GUY RAZ, HOST:
Which is your favorite sin?
PARUL SEHGAL: Which is my favorite sin? I think - envy I think, is my favorite sin. There's something so private about it and something pernicious about this way of looking at the world or looking at your neighbor and something in it that can be a catalyst for a very, very dangerous action.
RAZ: This is Parul Sehgal. She's an editor at The New York Times Book Review. And where does she find the best examples of envy? Not just in fiction, but also in stories from her own life.
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SEHGAL: So when I was 8 years old, a new girl came to join the class and she was so impressive. She had vast quantities of very shiny hair, and super strong on state capitals, and great speller...
SEHGAL: ... And I just curdled with jealousy that year - until I hatched my devious plan. So one day I stayed a little late after school. When the coast was clear I emerged, crept into the classroom and took from my teacher's desk the grade book. And then I did it - I fiddled with my rival's grades just a little. Just demoted some of those A's - all of those A's.
SEHGAL: And I got ready to return the book to the drawer when - hang on, some of my other classmates had appallingly good grades, too.
SEHGAL: So in a frenzy, I corrected everybody's marks - not imaginatively. Not imaginatively - I gave everybody a row of D's and I gave myself a row of A's just because I was there. You know, might as well.
RAZ: OK, so you did this?
RAZ: You really did this?
SEHGAL: I stand by it. Yeah.
RAZ: Did you ever wonder if you ruined that little girl's life?
SEHGAL: All the time. I kept waiting to hear from her, actually. (Laughter). Or from my teacher. That's who I really wanted to hear from. I wanted to hear like, you know - I mean, after the thrill of getting away with it, I felt terrible. But, it just goes to show how early we start feeling competitive and aggressive and entitled and ambitious about these things. Actually, they've found that babies from the ages of 3 months on can feel incredibly jealous. So it's just so deeply rooted.
RAZ: Yeah. I mean, that's a thing about envy because it's like, there's a fine line between envy and rivalry. I mean, they're related. And so, I mean, you could argue that feeling envious can be like, a motivator, right? It could like, actually make you better at what you do.
SEHGAL: Right. Yeah, so ideally it can be, you know, this incredibly powerful catalyst to realize that you value something so deeply because you're resenting somebody else's excellence and you can work even harder, you know? Or, you can take my route.
RAZ: Which is?
SEHGAL: (Laughter). Which was...
RAZ: Just change the grades.
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SEHGAL: Why did it bother me so much that this little girl - this tiny little girl - was so good at spelling? Jealousy baffles me. It's so mysterious and so pervasive and yet, I've never read a study that can parse to me it's loneliness or its longevity or its grim thrill. For that we have to go to fiction because the novel is the lab that has studied jealousy in every possible configuration. In fact, I don't know if it's an exaggeration to say that if we didn't have jealousy, would we even have literature? No faithless Helen, no "Odyssey." No jealous king, no "Arabian Nights," no Shakespeare. There goes high school reading lists because we're losing "Sound And The Fury," we're losing "Gatsby," "Sun Also Rises." We're losing "Madame Bovary," "Anna K." Patricia Highsmith to Hitchcock to "Hamlet" - they're all engineered by envy, envy's always the catalyst. Because envy, on some level, is just desire. We can't live without that. And true, like, there's certain kinds of painful aspects of envy and jealousy, or dangerous aspects of envy and jealousy that we should absolutely live without. But that hunger, that sort of quickening - no, I think that that's completely a rich and kind of thrilling thing.
RAZ: Do you think that envy is just, like, a part of being human?
SEHGAL: Yeah. I think it's a really, really deep, deep, deep part of what it means to be a human being. Darwin says it was a survival mechanism, jealousy and envy, that we have this need for access to the loved one, to be the first in their affections, to have resources. But I think linked to that - and more interesting to me, I think - is we are storytelling creatures. And I think that we compulsively are trying to figure out what makes people work, what makes people succeed, what makes - why are we where we are?
RAZ: OK. So, if envy is just inevitable, I mean how would you avoid it or suppress it if you wanted to?
SEHGAL: I think one thing you can do is to tweeze it apart a little bit, you know? And it's usually - the things we're really, really deeply envious about and that really get to us aren't somebody's boat, you know? The stuff that really, really needles us seems to be like, time, stuff like ease, stuff like peace, stuff like safety. And think that's tied to our own desires to sort of figure out what our best life is like or what our definitions of comfort and success are like. So yeah - so maybe I'm overly optimistic. Maybe I'm thinking of envy more as a sort of catalyst for self-improvement and change and you know, and not it's sort of seamier aspects.
RAZ: Parul Sehgal, she's an editor at The New York Times Book Review. You can see her entire talk at ted.npr.org.
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