Does success require you to be a shitty person?
ambition and kindness: can you only pick one? let’s discuss
I’d like to give a shoutout to my friend from high school who kinda ruined my life. Or at least, I thought he was my friend, until I realized he’d been lying to me for the prior six months. I only realized this once we were already partners in a semester-long project, in a notoriously difficult class that involved toiling for hours in the lab after school. So basically I was stuck inside a cave with a snake. The best part? All the teachers loved him and he went to Princeton.
What defines a “shitty” person? Everyone is kind of shitty in their own way, but some people are shittier than others. Things like: taking advantage of your partner’s insecurities to give yourself more power, or dropping a friend once they no longer have something useful to offer you, or blasting music at full volume each night knowing your roommate is trying to sleep. Or smaller things, like constantly speaking over others in conversation, or repeatedly saying “dinner’s on me next time!” and never following through.
Of course, everyone has their reasons for doing the things they do. Hurt people hurt people, and politeness is no measure of anyone’s character: sometimes people are just busy or their social norms are different or they have bigger problems to deal with. But over the course of months or years of getting to know someone, you sometimes develop a sense that they view other people primarily as an instrument for their own advancement. Regrettably, my experience in high school led me to believe that these are the kinds of people who succeed.
But I’ve been relieved to learn since then that some conventionally successful people are actually very caring and attentive. I’ve met people from fancy brand-name universities who were kind to me when they really didn’t need to be: people who left the party with me and held my hand when I was having an off night, people who stuck with me even when I failed or embarrassed myself. I met the founder of a unicorn who said that he had to let go of an early engineer because despite his technical brilliance he was just a mean person, which is something that in high school I could not have imagined a successful founder saying. I also could not have imagined a billionaire CEO saving the life of a random stranger on the bathroom floor.
Not all successful people are shitty, but are most of them shitty? Does reaching the upper rungs of conventional success require increasing selfishness, greed, or disregard for others? I don’t know. I just know that if you look hard enough, you can find a conventionally successful person with any kind of character: wise or unwise, selfish or selfless, generous or greedy, spiteful or loving. The world is big enough and interconnected enough to have a near-infinite panoply of subcultures, each of which rewards slightly different kinds of behavior.
If you’re in my corner of twitter you’ve probably heard of Visa, the prolific tweeter, writer, and scene-builder. When an account that had parodied Visa’s tweets for months shut down, Visa could have easily dunked on the guy with a “hahaha bye hater!!” But instead he wrote up a retrospective on the psychology of being an online hater, and expressed sympathy for him. Separately he has created a monthly “underfollowed” list for the past several years, elevating the voices of new people in the scene. All of this on twitter, the place that most of my non-twitter friends view as a cesspool of hostility and outrage.
By many people’s standards Visa has achieved substantial success (sold many books, built a global internet community and substantial online following), and he is also a considerate and charitable person, at least by the evidence we can gather from his millions of words of online interaction. More importantly: he has fostered an environment of people who abide by the norms of friendliness that he tries to model. A scene that stands in stark contrast to my high school.
I don’t mean to put anyone on a pedestal: everyone has flaws and has been shitty in their own ways, myself included. The point I’m making is that it’s possible to do big things in the world and also be generous and principled. Ambition is just choosing to believe that more is achievable, and the “more” can be anything. It can be a “more” that devours the world, or it can be a “more” that nourishes it. It can be driven by narcissism or it can be driven by curiosity and compassion.
Everyone has had the experience of being burned by the shittiness of another person, and it burns even more to watch that person go on to accumulate praise and status. I’ve found, though, that holding on to mistrust and cynicism will make your world an increasingly hostile place. To be ambitious is to not settle for “the world rewards shitty people”, but instead to work hard to nudge it towards something else: a world that is more loving, more fair, more considerate.
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