On Women, Narcissists, Servants and Success

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I love reading Clay Shirky. Don’t always agree, but the man makes me think…

A few days ago, he shared an essay entitled A Rant About Women that began:

So I get email from a good former student, applying for a job and asking for a recommendation. “Sure”, I say, “Tell me what you think I should say.” I then get a draft letter back in which the student has described their work and fitness for the job in terms so superlative it would make an Assistant Brand Manager blush.

So I write my letter, looking over the student’s self-assessment and toning it down so that it sounds like it’s coming from a person and not a PR department, and send it off. And then, as I get over my annoyance, I realize that, by overstating their abilities, the student has probably gotten the best letter out of me they could have gotten.

Now, can you guess the gender of the student involved?

Of course you can. My home, the Interactive Telecommunications Program at NYU, is fairly gender-balanced, and I’ve taught about as many women as men over the last decade. In theory, the gender of my former student should be a coin-toss. In practice, I might as well have given him the pseudonym Moustache McMasculine for all the mystery there was. And I’ve grown increasingly worried that most of the women in the department, past or present, simply couldn’t write a letter like that.

This worry isn’t about psychology; I’m not concerned that women don’t engage in enough building of self-confidence or self-esteem. I’m worried about something much simpler: not enough women have what it takes to behave like arrogant self-aggrandizing jerks.

Before you go nuts, the piece made a lot of interesting points. You should read it.

But, it was what was left unsaid that bothered me most.

The assumption that, regardless of sex…

You need to be an “arrogant self-aggrandizing jerk” in order to get ahead in life.

I can’t agree with this.

Does being a flagrant, public narcissist get attention?

Without fail.

But, to what end?

It may make certain people blink and fawn, but it makes many more vomit.

Maybe it’s the circles I run in, but most people I know are drawn in far more by a sense of quiet confidence and deep presence than showmanship. Most become convinced of an individual’s ability to contribute on a meaningful level not by what that individual says, but by the wake they’ve left behind and the things OTHER people say about them.

Indeed, the most successful people I know have built their fortunes and fulfillment not under the limelight of narcissism, but on a foundation of service to others. They’ve embodied the qualities of what’s come to be known as Servant Leaders. Quiet, confidence, purposeful, open, fearless, direct, yet kind and driven to serve others.

They elevate themselves through the process of elevating others.

What I’m saying is…whether women do or don’t have “what it takes to behave like arrogant self-aggrandizing jerks” is largely irrelevant. Because these qualities, male or female-bound, have little if any causative relationship with genuine, lasting success.

So, what do YOU think?

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26 responses

26 responses to “On Women, Narcissists, Servants and Success”

  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by remarkablogger and TwittyBean, Santi Chacon. Santi Chacon said: On Women, Narcissists, Servants and Success: I love reading Clay Shirky. Don’t always agree, but the man makes me … http://bit.ly/7bD3Qh […]

  2. Lori Hoeck says:

    I’ve taught martial arts students for years that inner strength and presenting a command presence (when needed) is about resolve, personal responsibility, and tenacity. When you are comfortable in your own skin, being a jerk is counterproductive to relationships.

  3. What “being a jerk” to me means is that if you are driven and passionate about achieving a result, then some people will think you are a jerk. It goes with the territory.

  4. Hugh says:

    I couldn’t agree more. We all know people who are arrogant, self-serving jerks who get ahead. While they may be successful in a certain arena of life – money, houses, power, etc. – they don’t embody the success I wish to have or the type of person I wish to be. I think that for most of these people, success will be parochial and short-lived. It’s not a sustainable type of success. I try my best to avoid this type of people, whether it be in business or in friendships. Life’s too short and there are just too many awesome people out there to get to know.

  5. In order to leave a wake, one must by definition make at least a few small waves.

  6. Tom says:

    Definitely building your business on helping others is far more sustainable than being a self-centered jerk. What I love about these self-evident truths is that everyone knows them, but it takes a lot to really understand what they mean.

  7. Jeffrey Tang says:

    First of all, thanks for turning me on to Clay Shirky’s stuff – a lot of fascinating reading and thinking going on there.

    On the topic of narcissism, I think that it does have some magnetic qualities. Narcissism can often masquerade (thinly) as confidence, glamour, and importance. If nothing else, it gets attention, even if that attention comes through vilification. See Jon and Kate. People love to trash them, but that trashing is still attention. And I’d argue that a large segment of the population doesn’t really see, understand, or care about the difference between narcissism and confidence.

    Arrogance can be a turn-off, but it can also open certain doors. Sad but true.

  8. joanna says:

    I fully agree – why on earth would anyone want to behave like a jerk, let alone an arrogant and self-aggrandizing one, is beyond me.

