I once ran a workshop for a Russian shipping company in the Black Sea port of Novorossiysk, in the Caucasus region, the area that divides Europe from Asia. During the workshop, I showed the Russian participants the famous image of King Olav of Norway when he took the train to go skiing during the Oil Crisis in 1973. It took quite some persuading to get my Russian participants to actually believe that this actually happened, and even when I did manage to convince them, one of the Russian participants said in a very thick Russian accent, “very good Norwegian propaganda, I like, I like …”

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We then discussed some of the main values that this photo illustrated, values such as equality, transparency, and trust.

“Trust is a dangerous concept here in Russia,” said one of the participants. “Here in Russia, we don’t trust blindly, we TRUST, THEN VERIFY!”


He then went on to tell a well-known Russian parable:

A man finds an old lamp. He lifts it up and wipes away the dust from it. As he rubs the lamp, a genie appears. The genie offers to give him anything he wants, but there is a catch. His neighbour will get double. 

The man thinks for a while and then finally looks up with a smile and says: “I know what I want! I want you to poke out one of my eyes!”

Behind this rather morbid story lies an important lesson about how people function. The main point here is that no matter how bad we feel, as long as our “neighbour” feels worse, we will feel better. This known as Social Comparison Theory. This is one of the reasons reality shows are so popular. By looking at “idiots” on the TV who often fail or make fools of themselves, we get to feel better about ourselves. So, in fact, it makes complete sense to the human brain to secretly wish failure upon others just to feel good!

This strikes a particularly powerful chord with many Scandinavian cultures, especially in Norway, where Janteloven is very much part of everyday life. It seems, however, that Janteloven is not just a Norwegian mind-set, it is a human one!


Where would we be if every time we found a genie in a lamp we wished to have one eye poked out? How about we shift that perspective slightly? How about we wish lots of success for our neighbours, and just a little bit more for ourselves? Or is that just the same shit with a different wrapping?


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