Monday, February 28, 2011

Overcoming the 'jantelov'

When I first moved to Norway, I often heard the expression ’du skal ikke tro at du er noe’ (you shall not believe that you are something). It was often mentioned in discussions about successful people or individuals who had achieved something great and how these same people could be ‘put down’ by others in society with this expression. Some of my Norwegian colleagues warned me about the ‘jantelov’, a mentality/behavior that punishes individual achievement or individuals who break away from the pack and achieve success on their own. I found it hard to understand this mentality until I understood that it has envy as its basis. The jantelov is basically envy in action. So that if someone says to you that you should not believe that you are somebody, you can rest assured that they are envious of you and of your achievements, and that you are in fact ‘somebody’. What you can also be sure of is that you have actually achieved something, if you were at all in doubt. And you could be very easily in doubt about your merits in Norway. It can be very confusing to figure out if you have achieved success in Norway because you will seldom hear someone say to you ‘great job’. You will hear that you did a ‘grei jobb’ (ok job), or you might hear that ‘den var god’ (it was good), but the kind of high-fiving, hand-slapping, enthusiastic ‘way to go’ or ‘yippee, great job’ or ‘terrific’ that you might have heard in the USA, you won’t hear here. Often you will not hear anything at all—in other words, no feedback, or you will hear that you could have done a better job or that you could have done it differently. The latter is the most common. The behavior is very confusing, especially when you know intuitively that you have done a terrific job. But the jantelov exists in other places as well, just under different names. There are some people I knew when I was growing up in the USA that would hesitate to praise you or your accomplishments for fear that the praise would go to your head. It seemed to be part of child-rearing for some adults and teachers. So this mentality also exists outside of Scandinavia. But it seems to have been honed to a sharp finish here. If you are the type of person who relies on positive feedback to progress in a job, you will be disappointed. You need to learn to trust your instincts about your successes and to ignore the negative or confusing comments. Not so easy, I can tell you.

What is envy, really? I looked it up in the dictionary and it is defined as a ‘feeling of discontent or covetousness with regard to another’s advantages, success, or possessions’. What then is jealousy? According to the dictionary, envy and jealousy are closely related. Envy has more to do with longing for the success or advantages that another person has, whereas jealousy has more to do with resenting that another person has that success or advantage instead of you. So I guess it’s human to feel envy and jealousy at times. Everyone has been envious or jealous at one point or another. The key is to not let them get the upper hand, because if they do, you end up living your life in ‘reaction’ to the person or people you envy or are jealous of. You will ignore your own individuality and focus entirely on another’s. You will ultimately diminish yourself and your own creativity because you will spend most of your time trying to imitate another person or badmouthing him or her if the former doesn’t work. It is said that ‘imitation is the sincerest form of flattery’ (attributed to Charles Caleb Colton) and that ‘flattery will get you nowhere’ (proverb). The latter is the truth. There is no point in imitating another person out of envy or jealousy. If you imitate another person in an effort to learn from him or her at the start of a personal venture, this is harmless enough and may help you on your own path to success. But it hardly pays to do this constantly. For one thing, you will alienate the person you are imitating, and then you will ultimately understand that you lack the creativity and competence to continue down this path. It is a pity that more people don’t realize that they have their own individual talents that are just waiting to be explored, that they don’t have to imitate others to feel important. But sometimes out of fear, people will not explore them because it is safer not to. If you don’t explore them, you can live safely within the crowd, you can maintain your anonymity, you don’t have to stand out. But if you never step outside the crowd, you will diminish yourself routinely and experience more envy than a person who has at least ‘tried on’ his or her individuality, even if he or she has not accomplished great things by doing so. ‘Better to have tried and failed than never to have tried at all’ is a good motto. So perhaps the cure for the jantelov is to step outside of the crowd more, to be an individual, to let your light shine, to try--and not worry about failing. With all this activity, you won’t have time to be envious or jealous. And that is the key to a happy life, forgetting about what the others think or will think of you, and basking in the warmth of your efforts and small successes in love, work and daily life. 

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