Most people, it seems to me, want what others have.
It’s actually a pretty familiar scene we’ve seen play out in our lives and others: the desire for the big new beautiful home when visiting friends, the moment of longing as a fancy car pulls up nearby, the envy for the latest fashion or the closet full of designer shoes. Even witnessing a stranger with the newest tech gadget can stir up feelings of jealousy and envy.
Of course, this craving for what others have isn’t new to humanity. In fact, it’s a sentiment so common (and destructive) that it can even be found listed as a warning among the Ten Commandments alongside murder, adultery, and stealing.
But in today’s culture, jealousy and envy seem easier than ever. Social media, television, and savvy marketers constantly bombard us with images of what we’re told we should want and what “everyone else” already has and why we’re missing out on more magical lives if we don’t also own it.
Desiring what others have may be as old as mankind itself. But I wonder if there’s wisdom in changing how we think about that.
For example, when we see a shiny new thing in the hands of another and wish it was ours, are we even longing for the right things?
Aren’t there actually some things that other people have that would be far more valuable to us? I think there are. But none of them are material possessions.
When we reflect on the individuals we truly admire in the deepest of our hearts, the ones who seem to have the life we most aspire to, we must dig deeper and ask ourselves: Is it truly their possession accumulation we wish to emulate, or is there something more substantial at the core of our admiration?
Are the people we most want to be like actually the ones who own the nicest stuff? Maybe, but that is not always the case. And almost every one of us can think of someone who has something we want… but isn’t living a luxurious lifestyle.
In fact, in our deepest moments of honesty, the most profound admiration we hold is seldom for those with the grandest possessions. Instead, our greatest respect and desire to emulate tends to gravitate towards individuals of exceptional character.
It is those who showcase resiliency, kindness, honesty, compassion, gentleness, goodness, love, and generosity that we find ourselves truly wanting to replicate.
These are the attributes that leave a lasting impact, far outshining the temporary gleam of the latest gadget or luxury car. And when we consider the choice of “wanting what others have” maybe those are the things that should top our list.
Consider for a moment the people who’ve truly influenced your life. Perhaps a teacher whose belief in you was unwavering, a friend whose loyalty never faltered, a pastor who modeled love for others, or a family member whose love was unconditional.
It’s the essence of their character we cherish, the memory of their virtues that continues to guide us long after they’ve left our side.
Someone once said, “True wealth is not measured in money or status or power. It is measured in the legacy we leave behind for those we love and those we inspire.”
And maybe that very true statement about where to find true wealth should influence our desires a bit more.
Envy has a cousin: Emulation. Those we envy the most become the role models we tend to learn from. Maybe we can use this thought to flip the script on envy. But only if we do a better job of identifying that which we truly desire in other people.
And only if we do a better job of specifically and intentionally investing time and effort to become that which we desire.
Being kind costs zero, but it does take effort to develop. The same is true of resilience, honesty, compassion, love, generosity, and any other character trait worth developing.
So how can we look at the character that others have and begin to make it a reality in our own lives?
Here are some actionable steps you can start right now, today, wherever you are:
Reflect on What You Desire Most
Take some time alone, with your thoughts, wrestling with the question of what has become the object of your envy? What are the emotions that spring up when you see “things” that other people have that you don’t? Is there something, deep-down, that you actually desire to be more true of your life? And if so, how can you become more focused on that?
Seek Inspiration Thoughtfully
Surround yourself with stories of those who’ve embodied the virtues you aspire to. Biographies of great leaders, activists, and thinkers can serve as a roadmap to developing a rich character. But you can also look closer to home: Who are the family members (maybe extended), co-workers, or people in your community that embody the life you desire?
Ask Lots of Questions
Engage with people who model the traits you value. Reach out, invite them for a conversation, learn about their journey, their challenges, and their practices. Most will be honored that you asked. And bring as many specific questions as you can.
Start a Daily Practice
Virtues are habits of the heart. They require daily cultivation. Choose one character trait you wish to develop and take one action daily that embodies this trait. You can start today on this without any of the previous steps. But the steps above will provide extra motivation.
As the old saying goes, “We are the average of the five people we spend the most time with.” Choose to be around people who live out the virtues you wish to embrace. Their influence will be both subtle and substantial.
Reflect and Journal
Self-reflection aids growth. Keep a journal of your progress, your struggles, and your successes in developing new character traits.
Celebrate (Others and Yourself)
When you see someone exhibiting a character quality you admire, acknowledge it. This not only affirms the value of the virtue but reinforces your desire for it.
Likewise, when you see yourself putting a character trait into action, celebrate your progress. You don’t have to be perfect to be on the right path.
Teach and Mentor
Maybe I’m getting ahead of myself here, but the best way to solidify a virtue within yourself is to model it and teach it to others. So share your experiences with others—what you’ve been working on and why. It won’t be long before someone starts asking you how to have some of what you now have.
As an added benefit, the more we integrate these practices into our lives, the less impressive external possessions become. We start to find joy in the pursuit of personal growth and the development of a character that not only serves us well but also contributes positively to the lives of those around us.
By focusing on who we are becoming rather than what we are acquiring, we transform not only our own lives but set an example for others to follow. After all, in the end, we won’t be remembered for the size of our house or the make of our car, but for the depth of our compassion and the strength of our character.
Hopefully, we live a life that is remembered for those things.