Monday, August 11, 2014

The Problem of Envy.

A key concept which I should have explored more in my books is the Problem of Envy.

A friend recently shared a personal problem with me. He has a very successful ex-classmate who works in Oil & Gas who enjoys rubbing his success in my friend's face. I think this is a common problem in Singapore: It is not our absolute wealth that determines our life satisfaction, but our wealth relative to the folks around us.

As our education system does not really teach us Philosophy, we fall prey to the notion that being Singaporean is, in essence, waging a psychic war against each other by displaying our ownership of increasingly expensive material goods. I bet the Oil & Gas dude loves to show off his large car, branded watches and mistresses to my poor engineer friend.

Before I come out with a solution, I want to avoid talking about two common answers which most readers can come up with :

a) Get yourself new friends who are not assholes.

Easy solution, right ? Just drop the jerk and asshole from your life ! I think that's not a great solution because we will always need to deal with folks richer and more successful than we do. The other reason is that some jerks and asshole may be useful as we keep them pidgeon-holed in our weak network links. Sometimes, listening to him brag for an hour and you might come ahead with a better job offer.

b) Change your mindset about envy.

Another bad answer. Mindset change is actually really hard if you do not really have the means to think about your personal identity and how it fits into your actual behavior. This may even require years of therapy. Asking for a mindset change is also not too different from being an expert who is abdicating control over the situation.

Instead I will present the two following solutions:

a) Diversify your achievements

The first possible defense is diversify your achievements. Benefits of this approach is two-fold.

This comes from the notion that brain is a machine which secretes dopamine which is some kind of reward when you achieve something which is personally meaningful to you. By taking on more hobbies and making progress with them, your brain fires off dopamine more frequently and give you more personal happiness.

Furthermore, as you have developed more varied interests and hobbies, you never have to kowtow to your more successful friend because he will never be able to do well in all the things which you have focused on.

My friend was an editor in Chinese magazine during his University days. He can read books on Chinese poetry. Perhaps he can spend more time to read up on Chinese culture and make himself an expert in it and occasionally write letters to the Chinese press. An expert in Chinese poems is infinitely more fun than an Oil and Gas executive who fucks PRCs in Geylang.

I doubt the asshole is going to challenge his authority on that.

b) Focus on experiential goods instead of material ones.

The second solution follows the psychology discovery that experiential goods are better than material goods, but it has a subtle element which can be used as a countermeasure against the Great War of Envy.

Yes, experiential goods provide memories which can be summoned to make you feel good. But the secret power of experiential goods is that they take time. You can build a portfolio of experiences which can be hard to replicate. Eg. Not everyone can see the Aurora Borealis in Finland, I know friends who failed to do that although failing is itself a cool experience in my book. My law school is a 3 year experiential good which i bet Mr. Oil and Gas would not want to pay the opportunity cost to attend.

My second advice is that my friend needs to catalog a set of interesting experiences to shift topic whenever Mr. Oil and Gas shows off his latest Rolex Watch, share some of his personal experience which are UNIQUE to himself. Some experiences like coaching his kid to win Weiqi class may be a unique experience that only a successful dad can have.

c) Focus on ideas instead of things.

 My final advice is much harder to follow and may even require a mindset change.

I think that the folks who focus on branded good consumption are, in general terms, academically and intellectually the bottom feeders in the food chain. It takes a special idiot to have a hang-up on the brand of his wallet when it's actually the contents of the wallet which counts.

I normally when people talk about stuff. I tune in only when people talk about ideas.

People who focus on ideas, generally speaking, have less time to compare against each other. Ideas cannot be measured ( Unless you IPO ). Their merits have to be assessed by critical thought. Rich people don't have a monopoly on great ideas.

My third advice is to, of course, to read voraciously. But some amount of verbal aikido can be employed when engaging Mr. Oil and Gas. My friend needs to keep changing the battlefield from a pissing contest to a war of ideas. I would pretend to flatter his his friend and then ask him what is his definition of success and then slowly deconstruct his definition to see if he is truly successful by his own definition.

This is something Socrates would agree on.

I think the Problem of Envy is not likely to get any better in Singapore. We have more millionaires minted here but people don't really make an effort to think critically about living in this society.

Hope that this will be useful the next time you meet your more wealthy Nemesis for a pissing competition.

1 comment:

  1. Great post. Had recently encountered someone like the oil friend in one polytechnic friend of mine. I chose 1. Drop that friend.