Nice Guys Finish…in the Middle?

On a recent truck ride, Beth and I listened to an episode of the podcast, “Invisibilia.” Here it is if you’d like to listen:

I found this episode, “Power Tools,” very enlightening because it gave me a chance to analyze a belief that I had always held about power, earnings, and status. The belief I held was that if an individual is ambitious, works hard, treats others well, and develops their talent/skills, they will rise to the top of their Al profession. Unfortunately, this is bullshit.

While it is true that some nice guys do very well, the social scientists being interviewed were of the opinion that the surest path to the executive suite is reserved for those who know how to use Machiavellian techniques – a collection of methods that most of us nice guys would find inconsistent with our values. Hence the term, “nice guys finish last.” When was the last time you heard that a CEO was “a really sweet guy”? How about never?

This makes a lot of sense to me. Throughout my career in many sales jobs and later in music, I have always found it very difficult to rise above the middle of the pack in terms of power, status, and earnings. I long thought that this was due to some lack of ambition or talent, but the conclusion of the scientists lead me to believe that it is not the quality of my product that is lacking, but the quality of my character that is holding me back. I’m also unwilling to create schlock or follow trends in order to get rich.

So, who does rise to the top and why? I’m going to simplify and simultaneously opine a bit. As I heard it, the researchers determined that affluent people willing to play “the game” are more likely to succeed. These folks are unhampered by a lower or middle-class need to be good, caring, connected people in the workplace. Indeed, these ladder-climbers have no need to create “friends” on the job and they are happy to toss others aside on their way up that ladder. They are in it to win it. Period.

It’s not impossible, say the researchers, for nice guys to rise to the top, but most of the time they rise to middle management and get stuck there. Unwilling to let go of the values their parents taught them as children, these middlemen are typically destined for a life of moderate success. And middle management is perfect for them because interdependence is what they were taught by their parents.

In my case, I remember seeing how things really worked in NYC construction. It was crooked as all hell, macho to the extreme and I wanted nothing to do with it. That’s why I switched from a six-figure job in my twenties (with the opportunity to make lots more) to a value-centered, creative job as a music teacher in schools. And it’s one of the reasons why I married someone who believes, as I do, that all people would be much happier in a gentler world where we valued connection over competition.

Beth encountered this conundrum in her jobs from her teens to the present. And I’ve seen both of my children learn that working hard, while very good for the soul, is not guaranteed to get the plum job with the power and the money to match it. At some point, the door to the executive suite may swing open, but it’s almost always accompanied by this unsavory truth – it’s a jungle and you need to learn how to create fear and even use your fangs from time to time.

One of my old fraternity brothers told me this in confidence: “My business life and my home life are two separate things. The way I treat my family and friends is not the way I treat my co-workers or clients. You have to develop two different sets of values.” Again, I call bullshit.

This is what we call a “dirty truth,” something we’re unhappy about in our workplaces, in politics, and even in our churches. It’s so secret and buried in our subconscious that we allow corporations, politicians and churches to shovel “we’re all a family” bullshit from the pulpit, in ads or on tv, while they act like junkyard dogs in the alley. Their belief is that one has to bite the other guy before he bites us. It’s really quite sick and, unfortunately, it pervades the corridors of power in the good ‘ol USA .

So, why do I feel so good about this podcast? It releases me from the mistaken belief that I am not good enough or that I don’t work hard enough. The truth is – I care too much. I have chosen marriage, children, friendship, faith, creativity, honesty and civility over wealth creation. Whenever I’ve had the opportunity to rise fast, it typically comes at the expense of one of the above values.

In my bones, I’ve always known this to be true. The people I respect – famous or not – are individuals who behave, like my mom and stepfather, with their values as the tiller of their sailboat. In some cases, we catch the wind and do great things that might create some big earnings or power, but on a moment-to-moment basis, we’re connecting with people. We’re interested in the waitress, the custodian and the kid who has to come home to an empty house after school and we’re willing to shape our lives around being with them, not above them.

If I sound a bit idealistic, that’s who I am. I am a dreamer, a man who has owned nice cars, a thousand-dollar suit and a home in the suburbs. The truth is, however, those things owned me! So, I had it and I gave it up for something better. Like one of my heroes, John Lennon, I learned that the pursuit of wealth is nothing compared with the pursuit of wisdom and, eventually, the belief that love is all you need.

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