The wisdom of jealousy

Kathryn Crawford Saxer A Little Kindness, Career Transition

I was jealous of my son and it changed my life.

That sounds worrying, but let me explain.

As a career coach, I often ask my clients whom they’re jealous of. Jealousy can be a useful emotion: It can be a signpost pointing toward what you actually want, cutting through the noise of what you’ve been telling yourself — or what other people may be telling you — that you should want in your career.

I like the emotional honesty of the word “jealous”: Whom are you jealous of? (Mind you, I’m asking my clients about professional jealousy.)

When my coaching clients look confused by the potential ugliness of the word “jealousy,” I’ll try the word “wistful”: What do you feel wistful about when people talk about their work?

Back to my teenager. Last year, my son volunteered at the library, tutoring an elementary-age child in reading and math. Mostly they played games and goofed off together.

That sounded really fun. I remember feeling a twinge of jealousy. As my son talked about reading with a little kid, whom he otherwise would have never met, I realized I really, really wanted to do something like that, too.

The thing with jealousy is that it is highly motivating. Snow White’s stepmother may not have had her heart in the right place, but she got a lot done. Motivated by that twinge, I signed on with Literacy Source, went through their orientation and training, and walked into an ESL classroom in Tukwila to assist the master’s level instructor for three hours every week.

Within 10 minutes of being there I knew I wanted my own classroom.

There are about 25 adult students in the class. They come from all over the world: Mexico, Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala, Vietnam, China, Afghanistan, Korea, Senegal and Sudan, and I’m probably forgetting a few countries.

Every class, I’m reminded that we are all more alike than different. I was tutoring a woman from Africa and she kept dropping the fairly important word “is.” I pretended to be exasperated and she hugged me as we laughed.

By paying attention to that feeling of jealousy of my son, I stumbled on this idea that I could help recent immigrants learn English. I hadn’t known how much I cared, or how much I could help.

And now I’m jealous of someone new: the ESL instructor leading the lessons at the front of the room.

I want to do that. Maybe I’ll work on a TESOL certification, and maybe that will lead me to teaching English at the border, at refugee camps, in cities abroad — who knows? I wasn’t kidding about life-changing.

Whom are you jealous of?

First published in The Seattle Times. Read my archive of Seattle Times Explore columns.