On Geniuses and Assholes
The other day, when I was passing through the Memphis airport, I stopped at the bookstore to browse. What immediately caught my eye was a book titled The No Asshole Rule: Building a Civilized Workplace and Surviving One that Isn’t by Robert I. Sutton. I couldn’t resist and bought the book. Ever since I was bullied for years as a kid, I have disliked (which is putting it mildly) assholes. I use this word because we all do and because how can you write something about a book entitled The No Asshole Rule without using the word asshole. I do not like assholes – I sometimes call them emotional terrorists. Other people, worried about politesse, call them jerks. Sutton says it like it is.
An asshole is not just a person who gets in a bad mood once and a while. An asshole, as Sutton defines it, is a person who makes people feel bad, humiliated, stupid, depressed, worthless. Most important, an asshole is someone who spews his or her venom at people who are less, rather than more, powerful than he or she is. We all know a lot of these people. And all too often they are given free reign in the workplace or political sphere. Sutton’s book gives lots of pointers about how to deal with assholes. But I want to a closer look at the myth that being an asshole and being a genius are somehow intrinsically linked – as in you can’t be the one without the other. This leads to the idea that being a genius excuses you from being an asshole.
I do not subscribe to this belief and I think the world would be a better place if we disentangled leadership or genius from the state of being an asshole. Being an asshole is not about being powerful. Being an asshole is being a bully and bullies are always weaklings using the guise of power as a shield themselves from their fears of the world. It is tragic that the Republican candidates for president –whether male (Donald Trump) or female(Carly Fiorina) do not get the difference. It’s even more tragic that Republican voters can’t tell the difference between a person who is truly powerful and a person who is faking it by being an asshole. (Obviously the Republicans do not have a lock on this problem, but their candidates seem particularly wedded to the state of A-ness.)
The other place where we see this linkage made is in discussions of the new movies about Steve Jobs. It seems to be the consensus of documentary and feature filmmakers, as well as his biographers that Jobs was an asshole of the first degree. He ripped off his colleagues and collaborator; he refused to recognize his first daughter and stinted on providing her with child support even though he was a multi-millionaire at that point. As a billionaire he cut off Apple’s charitable giving. He harangued and harassed the poor service-people making his smoothies. As for the unfortunate Chinese workers making his I- devices, he didn’t seem to give a damn about the conditions under which they worked – conditions which drove some of them to suicide. That wasn’t his problem. His credentials as an A 1 asshole seem unarguable. Yet in reviews of the films about him – one a documentary by Alex Gibney, the other a feature film by written by Aaron Sorkin and directed by Danny Boyle – some reviewers want to give Jobs a pass because he was so so so smart. The implication is that if Jobs weren’t allowed to be an asshole, we wouldn’t have all those groovy devices (the ones that keep so many people glued to the screen rather than relating to each other –something Jobs seemed to prefer, since relationships were harder than marketing the latest Apple invention.)
Sadly a couple of reviewers let Jobs off the hook for his behavior. The Steve Jobs in this film,” writes Farhad Manjoo, “ is not motivated mainly by ego and greed. Instead, what really gets him going is an insatiable desire to ‘put a dent in the universe,’ as Mr. Jobs often put it. Silicon Valley’s insistence on changing the world is usually pilloried in the news media. But here, Mr. Jobs’s mission is accorded respect — and his behavior, the film implies, can be ultimately tolerated because of what he built.” Really, not motivated by ego and greed? Then why did he rip off Steve Wozniak, deny his daughter financial and emotional support, and try to get Apple to give him bigger bonuses even though he was worth billions? http://www.nytimes.com/2015/10/12/technology/in-steve-jobs-tolerating-techs-unpleasant-visionaries.html
In his column in the Times, Joe Nocera also excuses Jobs behavior. “Most important,” Nocera writes, “Sorkin fails to convey Jobs’s unmatched ability to draw talented people to him, and get them to produce their best work.” And then he rips them off or cuts them off afterward.
Why don’t we just stop idolizing assholes, which enables them to continue acting badly? Consider what can happen when the people around assholes stop acquiescing and instead take them to task for their rudeness, abusiveness, and general all round bullying.
Years ago, when I was writing my book Off Balance: The Real World of Ballet, I spent about a week with the Swedish National Ballet in Stockholm. Several months before I got there the great – perhaps greatest ever – dancer Rudolph Nureyev came to be guest choreographer. Nureyev was a genius. Totally. He was also a total asshole. In the US, he used to yell at dancers, even hit them. And because he was the great Rudolph Nureyev and because no one would back them up, dancers took it. But when Nureyev came to Stockholm and started acting like his usual asshole self, the Swedish dancers, rebelled. They walked out and told him they would be delighted to come back and dance for him when he stopped acting like a jerk. No one had ever done that to Nureyev before. And guess what? He reformed. He became a decent person and behaved. His genius was not diminished because he behaved, his dancing no less pyrotechnically stunning. The leopard had not changed its spots, but it had changed its behavior. Which is what we want leopards and asshole to do. But to do that we have to stop coddling them and start insisting that they behave. It’s not all that hard to be a genius. But it’s really hard to be a genius and a mensch!