In a December 2020 Gallup Poll, Americans were asked the following question:
“What man that you have heard or read about, living today in any part of the world, do you admire most?” ( there was a separate list specifically for admired women)
The top ten responses included politicians, businessmen, spiritual leaders, and a professional athlete. This diverse set of professions may lead us to think that there was very little to be found in common between these men. Indeed, I could only find one thing that all ten of them had in common. They all had a net worth of at least $2Million. From there the range goes all the way up to $179.7 Billion with an average net worth of over $18 Billion (Bill Gates and Elon Musk pulled that number up quite a bit).
This led me to inquire where all the admirable non-millionaires were hiding. Further reading informed me that 11% of respondents did choose a relative or friend, but that still leaves 89% that overlooked local leaders, teachers, firefighters, police officers, or even their own dad! When did our society forget how to admire people that are not wealthy?
As I often do in my studies, I opened the dictionary to get me started. What does it mean to be admired? What does it take to lead a life that is admirable?
worthy of admiration ; inspiring approval, reverence, or affection
This definition did help me a bit. My working definition of admiration had been rooted in a certain sense of “I want to be like that person,” and this definition did not agree, but nonetheless was built on intangible and unquantifiable positive qualities. A person’s net worth, by contrast, is quantifiable by definition. It is tangible and not necessarily inherently positive. So why is a top-ten ranking in American admirability the exclusive territory of millionaires and billionaires?
My best guess is that maybe we don’t really understand the question. It seems to me that a good number of people, when asked whom they admire, replied with whom they envy. To go back to my working (admittedly inaccurate) definitions, people were not thinking “I want to be like them,” but rather, “I want to have what they have.” When I think of attributes to admire, I think of choices that an individual can make to live in a way that is perhaps more generous, kind, or helpful. The respondents may wish to have immense wealth, political power, or extraordinary athletic abilities. Sadly, one cannot choose to be seven feet tall and/or born into wealth and privilege.
This brings me back to the dictionary:
a feeling of discontent or covetousness with regard to another's advantages, success, possessions, etc.
Perhaps mistaking envy for admiration is a more dangerous phenomenon than I had originally realized. It is hard to observe modern American society and not recognize a prevailing sense of “discontent or covetousness” almost everywhere. A great deal of network programming seems to focus on almost absurd displays of wealth and most of social media seems to exist to feed the egos of personalities whose primary motivation is to be to be envied by others (for more on this topic, you might like to read this). I can’t help but be concerned by an entire society that is encouraged to be unhappy with what they have. That can’t be a good thing! Those who covet will sometimes look to take by force. Those who are discontent will oftentimes look for someone or some group to blame. We may already be witnessing these reactions today.
It is not in my habit to introduce a problem and not at least hint at a solution. At the risk of sounding cliche, I suggest that we let the change begin with you and me. Let each of us reconsider who we admire and why we admire them. Let’s think of people more in terms of what they contribute and less in terms of what they possess. Finally, let’s aspire to lead lives to be admired and not necessarily to be envied.
Related: 3 Life Lessons from 3 Dead Frogs