige is fairly arbitrary. Many of the “lesser” skills you see when you look “downward” are also difficult to acquire and require lots of intelligence and hard work. And for that matter, are just as life-and-death as any surgeon. Why does an aviation mechanic make less than you do? Then there the sorts of jobs we pay lip service to but not much else. Funnily enough these tend to be the jobs women do. Teacher. Counselor. (Until recently) Nurse. And the ultimate “most important” job that pays nothing at all: mom. People like hierarchies. We use money instead of chest-pounding or bright feathers or giant antlers. It’s an imperfect system, in that it doesn’t actually express any kind of biological fitness, which is what the feathers and antlers do. Whether or not it shows any intellectual or perseverance superiority is open to debate. In my experience, it’s best to ignore the formal hierarchical reward totem and spend fifteen minutes talking to somone. You’ll get a better idea of their brain and character than you will by reading the symbols.

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