False idols and three ways to turn envy into Hope, Power, and Success

Updated to Habits on December 14, 2022.

Natalie Portman

Natalie Portman

Oscar winner, Natalie Portman recently said her highly-prized statuette was a “false idol.” The reality is we all have our false idols. Some good, some not so.

When it comes to other people, I don’t care who you are – someone is doing it better. There are better soccer players on my daughter’s team, better speakers go ahead of me on stage, people have written better books than me, earn more than me, and drive nicer cars. Boo Hoo.

It’s been like that even before three guys tried to one-up each other with frankincense, myrrh and gold.

We get sucked in by celebrities (I want a Clooney smile, don’t tell), business leaders, fashion leaders, actors, singers – maybe even a co-worker. It can be a good thing.

One thing before I graduate. Never let your fear decide your fate. Awolnation – Kill Your Heroes

“Idolizing or admiring someone for their accomplishments,” says Jennifer Gibson at BrainBlogger “and then pushing yourself to excel in the same way are positive elements.”

The challenge happens when we think our idol has something we don’t. Like they’re smarter, funnier, taller, have better teeth or got lucky.


Daniel H pink

Daniel H. Pink

In the first years after publishing Give Me A Break, I would read about best-selling authors and assume they got lucky. Some how their book was blessed by the Nielsen bookscan gods and now they are paid the price of a vacation in Hawaii for an hour on stage.

It turns out – and this was depressing – they are smart people who worked dang hard.

It wasn’t until I interviewed a few of these “lucky” ones did I learn just how much hard work and smart planning fueled their success (and how little luck was involved.) It turns out – and this was depressing – they are smart people who worked dang hard. Ouch.


The most dangerous outcome of comparison is you declare yourself “unable to compete” as Glenn Llopis puts it in Earning Serendipity: 4 Skills for Creating and Sustaining Good Fortune in Your Work. “When you’re blinded by envy, you can’t see your own opportunities right in front of you.”

Are you feeling unable to compete in some area of your life? It could be work (they are always doing it better), marriage (why aren’t we as happy as…), fitness…you name it. The human condition is to create our self image largely through comparison. No wonder Hollywood rags sell so well in grocery stores.

No wonder Hollywood rags sell so well in grocery stores.

“Envy is a dangerous but natural emotion,” says Llopis, “You can’t avoid it, but you can certainly contain it.”


Through the right lens, celebrities, people more successful at work, even happier married couples can motivate us. They are doing something we can learn from. As Helen Fisher, an anthropologist at Rutgers University in New Jersey put it “Celebrities motivate us to make it.”


Elon Musk

I look at Elon Musk (Tesla, Solar City, SpaceX), Jack Dorsey (Twitter, Square, Disney), Travis Kalanick (Uber) and feel hopeful. I have no aspirations to BE like them, I just like the idea it’s possible for hard work and some smarts to move you ahead. That’s hopeful.

I just like the idea that it’s possible for hard work and some smarts to move you ahead.

Who motivates you in a good way?

When I was a wet-behind-the-ear young buck my oldest brother Dan motivated the snot out of me. Strong, blonde, smart, and out working anyone who dared to shoulder up alongside him, Dan stood alone. He also motivated me. Sure I wanted his success I also wanted to be loved like he was loved and respected and trusted. That was good mojo.

Dan Culver

Dan Culver

“Much like spiritual guidance, celebrity-watching can be inspiring,” wrote Carlin Flora in Psychology Today, “or at least help us muster the will to tackle our own problems.”


It’s going to happen. You’re feeling all snuggly good about yourself and then you see Jennifer Aniston smiling away on a magazine cover, a co-worker gets acknowledged by the boss, or your neighbour pulls up in a shiny BMW M3. Bummer. Life just burst your bubble.

The reality is you will dip into self-doubt and pity, if even for just a minute. There’s no catching emotions once the Amygdala squirts them out. What comes next is from choice. In those moments when ego is under attack, here are three healthy choices you can make:

  • Do a reality check. Seeing happy-happy pictures of friends on Facebook can trigger the green-eyed monster of envy. Instead, do a reality check – everyone has their successes and failures, up’s and down’s, bad trips to the dentist. Plus, nothing is as perfect as it might seem at first.
  • Choose to be grateful. A deep breath and moment being grateful might be the best medicine for a bout of envy attack. “You might not have a million dollar beach house,” says Zawn Villines in “but you do have something to be grateful for; everyone does.”
  • I choose to understand. I find it helpful to deconstruct envy. What’s really behind my feelings? Years ago, I learned my envy of more successful speakers was in part about my wish to impact people – I wanted the impact they had. That clarity drove me to get even better.

Oh, one more thing: it doesn’t help to read gossip rags or watch celebrity news. As they say at AA – if you don’t want to slip, don’t go where it’s slippery.

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