I promised in my post two days ago to tell the other two steps I used, and, truth be told, still occasionally must use, to fight my envy. Here's the next passage from my book, The Joy of Freedom: An Economist's Odyssey:
Second, I remind myself that, in the long run, I am the person most responsible for where I've gotten and, if I really want things to be different, I can take responsibility for making them different. A few years ago I complained to my friend Tom Nagle that, although I was as smart as many of the Harvard faculty [or so I thought], I was not at nearly as prestigious a school.
"You chose not to teach at Harvard," shot back Tom.
"What do you mean?" I said, stunned, hurt, and defensive, all at the same time.
Tom replied, "I mean that if you had decided in graduate school that you wanted to teach at Harvard, you could have committed to working 12 hours a day, six and a half days a week, you could have had three articles published in top academic journals, and you could have had a shot at Harvard. To get tenure there, you would have had to keep up that same pace for another five to ten years. You chose not to do that."
Now, whenever I feel bad about not teaching at Harvard, I remember that discussion and I feel better almost instantly. I've made a choice. I like working "only" nine hours a day, five to six days a week, and having a life with my wife, my daughter, and my community.
Looking back, I realize that I was responsible for my own outcomes even when I was a kid. When I saw that everyone at our summer resort but us had a boat, I decided to make enough money to buy a used motorboat. At age 13, I spent a large part of my summer, and a large part of my free time during the school year, at various odd jobs and entrepreneurial ventures. By the start of the next summer I had almost enough to buy a boat. I decided not to after all, but that's another story. While I was working for the money to buy the boat, my resentment of others vanished. I enjoyed working towards a goal.
I've had people tell me that it's easy for me to talk this way because I have many high-paying skills, such as writing and speaking. But even people of very modest means who live in the industrialized world can accumulate net worths of half a million or more. Dwight Lee and Richard McKenzie, economists at the University of Georgia and the University of California at Irvine, respectively, recently wrote a fascinating book, Getting Rich in America, in which they laid out eight simple rules for becoming rich.
Then, in the book, I lay out their rules.
Soon, I'll give my final step, step three, that relates to how the language of economics has set us up for envy.