A friend's book was included on a prominent bestseller list. When this milestone was relayed to another author, the response was unexpectedly nasty: "But did you see the comments about the book on Amazon.com?"
A schoolmate became a tenured university professor. A few years later, another schoolmate commented, "He hasn't published anything lately."
A lawyer leaves private practice for a senior in-house position at a non-profit corporation. Although he'd found his dream job, "he needed to leave his existing position" was the conclusion of the office gossip circle.
In each case, someone's apparent career success or successful job change is being disparaged, really for no reason at all.
For people in the working world, there is more anxiety now than in recent memory. People are changing jobs, losing jobs, looking for jobs and trying to hang onto jobs they already have. One would hope that almost any job success would bring cheers from colleagues, but all too often it turns out quite the opposite. Can't we just be supportive?
I'm at the point in my career where it is appropriate to consider my next stage. At least on paper, I imagine I have many options. But with every option, I can already hear the naysayers dissecting and criticizing my decision. The knowledge that people will comment can be crippling. If you take a pay cut to start a new career direction, you'll be seen as a washout. If you go into public service, it will be whispered that you failed out of the private sector. On top of a tough economy, it is hard to commit to any new job with this certain undercurrent of disapproval.
The urge to tear down a friend's success is as old as the very first sibling rivalry. With the simple story of Cain and Abel, the Torah shows us two paradigms of how to respond to another's success -- one healthy, one terribly destructive.
Imagine what the world would look like if every time we saw someone succeed, we used the natural feelings of jealousy to redouble our efforts to make our own lives more successful?
The story begins when Cain decides to create something new, an "offering" to God. This was a good idea, and Cain is the first to do it. Abel responds in a healthy way: he sees his brother's act honoring the Almighty, and he decides to imitate him by making his own offering.
Abel's response shows us how we are supposed to respond to other people's innovations -- use them as models, be inspired by them, become your greatest self and make your best impact on the world. Imagine what the world would look like if every time we saw someone succeed, we used the natural feelings of jealousy to redouble our efforts to make our own lives more successful? Imagine if we were jealous of our fellow's humility and self-sacrifice as we are of his wealth and honor?
We are told that Cain's offering was from the poorest of his produce, and Abel's was the choicest of his flock. Using Cain's offering as an idea, Abel had improved on the model by upgrading the offering to the very best quality. Abel gives his all to his own project.
The trouble begins after God embraces Abel's offering, but not Cain's. When Cain sees Abel's offering accepted by God, he doesn't turn inward to consider how he himself could do better. Instead, Cain becomes deeply indignant and depressed.
God then speaks directly to Cain, saying, "Why are you annoyed, and why has your countenance fallen? If you improve your own actions, you can also reap success." In essence, God shows Cain the way to succeed, which is by improving his own efforts. God tells Cain to do what Abel did -- use his brother as inspiration and do his absolute best.
What happens next shows us the other choice, the one we are tempted to make every day. Instead of building up our own greatness, we tear down another's.
Cain kills his brother.
Seeing someone else's success creates a tension in us. We ask ourselves, 'Am I capable of that kind of success?'
There are two ways to resolve the tension: work hard enough to find out the answer to the question 'Am I capable of my own success?' -- or make the success seem smaller, crush it, eliminate it, kill it. When someone achieves, we have two choices. We can be inspired by the example, or we can tear it down; we can emulate the person or we can diminish him. We can choose to be Abel, or choose to be Cain.
Our sages compare speaking negatively about someone to murder. The running commentary on how everyone's career is going is harmful in many ways. It undermines the confidence of the job seeker; it contaminates the mind of current or potential employers; it destroys one's dignity in his community. It also gives the speaker permission to do less with his own life, to feel complacent with his own mediocrity. In that way, it kills the speaker, too -- it kills his own vision of what greatness is possible.
Our sages also recognize that it is not enough to simply try to stop the person who responds to reports of greatness with a negative comment; the entire public discussion of people's success needs to be severely limited, because the mere announcement of success is an invitation to attack. Because this response is human, Judaism holds the person who announces someone's positive career step responsible for the inevitable negative reactions. The Chafetz Chaim teaches, "You are forbidden to praise a person in the presence of a group, even if you do not praise him excessively and you are not aware that anyone dislikes him. It is very likely that someone in the group will say something derogatory about the subject of praise."
It would be extreme to say nothing about your fellow's success, but that extreme is not required. You can always speak directly to the person, and tell him just what he most needs to hear from his friends: "Congratulations. You've worked hard for this, and you deserve it. May you have continued success."
Even better, try to mean it.