[Note: This post was updated July 2020 for freshness & clarity.]
One consistent and recurring theme keeps appearing over and over again for me. Whether in the workplace or in a social gathering, I often witness people putting others down simply because they want to feel better about themselves.
I’m not sure what’s the root cause or causes of this behavior. It might have to do with low self-esteem, being afraid (of failing, of what others might say, etc.), the desire to self-promote, the need to one-up someone else, or a combination of all these (or none of the above). I’m not certain. What I am certain is that engaging in these types of negative, mean-spirited behaviors (of putting others down) shines a very bright and unflattering light on your character, or lack of one.
One reason, I believe, some individuals feel the need to criticize, belittle, disparage, or denigrate another person is because of envy — of the target’s career and financial success.
Very few people get to where they are by accident or mistake. Regardless of how they were back in high school or college, they took active steps toward correcting their path and ensuring that their future states would be markedly different from their current states. Change does not happen overnight (unless you win the lottery). Therefore, from the time that these targets were viewed as “losers” (back in high school or college) to their current state of career & financial success today, they must have done many things right and worked hard (graduate from school, pass board exams, secure jobs and demonstrate their value to their organizations) to “earn their keep” (i.e., proved they’re worthy of the money, time, and effort their company has invested in them).
Many people today want to skip the hard work part and go straight to the success stage (whatever that might be for them). I attribute this to youth, inexperience, not enough life lessons or scars, not learning from mistakes, no insight into own weaknesses, impatience, arrogance, feeling entitled, feeling envious, and/or bad advice from their friends or confidants.
In my 20s I was hungry for success. I felt that I deserved a piece of the success pie that others seemed to enjoy. In my 30s I thought I had matured enough to earn the respect of others and therefore be given more important responsibilities and a higher place on the organization chart. I was wrong.
Through the ups and downs, the doubts and fears, and getting kicked in the teeth by painful life lessons and experiences, and with the help of good, sound advice from my wife, and my relationship with God, I finally realized that I can be successful but only if I stop feeling sorry for myself, stop playing the victim, stop blaming others or put them down, and start “owning” my situation and life, and come up with a game plan for how to go about getting the job or attaining the education or certifications I had always desired for myself.
It was only when I stopped letting others dictate the story of my life and instead started writing my own life story that I began to enjoy the “success” (for me) that I had once envied of others. The irony is that, as Shawn Achor (2010) shared in his book The Happiness Advantage, when we’re happy first (e.g., not feeling the urge to put others down), then we’re in a better position to start enjoying the success—both at work and in our personal lives—we’re hoping for and dreaming about.
Takeaway: Forget about what other people are doing with their lives. Try focusing on being happy and improving your own life by creating and mastering small, achievable goals instead. When you’re happy with your life, you won’t have time or energy to worry about other people or feel the need to talk bad about them. Remember, you do not need to put others down to lift yourself up.
Written By: Steve Nguyen, Ph.D.
Leadership + Talent Development Advisor
Achor, S. (2010). The happiness advantage: The seven principles of positive psychology that fuel success and performance at work. New York: Crown Publishing Group.