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

Updated to Habits on December 14, 2022.

I was in a car the other day with a radiologist and a neurosurgeon talking about hypertension. 

This conversation is actually not as unusual as it might sound. I volunteer for a local society that does trail clearing in a popular hiking and mountain bike park and many of the volunteers happen to be recently retired doctors. 

Back in the car, one of the doctors happened to mention that recently his medical partner, who is in his early 60’s, had a mild stroke. As we wound our way further up the dirt road to our work site my education continued. 

I learned that strokes are the second biggest cause of mortality worldwide and the third most common cause of disability. The scary statistics get worse. As you age your chance of a stroke doubles every 10 years after 55

There’s a checklist of health conditions that make you more susceptible to a stroke, like obesity, high cholesterol, and diabetes. But the biggest culprit – six times out of ten – is hypertension or high blood pressure. In my books, that’s worth paying attention to.

What’s interesting is that stress, in itself, is not the direct cause of high blood pressure. It’s what we do when under stress that leads to nasty results. We eat too much, drink too much, and move too little. Basically, we deal with stress by making unhealthy choices.

For me, stress starts with worry.

Ngoc Son Temple, Hoan Kiem Lake, Hanoi, Vietnam

I’ve had a lot of worries

There is a world of problems you can worry about – take your pick. You can worry that Ukraine will be pummeled into a tiny province of rubble, or that we’ve passed the tipping point with global warming, or the tiny spot on your chin is cancer. 

Or not.

“I’ve had a lot of worries,” quipped Mark Twain “most of which never happened.” Our mind loves a good worry. Like a dog chewing a bone, we want to turn our worry around, looking from all angles, poking and prodding until it swells up into something bigger than it really is.

I used to worry incessantly before every keynote speech. I’d worry I’d miss my flight or wasn’t prepared enough, or I would be greeted by the “audience from hell.” Trust me, when you have 60 minutes to educate, entertain, inspire, motivate, and get laughs from an audience you’ve never met before, any sane person would invent a long list of worries.

It was at one of those events when a fellow speaker opened an exit door for my worries. He suggested that audiences don’t want you to fail – in fact, they want you to succeed. “They want to see you having fun—enjoying yourself. That way,” he explained, “they can enjoy the ride with you.”

When I accepted the long list of what I could never control – my flights, the audience, the speaker before me going overtime – I was free to focus on what I could control.

Enjoying the moment. 

What your life will have been

In her book, Comfortable with Uncertainty, Buddhist nun Pema Chödrön tells the story of delighting in the preciousness of every single moment.

A woman is running from lions. She runs and she runs, and the lions are getting closer. She comes to the edge of a cliff. She sees a vine there, so she climbs down and holds onto it. Then she looks down and sees that there are lions below her as well. At the same time, she notices a little mouse gnawing away at the vine to which she is clinging. She also sees a beautiful little bunch of strawberries emerging from a nearby clump of grass. She looks up, she looks down, and she looks a the mouse. Then she picks a strawberry, pops it in her mouth, and enjoys it thoroughly.

Learning what to focus on, and what to ignore, seems to be the ultimate secret to living a healthy, stress-free life. “Whatever compelled your attention from moment to moment,” writes Oliver Burkeman in Four Thousand Weeks (a must-read for anyone over 50), “is simply what your life will have been.”

So, what are you focussing on?

What to focus on

You can learn a lot when you’re the dumbest one in a car full of doctors. I learned that strokes are a silent pandemic. And that hypertension is the leading cause of that pandemic. And I learned the leading cause of hypertension is stress. 

I was also reminded that stress is a choice.

We all have lions and tigers in our life. Maybe even a mouse or two gnawing away at something we value. Meanwhile, we have the moment.

Choosing what to focus on (and what not to) might just be the healthiest choice you can make.

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Photo of eggs by Nik on Unsplash
Photo of Ngoc Son Temple by author
Photo of tigers by author

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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