How (not) to be an asshole

BMW 7-series
BMW 7-series

My dictionary suggests that asshole means a stupid or vulgar person. But that doesn’t capture the current usage. An asshole is a person who puts their own interests ahead of the people around them. Assholes push into queues, threaten you if you call them out, perv on vulnerable people, take up three seats on a train when there are people standing, shout into their phones in crowded places. Assholes think that their opinion is the only one worth hearing. Assholes talk but don’t listen. Assholes drive too fast in built-up areas or reverse their cars over the sidewalk without looking. They feel entitled to service and disregard the humanity of the person serving them. Assholes pay themselves huge salaries while ranting about how the poor should work harder. The biggest assholes are proud of it and build monuments to their assholery.

Self-interest is a personality trait

Some degree of self-interest is necessary for survival. For example, it’s natural to fight for the interests of our children to get them the best start in life, even if this is at the expense of others. (This is a particular problem for some left-wing politicians, who recognise that the greater good would be served by having equal opportunities in education, but are unwilling to have this principle applied to their own children. The Labour politician Diane Abbot sent her son to a private school. Maybe that makes her a hypocrite, which is  a brand of asshole, but to deny her child what she thought of as the benefit of private education because of her own politics would make her equally selfish, but this time favouring her career over the interests of her child.)

Any lifestyle short of being a monk or nun can be seen as selfish to some degree. If I buy a cup of coffee for myself rather than giving the money to a homeless person, I am selfish. On a planet that’s stretched for resources, having children is a selfish act. If property is theft then anyone who owns anything is selfish. I am not suggesting this level of self-interest is wrong. Property and money lead to inequality but they are ways of making life better for the majority of people. So far no-one has come up with a better system, so we accept a certain background level of self-interest in other people and in ourselves. But when people are exceptionally selfish, we can start to regard them as assholes. Perhaps there should be an entry in DSM-6 for Asshole Personality Disorder – an excess of selfishness and self-esteem.

Power corrupts

Power corrupts largely because it’s tempting for a person in power to eliminate opposing voices and to surround themself with sycophants. Listening to the sycophants confirms the impression that the powerful person is special. People like this come to believe that any thought they have is true simply because they thought it. If you are surrounded by acclaim, and you aren’t hearing criticism, your mind is being poisoned. But chances are you won’t be able to see this.

An interesting thing happens when people who are used to acclaim step out of their zone of power and into an area where what matters is true talent. Some bluster it out, demonstrating that they are assholes to the core. Others understand what is going on, recognise their own limitations, and are humble. The world would be a better place if all assholes could have this experience.

Not all people with self-esteem are assholes. But you can’t be a proper asshole without it. There’s a form of self-esteem in which a person thinks that what they do is good, by definition. So that makes them a good person. There’s an equivalent form of low self-esteem in which a person thinks what they do is bad, by definition, and that makes them a bad person. These models of self-esteem have little to do with any objective valuation of the quality of what a person does (if such a thing even exists).

There’s an obvious fallacy here: doing something well doesn’t make you a good person, just an ordinary person who is good at something. You only have to look at world-champions, rock stars and politicians, and so on, to see this. Not having a particular skill doesn’t make you a bad person, either.

But people are impressed by a person who has self-esteem. State something with confidence and people hear the confidence, not the logic/illogic of what you’ve said. This can be a bad thing.

Charm, charisma, self-esteem and confidence lend power to what a person does, and this complicates the question of how to measure the value of what they do. If you measure value by popularity, in many cases charisma matters more than quality. However, if you insist that quality determines the value of a work, you may be disregarding popular opinion, which makes you a snob, another brand of asshole.

How to tell if you’re an asshole

Here’s a simple test: Do you think that you are more important than other people? Should people get out of the way when you’re in a hurry? Are you entitled to have more than other people? Should people defer to you? Does some skill or talent that you have make you better than other people? Does the money that you have make you better than other people? Are you simply better than other people for no particular reason? Do you push into queues? Do you ignore speed limits? Do you park on double yellow lines? Do you evade tax? Do you award yourself an eye-watering salary? Do you argue that your eye-watering salary is necessary to attract the best?

If the answer to any of these questions is yes, you are an asshole. And if that’s a revelation, and it bothers you, then perhaps you should stop doing it.

Having self-esteem without being an asshole

It’s obvious that low self-esteem is bad for a person’s well-being, and that high self-esteem can be useful. How can we go about having high self-esteem without becoming an asshole?

Maybe we need to separate our view of what we do from our view of ourselves. Whatever we have done, like Zaphod Beeblebrox we’re all just this guy, you know? We can aim for excellence without thinking that achieving it makes us better than the people around us. We do things to fulfil ourselves, not to beat everybody else. And if like Bill Gates we find ourselves with a pile of money, we can at least use it to help other people. (In my opinion, the Bill Gates Foundation doesn’t totally redeem Bill Gates, but it goes a long way towards it).

A person who underrates their own work has an advantage. They are never satisfied, and will always work hard to improve. They may recognise the quality of their work, but it is never good enough. In contrast, people who overrate themselves don’t get far, because they don’t see the need. Overrating your own work is a particular danger for novices. So here’s a rule of thumb for people starting on learning something new. Recognise that everyone starting out is crap and that includes you. Compare yourself with the best in the field rather than the people around you. If your comparison doesn’t show you’re crap you’re not looking hard enough. Anytime you feel you are good enough, go look again at the best in the field and feel the distance you still have to go. Every so often you can look back down the mountain and see how far you have climbed, and you can be pleased with your progress. But there’s always room for humility and there’s never room for complacency or self-satisfaction. If someone achieves success they should remember that it is a matter of luck; luck to have had the passion and the opportunity to succeed. They should be grateful for this rather than proud.

Love your work

Humility is not the same as low self-esteem. We may aim high, but we can also accept that what we do is fit for purpose. Even when we know that we are not perfect, and our work is not perfect, we can have confidence in ourselves and in our work. A piece of work can be good enough for a particular application at a particular time. If when you present your work you make it clear that you think it’s crap, the audience/client/customer/patient will agree, and you will fail. At the moment of presentation it is appropriate to love your work. Warts and all. (Kenny Werner is particularly strong on this, in a jazz context, but his words are worth listening to for everyone.)

Acclaim and criticism are both dangers

Performers and writers often say that you should never read reviews. And I’m sure that this is right. A critic can’t praise everything that you do, or their writing is banal and worthless. It’s their job to find something wrong. If you read a criticism and believe it, this can damage your confidence and your performance. You should accept criticism only from trusted mentors, and regard all the rest as merely someone’s opinion.

The same applies to praise. You’ll get it all over the place. If you accept it, it can boost your self-satisfaction, and damage your faculties of self-criticism. So you should accept praise only from a trusted mentor, and regard the rest as just someone’s opinion.

How to deal with acclaim

There’s a paradox here. You do something well and this shows that you had the application to learn, the antennae to understand what is required, the nerves to stand up in front of people and do the thing. This make you attractive, and gives you power in the same way that physical attributes give you power. But you recognise that this doesn’t make you a better person. Now, someone comes to you and praises your work. They are excited to talk to you. They admire you. How do you deal with that? If your habit is to be self-critical you may be tempted to say that the work wasn’t very good. But a self-critical response makes you an asshole, because it suggests that your admirer’s judgement is poor, that the only judgement that matters is your own. On the other hand, if you accept their comments as true, you become complacent, and that makes you an asshole too.

When people praise my work, I say something like “I’m glad you liked it.” And I leave it at that.