When given the option, I don't tell anyone I'm a CEO.

Half the time, being a company leader is like being one giant magnet. People get envious and start praising me, usually wanting to know if I'm hiring. They think that, if they can just get close enough, they'll get what I've got. The other half of the time, people get jealous. They lash out and imply that everything I've earned is evidence that I'm a pampered executive. Then, when people actually interact with me, they're surprised. They email me and tell me how nice I am, or they'll say they didn't think they could talk to a CEO so easily. There are times when I sit with employees in the office just being myself, laughing over sodas, and someone will say they didn't expect me to be funny. Those three little letters can feel like there's a huge, artificial barrier between other people and me.

These reactions aren't limited to me or even CEOs in general. People pull them out for celebrities, athletes, and others in the spotlight, too. The responses show how we tend to either put these people on a pedestal or tear their pedestals down. Although the jealous side of things is something to avoid, the envy side is something you can use to find your own success.

Healthy versus unhealthy jealousy

Jealousy can rear its ugly head pretty fast, and it can be acute. A lot of the time, though, it's a drip-drip-drip affair that builds up over time. Many of our interactions could be fueled by jealousy without our even realizing it.

Let's say your buddy and you start out on equal footing at work. You get along, and you like each other. Then, slowly, as you start accomplishing things and advancing in your career, your friend starts interacting with you less or even throwing out barbs. Eventually, they start treating you like a competitor. What did you do? Nothing. All you did was gradually show you're better at something or work harder than them in some aspect, and they couldn't handle it.

What I described above assumes that the skills or graciousness of other people will determine whether you're successful. It doesn't really encourage you to take any responsibility or recognize the potential sitting inside of you.

But let's take that same work scenario. Now let's assume you're the one falling behind. Instead of turning bitter, you sit back and marvel that your co-worker seems to have it all together with the world on a string. You look at the fact that they have the kind of dog, house, partner, or other good things you wish you had on top of being really good at their job. You recognize you want those things. But then you say, "You know what? I can have that, too." You use their accomplishments as a North Star for your own goals, as evidence that those goals are legitimately doable. You have some faith that you can get where they already are. You step up your game, and eventually, you catch up. Used this way, envy can be a powerful tool to propel you forward. You use people's success to motivate you instead of tearing them down.

I've turned envy around like this in my own life. I always wanted to play professional football, and I always admired New England Patriots wide receiver Julian Edelman. I'd also told myself over and over that he was able to do what I wanted to do because he was bigger than I was. But guess what? We ended up in the gym right next to each other one day, and it turns out, we're pretty much the same size. There went my excuse. Instead, I let myself accept that he has skills I don't, internally said, "Good for you, Edelman!" the way he deserves, and moved on. He became my favorite player. I looked up to him (figuratively, because, again, we are actually the same height), and I envied and admired that he was living my childhood dream. I shifted my jealousy from a draining and toxic trait to something positive and allowed myself to respect Edelman's skills and abilities. I turned my jealousy into healthy envy.

Which way do you lean?

Do you lean toward jealousy or healthy envy? If you're not sure, ask yourself what your gut says when you see someone who's achieved a lot in life. Is your go-to move picking them apart? Do you feel like things just aren't fair or have the sense that you need to defend yourself? That's jealousy. Do you see their success as the dream you aspire to achieve? Do you start identifying the gaps between your behavior and theirs and adjusting what you do? That's healthy envy.

As you try to figure out where you are, remember that some of the world's most successful and well-known professionals have used healthy envy to ensure a chain of solid mentorships.

Apple co-founder Steve Jobs didn't create his genius in a vacuum. He drew from Andy Grove and Robert Friedland, Intel and Ivanhoe Mines founders respectively.

And it didn't stop there.

  • Warren Buffet of Berkshire Hathaway mentored Microsoft founder Bill Gates
  • Bill Gates then mentored Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella
  • Arianna Huffington, Huffington Post co-founder, and fashion designer Dianne von Furstenberg mentored 23andme founder Anne Wojcicki
  • Julian Edelman looked up to Wes Welker

In all cases, healthy envy was a worthy investment that arguably catapulted these mentees to success. Healthy envy is worth investing in not just for yourself but for all the generations that are going to follow yours.

Healthy envy can be a solid foundation

Jealousy generally doesn't do you or anyone else any favors. Healthy envy is a much more positive, motivational alternative to cultivate. You can't abandon jealousy in favor of envy, though, unless you can tell the difference between the two. So, ask yourself the tough questions about your own thinking and behavior. Be honest with yourself and, as quickly as you can, toss jealousy into the garbage where it belongs.