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Crabs in a Barrell

There’s a metaphor about crabs in a barrel, a phenomena where individually or even working together, they could easily escape their temporary prison, but for some reason they choose to ineffectually grab and pull each other, thus assuring that escape is not possible for anyone.


It is a metaphor about competition and jealousy. It is one that needs to be understood, because as silly as the crabs seem, that is exactly what is happening in cultures all over the world, and it may be happening in yours, or worse, you are a part of it.


There are jealous and non-jealous cultures in the world. First let’s define them.


It is said that Bono was once asked the difference between Ireland and the US. He said, “In the US, a friend gets a new house, invites me over, gives me a tour, and I leave thinking, ‘I’ll get a house like this someday,’ or ‘just wait, mine will be better.’”


“In Ireland, I visit a friend’s new home, look it over, and when I leave, I start throwing rocks at the windows.”

The former can be called Envy, the latter Jealousy.

I experienced this first hand, when I got a new home, I invited a number of friends over for a house warming party. I was very surprised when a few of my friends started criticizing whatever they could find: “the elevator is old,” “the building smells musty,” “the paint on the walls could be better.”


It was then confirmed when another friend got a new home and even his family was not celebrating with him, but complaining about a million little things that really didn’t matter.


While supporting the development of a sports league in Europe. There were some organizations that started to succeed, to prosper, yet instead of learning what they did right, the league would change the rules handicapping the successful teams to make it in their words, “more competitive.”


Here’s the issue…the crabs end up not escaping and all die as a result. In jealous culture, when time and energy is spent pulling others down, no one prospers, no one grows, nothing gets better.


It’s one thing, when it is a personal issue and another when it is a cultural one. In my experience, there are more jealous cultures in the world than non-jealous. Those cultures that are known for opportunity and prosperity are few and far between.


What kind of culture do you live in?


Here are some questions to consider:


Is more time spent complaining or competing?

When neighbors or friends find success, are people happy or suspicious?

When you visit a friends new home, or see their new car, is there more criticism or compliments?

Do you feel an overwhelming sense of inequality?

Do you feel successful people “don’t deserve it?” or “didn’t earn it?”

Do you spend more time complaining about what others have, or focus on ways to succeed with what you’ve got?

I remember when I was running, I was a sprinter, but I didn’t have the ability to truly compete in the short sprints, it wasn’t in the genes. I could’ve complained, did what I could to bring the other competitors to my level, or cheated. Instead, I found what I was good at, what I could improve on and where I could compete and ended up competing at the state level, even held the #1 spot in my event for a while.

The US, has historically been a non-jealous culture. Case in point is the phrase, “keeping up with the Jones’s,” or “everyone looks for their time in the sun.” Whereas in Jealous cultures they have phrases like, “the tall grass gets the blade.” I am a 1st generation immigrant, my father like many immigrants to this day, came to the US for better opportunities, and finding them. I've also lived outside the US for many years in many different cultures.


Despite the popular narrative, my family's experience is that the US is one of the few non-jealous cultures in the world. Although there are factions of the US that are jealous, as a whole, it is still merit-based and competitive.


Do you want to live in a culture based on equal opportunity or system manipulation to foster equal results? Either energy is spent aspiring to be the best we can, or turning that energy, as crabs, against anyone who tries.

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