I recently read a blog post by Mr Pole Dance 2013 International winner, Alex Shchukin, entitled “Five Shades of Green.” The blog focuses on one of my less preferred deadly sins – you guessed it – envy. As Alex points out, envy is pervasive in the world of pole. Whether it’s envy between peers, teacher and student, judge and competitor, performer and audience member, or between a pole dancer and someone outside of the pole world, envy manifests in many ways. It can lead to irrational actions and unfair judgements of character.
I appreciated Alex’s blog. It called out the bullshit that people produce and endure on a regular basis in the pole world. Now, I want to go deeper.
First, what exactly is envy? Simply, envy is the desire for something someone else has. (A definition that certainly isn’t up the standards of analytic philosophy, but we’ll go with it for the sake of brevity.) This doesn’t really tell us anything we don’t already know, however. What I’m really interested in is the fact that envy is motivated by fear.
Since we’re talking about pole specifically here, I’ll use a pole example. I sometimes find myself feeling envious of polers who can do the splits. Both kinds of splits are useful, and even necessary to complete many advanced pole moves, such as jade splits, box splits and so on. As I see other women and men move into their splits on the floor or on the pole, I sometimes feel a pang of envy. It’s not that I don’t think the other person deserves the ability to do the splits when I can’t, however. It’s a matter of fearing that I will never be able to do that.
Envy arises when we feel that our worth is challenged by what we don’t have or can’t do. This is the point I really want to explore. Envy can be recognized in statements like, I’ll never be as strong as her; I wish I looked like that, I’m so fat; You’re so flexible, unlike me! and so on. In each of these cases, the speaker compares herself to another by setting herself up in an inferior position in that comparison. Of course, envy isn’t always vocalized, and is often masked, (as Shchukin explores in his blog,) but even in these cases, envy is a feeling of inferiority. It is the fear that we really are inferior people — not just polers, but people — because of what we lack.
When personal worth is tied to abilities and accomplishments, it’s easy to fall into this trap. A few years ago, I read an excellent book by Dr. Carol Dweck of Stanford University called Mindset:The New Psychology of Success. (It’s at the very top of my recommended books list — head to your nearest library or local bookstore and pick up a copy!) Dweck’s basic theory states that there are two types of mindset that people can have — the Fixed Mindset and the Growth Mindset. The Fixed Mindset, she explains, is the basic belief of self-as-immutable. That is, when a person has a fixed mindset, they believe that their abilities flow from natural, determined talent, and that these capacities are incapable of being expanded or reduced. For example, many people believe that artistry is a natural gift that some people have and others do not. My dad gave up drawing when he was a child because he saw that other kids were better at drawing that he was, and he believed he couldn’t improve. When a poler has a fixed mindset, she believes that she has a set amount of ability and talent, or potential to develop. When things get hard, she will say things like “I’m not flexible, I will never be able to do a box split” or “I’m a woman, so I won’t ever have the upper body strength to do crazy tricks like Kenneth Kao.” Such a person sees ability in absolute terms. You either have it, or you don’t.
The Growth Mindset takes a different tack on life. When a person has a growth mindset, she sees ability as something that comes or goes with effort. To use an example from Dweck, a kid with a growth mindset will sit down with a difficult math problem and not allow the struggle of it to stop her from working on it. Instead of saying “I’m not good at math” after trying for a couple minutes, she’ll say, “I love a challenge!” and keep at it until she solves it. For someone with a growth mindset, a lack of skill is an opportunity to grow. If things get hard, the person with the growth mindset will throw himself into it even more instead of giving up. This is because he understands that not being good at something at first isn’t the same as never being good at it. What separates the beginner from the expert is time and effort.
Of course, we all have a mix of growth and fixed mindsets within ourselves — no one sees every aspect of self through one or the other lens. (What can I say? People are messy and inconsistent.) But the point I want to make here is one that Dweck brings up. When a person primarily has a fixed mindset, that person associates talent and ability with identity. They proudly say, “I am smart,” “I am good at math,” “I am flexible.” And, here’s the kicker — when anything challenges that identity, it challenges personal worth, and the response to that is to feel fearful, defensive, and yes, envious. Someone who believes he is a good writer, and that this talent is a part of his identity, will shy away from the challenge of taking an advanced English course, lest his identity as A Good Writer be challenged. If someone with a fixed mindset is good at algebra, but struggles with calculus proofs, she will give up after trying for only a short while because she will assume she can’t do it. And if I have a fixed mindset about pole dancing, when I see someone who is stronger, more flexible, or more graceful; more advanced in any way than I am, that person challenges my identity as A Good Pole Dancer because I am not as good at pole dancing as she is. I would feel envious because I would feel inferior and wish that I was that good.
If I have a growth mindset, on the other hand, I will recognize that I continue to improve in proportion to the effort I put in. If I want to be able to deadlift my shoulder mount, I have to be willing to try and fail over and over and over again with the faith that someday I’ll succeed. I have to be willing to ask for help from people who are better at shoulder mounting than I am. I have to understand that it takes hard work, and time, and sometimes the luck of discovering that one little tweak that makes everything fall into place. And I must remind myself that everyone begins in different places, and everyone progresses at different rates. I have to resist the temptation to compare what I’ve worked on for a few months with what someone else has been working on for years.
Envy is motivated by the fear that limitations in our abilities reflect limitations in our personal worth. But abilities are not fixed — they expand or contract with the effort we apply to them — and more importantly, worth does not come from what we can or can’t do. Any belief to the contrary is dehumanizing, and therefore thoroughly contemptible in my view. Personal worth is not awarded or revoked, it is inherent. It flows from our humanity. We are all worthy of love and belonging, as one of my most admired public figures, Brene Brown, says.
So here’s my challenge to you. If you feel envious of a fellow poler because she or he is stronger, more flexible, more graceful, etc. than you, take a moment to realize that this person’s abilities do not make you inferior. You are worthy of love and belonging no matter what. Then realize that this person wasn’t magically awarded that ability, but that they have spent hours upon hours of hard work to achieve their current state. Sure, people have predispositions to be better at some things than others, but no one is born an expert pole dancer. Instead of allowing envy to make you feel inferior, transform it into inspiration, and then get to work. When you can, ask for advice from people who’s abilities you admire — they have probably learned a thing or two from their own experience. And remember, you are not your abilities — you are a human being.