Recently, I learned that a former colleague of mine (let’s call her Jessie Jerkface, or J.J. for short) from back in my tenure-track days has gotten a cush new position at a better school for much higher pay. A friend of mine who still works with J.J. expressed mixed feelings about the move. “I’m glad she’s leaving,” my friend said. “But I can’t help but be a little jealous.”
Now, I consider myself somewhat of a connoisseur of jealousy. I have been jealous over some really stupid things in my day – Katie R. reading more books than me in the summer reading program when I was 8, every talented actress in every play I’ve ever seen, people who have gotten jobs that I was in no way qualified for and did not apply for. I work very hard to overcome this kind of jealousy, and I find that admitting it usually takes care of it – there is something about holding jealousy close to the vest that makes it grow, sprouting green tendrils like some kind of magical beanstalk, that creep right up your neck and will strangle you if you don’t cut them off quickly enough.
So when my friend admitted that she was a little jealous of J.J., I almost said, without thinking, that I was, too. But as I was typing up the commiserating text, I realized that I actually wasn’t jealous. At all.
It came as a surprise to me, and as I thought it through, I started to think about what I know about J.J. and how she got her new position. During my time working with her, J.J. was, to put it mildly, utterly awful. She was a textbook narcissist – charming at first, but as soon as you got in her way, watch out. Initially, I thought that she and I were friends – that “friendship” ended, however, after she did things like: took work we had done together and published it under her own name, abused a position of power she had over some students to boost another publication she was working on, started multiple behind-the-scenes campaigns aimed at reducing her workload at the expense of others (including me), neglected her duties at our school in her relentless pursuit of networking her way into another position while simultaneously demanding raises, etc.
In short, J.J. sucked. In some ways, that worked for her. Although most of my former colleagues eventually found her as obnoxious as I did, she had a few minions – mostly embittered senior faculty who disliked our dean – who regularly stuck up for her, no matter how outrageous her actions or claims. In fact, it turns out that one of those people played a pivotal role in her getting the new job – the senior faculty member’s best friend is a high-level faculty member at J.J.’s new institution.
And while J.J.’s reputation suffered at our workplace, her national reputation did indeed flourish, mostly via connections that she fostered while neglecting her work at our school. Lest you think I’m exaggerating, she fully admitted as much to me back when we were “friends” – telling me that she formed relationships with people whether she liked them or not if they could advance her career. She once bragged to me about a high-level appointment she’d received because she was friends with the leader of a professional organization. I saw the organization advertising for the position a week later, seeking applications for what was supposedly an “open” spot – lo and behold, the spot went to J.J., who had already been appointed behind the scenes.
In some circles, J.J. would likely be considered a success – she used politicking and selfishness to get ahead while doing the least work possible. But, there’s the rub. If politicking and selfishness are your bag, then, go ahead, feel jealous of her and people like her. But if you pride yourself on ethical behavior and more natural forms of networking (i.e. only befriending people who you actually like), then there’s no reason to be jealous, even when someone who engages in more cynical actions gets rewarded for it.
Because, here’s the thing. Nothing in this life comes for free. Every action we take, every goal we wish to achieve, has a price. When you see someone who has something you think you want, ask yourself – what price did they pay? Would you be willing to pay that same price? If so, then get to it. If not, though, then there’s no reason to be jealous because the person who has whatever it is you think you want was willing to do things that you weren’t to get it. You can’t expect to have what they have if you aren’t willing to do what they are willing to do to achieve it. And more importantly – if you find what they did to achieve it loathsome, then rather than feeling jealousy, you should feel relief that you have not yet sunken so low.
That’s why I can be jealous of random actresses in plays, but I’m not jealous of J.J.. Not knowing those actresses, except for from their performances, I imagine that they got there through hard work and talent. And hard work and talent are positive characteristics and ones worth being jealous of (assuming they spur you on to action). I, of course, have no way of knowing that for sure, but I also have no way of not knowing it, and that is what I assume when I watch a good performance.
But, with J.J., I knew exactly what she did and was willing to do in order to get where she got. And I was not willing to do any of those things – and would have been deeply ashamed of myself if I ever had. In fact, the presence of so many J.J.s in academia is one of the main reasons why I left – while I wouldn’t say that the majority of academics act like she did, she certainly wasn’t an anomaly. So why begrudge her her success? Why envy it?
It is pointless to want something when you aren’t willing to take the steps necessary to get it. It is pointless to feel jealous of someone whose every action you find despicable, just because it “worked” for them. After all, aren’t they still despicable? Instead, think to yourself – “if, in order to get into that same position, I’d have to change everything I like about myself and renege on all of my core values, do I really want that position?”
I’m not religious, but there is a quote from the Bible that I always keep in mind when I find myself becoming jealous of someone whose personal values I despise. Mark 8:36 says, “For what shall it profit a man if he shall gain the whole world and lose his own soul.”
Keep that in mind the next time you’re feeling jealous of someone who you know has engaged in unethical behaviors to get where they are. Before you wish for what they have, remember that in order for you to have it instead, you’d have had to behave like them. And if the idea of behaving like them makes you nauseous – makes you feel like you would be “losing your own soul” – then you are far better off without whatever it is that they lost their own soul to get.