Among the first ten words uttered by the typical toddler — especially a second kid — is “mine.” Someone has what you want, so you lay claim to it — it’s a concept even a one-year-old can grasp. Look, dear: baby’s first feelings of envy and greed!
Yet envy and greed are different species. Gordon Gekko, Michael Douglas’ character in the film Wall Street, famously retorted: “Greed is good! Greed works!” He wouldn’t have said the same of envy, since we tend to think of the envious as people who lack something. Envy has two distinct faces, however. Coveting what you can’t possibly attain — another person’s charming personality or good looks — sets you on a direct path to the shrink’s sofa. But if necessity is the mother of invention, envy is the mother of inspiration.
Take music. There’s nothing more likely to get you practicing your arpeggios than watching Bay Area guitar virtuoso Steve Vai, or maybe the Fucking Champs, shred on some semiclassical metal riffs. Or witnessing a set by local jazz drummers Weasel Walter or Josh Jones and exclaiming, in the immortally insecure words of the Cure’s Robert Smith, “Why can’t I be you?”
Who hasn’t harbored similar thoughts? Recall all the things you envied in older kids growing up. Sometimes it was just stuff — Sam’s mom let him have a BB gun, why can’t I have one? — but often it concerned someone’s abilities. You envied Tammy’s drawing skills, the fact Marcie could score a goal off a corner kick, or that Jacob was able to sink ten straight free throws. Julie, she had the coolest signature. And DeShawn could make the neatest little origami shrimp.
As an adult, you might envy the baking abilities of La Farine owner Jeff Dodge, the speaking skills of Acts Full Gospel Pastor Bob Jackson, or the storytelling prowess of Berkeley’s Michael Chabon enough to sign yourself up for a baking class, toastmasters’ group, or National Novel Writing Month. In athletics, artistry, academics, business, cooking, writing — anything, really — it’s hard to name a more potent driver of human learning and achievement. “Green with envy”? Get real. For youngsters trying to figure out what to do with their lives, envy inspires. For adults who don’t have time to accomplish all they’d like, it spawns admiration. Only when it devolves into greed and jealousy does a destructive side emerge. So then, perhaps, it’s best to apply to envy a credo more traditionally aimed at recreational substances: Use it, don’t abuse it. — Michael Mechanic