Envy?: The problem with Less-thans

07 Jul

I had dinner Sunday evening with a dear friend who was back in town because she had an uncle die. She used to work at my university ( Research 1, public) until she was wooed away by a private Ivy League at double her salary.

Our dinner lasted 3 hours and I was filling her in on the news of my campus where she worked for more than ten years. When I asked her how she was liking her new institution–she has been there 18 months, she told me the main thing she appreciated was not the money, although her new salary got her up in the mid-six figures, but the way she was treated.

Leaning across the table she told me that the president of her college always made a point of complimenting her both publicly and privately when she did a good job, as did her Provost. When a Board of Trustees member erroneously gave credit to another person for work done by my friend, her superiors corrected him and he issued a public apology for not giving her credit for her work.

I was stunned and envious. Having had at least one supervisor in my career take credit for my work, even winning an award  for my work and not mentioning my name –or even saying I helped at any point during the presentation of the award, I could appreciate her appreciation of being publicly acknowledged for a job well done!

My friend and I began to dissect the difference between our experiences  and I came up with a theory–unscientific and perhaps very flawed, but it fits into something that I have been cooking in my brain for a while. There are three kinds of people in the world: The Better-thans, The Averages and the Less-thans.

The Better-thans (BTs)  are successful, secure, pleasant and helpful. They know they are good and they do not find other people’s successes or accomplishments threatening. They know that there is no limit on how many people can do well and, because they know they can perform any task required of them within reason they do not want to hold other people down. Life is not a competition to them. It would be against their own ideals, ethics and mores to take credit for someone else’s work or try to block someone else from getting credit for their work. They are, in other words, BTs happy to welcome more people to their ranks.

The Averages (AVs) –the category that most people fall into, are likewise not too prone to jealousy and back-biting. AVs are pleasant and not devious,  they think they are okay and though they may occasionally sink into a bit of sniping if they think someone is getting more than they deserve or is getting too egotistical that is not their norm. Generally  the AVs know they are average and have no problem admitting there are people more accomplished than them and people less accomplished than them. They may feel that life is a competition some of the time, but most of the time they just take things as they come.

The worst category, the group to be avoided if at all possible, is the Less-thans (LTs) . Duplicitous, two-faced, and envious, these are the people who know they are not as capable as they pretend to be and live in horror of being discovered. The LTs project their own insecurities and psychoses on other people. The more or less constant fear of being discovered to be an LT, while pretending to be a BT warps them in subtle and not-so subtle ways. They sometimes exhibit symptoms of having the opposite of what  psychologists call the   ” impostor syndrome.” Those with the impostor syndrome cannot internalize their accomplishments, always considering themselves to be less than they are. The LTs try very hard to do the opposite, think more of themselves without the accomplishments to back it up. Sometimes, if they are truly delusional they can do it, but even so the truth leaks out in the still of the night and they know at least part of the time that they are not what they should be or pretend to be. This makes them very envious of the true BTs, who they try to denigrate or ridicule to imply that they too are fake BTs like the LTs.

Let’s look at an illustration of the three types in a situation. You have just been given good career news, you are up for a promotion and it looks like you might get it. You tell your friend. How will the friend respond?

The BT friend will clap you on the back, congratulate you sincerely and offer to buy you a drink to celebrate. They will offer to do anything they can to help you seal the deal.

The AV friend will tell you they are happy for you and at least give you a platitude about how they hope you get it. They are generally not that competitive and probably would not consider your position either an addition or deduction from their lives.

The LT “friend” ( LTs do not really have friends) will tell you that you will probably not get it. This is, of course, his own desire. If you get it then it will validate the fact that you just may be a BT, something if he is rational he will know he is not and probably cannot be. If he has convinced himself, against all evidence, that he is indeed a BT already, then he will view you as an interloper, a competitor and will therefore want to tear you down as much as possible to reinforce his point of view.

I believe most people can name someone they know from each group.

My theory is that all three categories are, in some ways fluid. Someone who is an accomplished dancer for example, may be a miserable writer. However, a true BT in any category is going to be more secure, helpful and encouraging than someone who has never achieved BTdom.

My friend is at an elite institution, one that has the money and the culture to employ lots of BTs. Her skill is acknowledged and appreciated, not viewed as competition or something that might eclipse the LT, but as an asset to the school.

So let us all say a little prayer for the LTs who most of us would like to buy for what they are worth and sell for what they pretend to be worth. May your path be strewn with BTs and lacking in LTs!


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Posted by on July 7, 2011 in Uncategorized


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