“Just be yourself!” is commonly served as encouragement for people facing challenges in life. Whether that be in personal relationships or job hunts or speaking at a conference. If you’re already the perfect person, that’s sound advice. If not, it’s worth closer examination.
Whoever you happen to be right now, at this very moment, is highly unlikely to be the person you ultimately want to be. Maybe you occasionally have a short temper. Maybe you don’t know as much about programming or speaking at conferences as you’d like to. Maybe you procrastinate too much.
Whatever it is, you could probably stand to be more like other people in a bunch of areas. Being content merely being “you”, and whatever incremental iteration on that concept you can scrape together, is a sigh of resignation.
This is where the power of envy comes in. As emotions go, envy doesn’t exactly have much popular support. I mean, when you make it onto the list of the seven deadly sins, it’s probably best something to steer clear of, right? I say wrong.
Envy is a useful jolt of motivation to be more like someone else. Better, smarter, wiser, hell, even prettier and richer (oh, the horror 💀!). All attributes that can be refined through your own actions. You can learn new skills, you can read more, you can work out, you can save money.
I’m not the same person I was 20 years ago. Thankfully! I decided early that there was nothing so special about this happenstance of personality traits, skills, and knowledge I had acquired by age 16. Not only that, I reveled in the fact that there were lots of people that were downright better than me at all sorts of things. Things I wanted to be better at. They provided a clear template to first emulate, then adopt from. In other words, I was envious.
I remember attending JAOO 2003, a programming conference in Denmark, and seeing Kent Beck talk about Extreme Programming. Not only was the subject matter interesting, but even more so the manner Kent delivered it. I felt deeply envious at his excellent delivery and vowed to be more like Kent. To study and emulate him until I had become more Kent than me (at that time) at delivering a convincing argument on stage.
Same thing happened when I discovered the writings of Gerald M. Weinberg. I devoured Secrets of Consulting, Are Your Lights On?, The Psychology of Computer Programming, An Introduction to General Systems Thinking, and his Quality Software Management series. I got deeply envious of not only Gerald’s stellar writing skills, but his profound insights. I set about to notice and ponder the world of programming and teams like he had. To be more like Gerald than I was myself at the time.
I could go on and on about this. I’ve had similar pangs of envy watching the onboard videos of Patrick Long driving my race car in 2010. Of reading Kathy Sierra’s insights on making users kick ass. Of the tranquil state of mind and techniques employed by Marcus Aurelius and Seneca. I’ve wanted to change myself so many times to be like so many other people, and I think I’m far better off for it.
So don’t be so quick to fall in love with who you are right now. Allow yourself to imagine being more like someone else than yourself. Then make it happen through envy and emulation.