Sunday, July 8, 2018

Success at What Cost? (Reflections on Disagreeable People and the 4-Hour Workweek)

My family went to watch the big Independence Day fireworks display downtown this weekend, and after a week-long heat advisory, we were granted a reprieve in the form of breezy mid-70s weather on Saturday evening.

The place was packed, and when we arrived an hour and a half before sunset, most of the hillside was already packed with picnic blankets and lawn chairs as people staked out their prime viewing spot.

We found a good spot and tried to keep our two kids entertained while we waited for the sun to set and the show to start. As the first bursts of light filled the sky, I heard a voice behind me firmly say, "Sir! You need to sit down! People have been waiting here for hours to see, and you are in the way. Put your butt on the ground like everyone else!"

I turned to see a woman approaching a man who was standing in the middle of the seated crowd, cell phone in hand, taking pictures of the fireworks. He sighed loudly and walked up two rows (now parallel with me) and continued standing. The people behind him muttered and yelled "sit down!" He didn't move until someone approached him from behind, tapped him on the shoulder, and asked him to move. At that point, he moved up two more rows and slightly to the left and continued to stand.

The man in front of me could no longer see, and his wife went and again asked the man to move. He moved all the way over in the same row, still standing, and there he stayed the rest of the show, most certainly blocking the view of many people who had waited for hours. He obviously knew he was in the way, and he was the only person standing on the hillside as far as the eye could see. He didn't argue or fight with anyone who confronted him, but he didn't let their displeasure have any impact on his actions, either.

I'm sure he got a couple of pretty pictures of the fireworks.

Should We Be Agreeable?

I was recently listening to Malcolm Gladwell's podcast Revisionist History (which I love and highly recommend). One of his recent episodes gives his "12 Rules for Life," which is really only one rule (and I'm about to spoil it, FYI.) His one rule for life is to "pull the goalie," by which he means to do the thing that makes the most logical sense even if it upsets social norms and causes social discomfort. 

Gladwell admits this is a challenge for him, but he looks up to people who do not have this struggle. He identifies them as having a low score on the "agreeableness" spectrum, a psychology term that measures how much people care about upholding social norms. 

Gladwell spends much of the episode exploring how an ability to set aside social expectations can help us make better decisions because, often, social expectations run counter to the smartest, most effective thing to do. 

He speaks of disagreeable people with a kind of awe, as if they have a superpower he would like to possess. How freeing it would be to not care what people think of you and simply act in the way that gets you the best results. What kind of achievements could you reach if you had that kind of free reign? 

Success Without Scruples

Gladwell's thought experiments on agreeableness are interesting and worth considering. After all, social pressure (especially for women, who are socially conditioned to be demure and accommodating) can cause people to miss great opportunities or not receive credit for their work. 

But Gladwell leans a little too hard into the power of disagreeable people because he doesn't follow this line of thought to its logical conclusion. If you maximize your own success without any regard for social consequences, you can end up in a kind of sociopathic hedonism that is destructive and horrifying. 

I got a chance to see this kind of roadmap for success firsthand when I picked up a copy of The 4-Hour Workweek on a whim. See, I've been reading and listening to productivity experts because I think that they're an interesting window into our cultural values (a topic for another day). Timothy Ferriss' best selling book promises in its subtitle to let you "escape 9-5, live anywhere, and join the new rich." 

I have only thumbed through the book so far, but what I have seen left me absolutely shaken. This is a best selling book. Ferriss gets referenced everywhere and has followers and fans who promote his methods to success. This is a cultural touchstone of sorts. 

How does Ferriss provide access to this elusive life of luxury? Well, he is certainly promoting disagreeable qualities. His book's premise is that you should trick, swindle, lie, and exploit your way to leisure. 

The book is ambitious in scope and covers a wide range of topics, but the theme that seems to underly them all is that you put yourself first and any social consequences of your actions out of your mind completely. 

For example, Ferriss recommends creating false contact profiles for your fledgling business to make it appear to have multiple departments when it's really just you and you alone. He also recommends outsourcing as many of your daily tasks as possible to underpaid laborers without any concern for how his exploitation might factor into their own living and working conditions. He talks about examining rules for loopholes and proudly boasts about winning a Chinese kickboxing competition by dehydrating himself to weigh in three weight classes under his actual weight and then winning by technical knockout by simply exploiting a rule about falls to make his aim knocking his opponent over rather than actually learning the sport. 

The Relativity of Ethics

Ferriss' methods are the logical conclusion of Gladwell's well-meaning advice, and my firework-watching friend is a prime example of this mentality in action. 

The thing is, these "tricks" and "advantages" only work as long as you, the person using them, are surrounded by people with more scruples, stronger moral compasses, and more shame. If everyone decides to weigh in three weight classes under their actual weight by dehydrating themselves, then it's not an advantage anymore. It's just a stupid sport where everyone tries to knock each other over instead of displaying any actual skill. If everyone decides to stand while watching the fireworks, only the people in the front row (or those born unusually tall) will get to enjoy the show.

Our sociopolitical systems operate with the underlying assumption that most people will adhere to a general set of ethics most of the time. Obviously, a lot of those assumptions are falling apart in today's society. Trump's crass, abusive, and vulgar comments from the position of President are often held up as the source of this ethical unmooring. As much as I am appalled by his actions and words, though, I am beginning to see that he is a symptom, not the cause. 

Our definitions of success and our worship of capitalism and individualism have created this landscape, and it will take an intentional, meaningful, and probably painful reflection on our humanity and collective values to counteract the results. 

I just hope we don't have to get all the way to everyone standing up at the fireworks before we start doing that work.  

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