Mindful Leadership

Annoyed or Inspired? Pick One.

Misty Copeland onstage with Prince

Recently, I had the pleasure of interviewing ballerina Misty Copeland for Forbes Woman. I was struck by the fact that Misty had overcome a lot since she began taking ballet – in a gym, not a studio – at the relatively late age of 13. While she showed prodigy-level talent, the fact that Misty was a teenager meant she had to work especially hard to compete against ballerinas who were practically en pointe as toddlers. (It’s easier to mold that famous “dancer’s body” before it’s fully developed.) Still, determined to give it a shot as a professional, Misty dropped out of school, started living with her coach, and spent an “intense four years” eating, sleeping, and breathing dance. She was en pointe within 12 weeks (something she now calls “really dangerous”) and training six days a week, up to six hours a day, not including evening rehearsals and performances.

At 17, Misty was thrilled to learn her work had paid off. Out of 150 students in the summer intensive of the prestigious American Ballet Theatre in New York City, only six had been invited to join the company – and she was one of them. It was a dream opportunity, especially since ABT was home to her longtime idol Paloma Herrera. Since Paloma had traveled the dancer’s career ladder from corps-to-soloist-to-principle in just under five years, Misty assumed this would be her path too. But three years came and went with no promotion. Then another year passed, and another. Misty was routinely working 10-to-12 hour days, but she was still in the corps…and she was starting to get nervous.

Have you ever felt like you were giving everything to your job and not moving up fast enough? Have you ever envied someone else to the point where their success becomes all you can focus on? Maybe you’re not quite off the psycho-meter just yet, but if you find yourself constantly comparing your success to the achievements of other people, you’ve still entered dangerous head space, my friend. Since it’s hyper-easy to get swept up in the comparison game without even realizing it, let’s just call this puppy out right now for what it really is: Another evil mind spiral. Playing the victim, allowing jealousy to run rampant, and stewing helplessly over your own unmet desires won’t do anything more than erode your confidence. It won’t solve anything or put you on the path to achieving your goals any faster. It will, however, unleash a particularly insidious wave of insecurity – one that’s  super-crafty at keeping you stuck and playing small.

It’s important to realize the comparison game is an ego assignment. When you’re ambitious by nature, it’s easy to assume that someone else’s pie has to get smaller for yours to get bigger. It’s also easy to assume that if someone else has reached a goal faster than you, they must be better. Neither of these are true. What is true, however, is that if you allow your mind to wander down these unhealthy paths, your behavior will start to reflect your thoughts in very unhealthy ways. You may start to act competitively at work – perhaps withholding information that would be valuable to a colleague – or you may even be so discouraged by someone else’s success that you feel compelled to give up entirely. (They’ve already beat me to the finish line, so why should I even bother?)

At this point, you have two choices: Get angry or get inspired. You can allow your jealousy to percolate within, raging to the surface when you blame poor circumstances, no resources, or just plain old bad luck for why you haven’t achieved the life you want. You’ll know you’ve hit this wall, by the way, when you feel a growing darkness in your heart and every success your “competitor” has – even tiny ones – are like a nail being pounded right into it.

Alternatively, you can choose to convert your envy into inspiration. You can choose to celebrate remarkable, fabulous colleagues – in both your office and your industry – for showing you what is possible for yourself. If you feel your mind drifting back to a place where you’re wondering whether so-and-so is prettier or smarter – or lamenting about the fact that they are younger, more connected, more accomplished, have more followers, etc. –  it’s time to get out your big ‘ol mental hammer and whack those thoughts into submission.

Remember: Even though the world is constantly telling you otherwise – success is a pie with an infinite number of slices. As long you take great care to find role models who have risen to the top with their moral compass in tact, you have no reason NOT to be happy for them – just as you’ll want others to be happy for you. Begrudging their success only takes up brain power that could be better used to cultivate your own. Not to mention, if you’re really honest with yourself, you’re likely to find your anger isn’t about them anyway. It’s about you. It’s pent-up, misdirected resentment against yourself for all the things you’re not doing that they are. The good news is the solution here is relatively simple: Get moving. Forget petty comparisons and turn the focus inward on what you’re doing to bridge the gap between where you are now and where you want to go.

This is exactly what Misty Copeland did at the American Ballet Theatre. Recognizing that  stewing over her career wasn’t accelerating it, Misty, in her own words, “got serious again.” She dug deep, shut out all of the external baggage, and committed to her training with the same intensity she had shown as a teenager trying to break into the business. ABT’s artistic director took notice and later said in an interview that he saw “an edge” in her work that had been missing for some time. After seven years in the corps, Misty was finally promoted to soloist.

Jealously offers clues to something you ultimately want for yourself. So don’t run from it or, worse, soak it in bitterness. Instead, pay attention to it. Sit with it. Ponder what it is about someone else’s career that triggers this feeling inside you. Then, reverse engineer their success. What, specifically, have they done to get where they are today? What personal habits have contributed to their accomplishments? Social media is great for this because it becomes like a glass wall, giving you instant access to how your role models spend their time. My guess? It ain’t sulking. Remember: The more action you take in the direction of your goals, the less tension, anxiety, and frustration you’ll feel towards those who’ve come before. Your goal is to get to a place where you can be genuinely happy for their success. After all, they’re lighting the way for you too.