Hello babies. Welcome to Earth. It’s hot in the summer and cold in the winter. It’s round and wet and crowded. On the outside, babies, you’ve got a hundred years here. There’s only one rule that I know of, babies, God damn it, you’ve got to be kind.” (Kurt Vonnegut)
Well … crap. I’ve spent the last fifteen years reckoning the importance of kindness in my life, and the last five months deeply immersed in an exploration of kindness. And I have become convinced that despite local, national, and world current events to the contrary, people are growing kinder; we are on the verge of a kindness Renaissance.
Turns out I was wrong.
At least that’s one interpretation from an article that appeared in the June issue of Atlantic magazine. Entitled “Why It Pays to Be a Jerk,” author Jerry Useem asserts that—consistent with the old adage—nice guys generally do finish last. He further claims that some of the most successful people in business are also some of the biggest jerks—think Steve Jobs—and that their jerkiness is exactly what led to their success.
Useem does caution that being a jerk can also backfire and lead to abject failure, but bad behavior done right in certain circumstances is often the path to the top.
For example, stealing supplies or provisions just to benefit oneself doesn’t advance you in the eyes of colleagues, but stealing and sharing the bounty with others puts you at the head of the team.
And someone who aggressively claims to have the answers, even when they don’t, is seen as a leader and often elevated to the leadership position. Further, it seems that the more unaware one is of how unfounded and even deluded one’s self-confidence is, the more swift and direct is the narcissist’s propulsion to the top. UC Berkeley Research Psychologist Cameron Anderson explained, “By all indications, when these people say they believe they’re in the 95th percentile when they’re actually in the 30th percentile, they fully believe it.” And somehow they make others believe it, too.
I think this explains so much about our political system, or “jerkocracy,” as I am moved to call it. It would seem that some politicians think they’re a lot smarter than they really are and we’ve bought into their delusion. Okay, I know that’s a totally unkind thing to say, but really—do a quick run-down of presidential contenders—doesn’t it explain a lot?
Another distressing example in the article showed that people who are treated rudely and condescended to by salespeople in upscale brand stores (e.g. Hermes, Gucci, Louis Vuitton) tend to spend more money than they do when treated well by another salesperson in the same store. There were some qualifications to this: the shoppers needed to value the brand, the salesperson must convey the image of the brand, and such tactics by the salesperson generally only work once with the same buyer (of course, if you’re selling Rolexes, one sale is probably sufficient). It also completely backfired if it wasn’t a truly upscale store, i.e., don’t try this if you work at Kohl’s or Target.
Givers and Takers
If anything’s clear from the article, it’s that the whole subject is murky. Useem cites research by Wharton professor Adam Grant, author of Give and Take: Why Helping Others Drives Our Success. Grant depicts “givers,” those whom we would generally describe as kind and generous, and “takers,” who are often labeled narcissists and jerks, noting that both givers and takers occupy the top—and the bottom—of the success spectrum.
The conclusion seems to be that you can be successful if you are kind and a giver as long as you are perceived as strong and are consistent in your behavior. And you can be successful if you are an overconfident, narcissistic jerk as long as you are convincing and seen as someone whose success will have a spillover effect on those around him. For both giver and taker, if you don’t convey your understanding of and ability to bring others along on your success journey, you can expect to make a nose-dive to the bottom.
So, it appears we have a choice if we want to be successful: we can be kind or we can be jerks—we just have to do either effectively. While I have undoubtedly been a jerk at one time or another, I hope those episodes have been rare. I choose kindness. Being a jerk to achieve success would be soul-crushing.
Perhaps the choice between the kindness route and the jerk route depends upon how you define success. I’ve never viewed it as either wealth or power. Increasingly, I do define success as spreading kindness and helping others. As long as power, intimidation, and obscene wealth constitute success for some, it looks like jerks will continue to lead.
So, the Atlantic article is discouraging. There does not appear to be a straight path to a kinder and more respectful world. Jerks are still reaping the rewards of their bad behavior. There’s still a long way to go to reach the kindness tipping point.
Nobody ever claimed it would be easy. But, we’re in this together and each time we choose kindness we move that much closer.
“Our lives are made of these moments. Simple words and actions, taken together, weave a single day, and our days become our life. Every gesture is a seed, and the seed determines the harvest.” (Wayne Muller)