  9. I think it really depends on how you define what it means to be a successful person. In certain cases being a shark will get you ahead, ie. success, but what will it do for you personally, socially, emotionally? Certainly it would be difficult to garner success in those areas being an “arrogant self-aggrandizing jerk”. I do, however, think that people can have long term financial success though with this attitude, unfortunately.

  10. A servant leader, huh?

    I would go so far as to say that a servant leader is the only kind of true leader there is. Self-aggrandizing leaders aren’t really leading — they may be telling people what to do, but as long as they remain self-centered, it’s not leadership.

    I’m in my twenties and I’m a musical director for musical theater and Broadway shows. I wish I had known that true leaders are servants when I started out a few years ago. I am still gaining a deeper understanding of this truth with each new project I take on.

  11. Thanks for asking once again.

    I have and am dealing with issue as we speak. I am a recent graduate of a great university in accountancy and finance. I did well in school and I got interviews, but I never got the job.

    It kept bugging me. Why? The simple answer was that I undersold myself or as Ramit calls it – I devalued myself. I undersold myself.

    Don’t get me wrong, I knew I could do things and do them well, but I never though of myself as the best out there. Maybe the problem was that I was comparing myself to the best of the best! But then again, to me it really is not the problem, because I want to be the best of the best one day as well!

    So, while I was trying to compensate for under valuing myself, I became overly confident and even arrogant. Just like you pointed out, that did nothing good for me. I could not find the middle of which you speak: the quiet confidence.

    I believe that it is key to long lasting success. Being confident, but not arrogant. Knowing what you want, but not being pushy. Knowing your self-worth and not settling for less than you know you are worth.

    Achieving that is the tough part.

    At the very least, now I know what exactly to aim for in my life and in my interviews when looking for a job: quiet confidence.

    Thanks Jonathan!


    • Thomas,

      I’m 100% with you on this one. Upon graduation a lot of students are not sure how to portray themselves. Its a very thin line between under-selling and being a cocky SOB. Finding that mid-point is definitely difficult but without question – is achievable. It takes a lot of soul searching but if you can let your actions do the talking for you – You’ll be better off down the stretch.

  12. Hi Jonathan – Thanks for the rec of Clay’s post. The comments on it were great, too.

    While the line between boorish and narcissistic behavior can seem blurry, there are a few levels of jerkdom between them. Jerks aren’t always compensating for something lacking in themselves as much as they’re choosing to be jerky because they can. Real narcissists can’t stop. But the kind of person you describe – quietly confident, purposeful and fearless – will stop a narcissist in his tracks.

    People can learn to be more aware of their choices with respect to these difficult people, rather than having to accept dealing with them as their due. It will be interesting to see where this conversation goes. Thanks.

  13. I totally agree with you. Being an arrogant jerk may get you ahead, but it’s a lonely place once this type of person gets there.

    If what Clay is saying is true, then as a woman, I’m glad I don’t have “what it takes to behave like arrogant self-aggrandizing jerks”. I’d much rather be known as knowledgeable, intelligent, and well-spoken.

  14. I certainly do not want women to be self-aggrandizing jerks. However, I do feel women need to be more vocal on our skills and successes. Not to get ahead at the expense of others, but to make sure we don’t get passed up.

    Women and men need to find that proper balance of “look what I can do” and simply letting our actions speak for themselves.

  15. Sandra says:

    It IS the circle of friends you run with Jonathan. You know and associate with cool people, and I hate to break it to you, but we are the minority. Over the last few years, I have become more and more irritated with the lack of etiquette and general social civility in the US. Having said that, corporate America still seems to run on this old notion of kill or be killed. Why do you think so many of us are running for the hills (aka social media and the internet). People suck, and yes, they still get ahead in traditional businesses.

    I was just coaching an introverted, creative friend who had an interview coming up. I gave her some pointers on how to really sell herself without lying through her teeth. She really appreciated it. I think that we women could really gain from an “How to Interview” course so that we can show how fantastic we are with out looking like an idiot.

  16. mckra1g says:

    I think that there is a difference between being aggressive and assertive. Aggressive is rooted in fear and scarcity, and is thus more abrasive. Assertive is rooted in confidence and abundance and is thus more assured.

    If I know that I have the skills to do any given job, I will state my qualifications clearly and cleanly, releasing the outcome of the decision (assertive). If it’s in my future, cool; if it’s not, there’s another bus (opportunity) coming along any minute.

    Aggressive is pushing everyone else out of the way, standing on the bench by the bus stop and screaming your resume at the top of your lungs. Yeah, you may get attention, but everyone you just pushed out of the way is 1. gunning for you and 2. hoping that you’ll fall flat on your face.

    For the purpose of this blogpost, I think that belief in oneself is the variable that matters as opposed to assumptions of gender. However, I will say (as the parent of three daughters), I had to take specific measures while raising them to reinforce the trait of self-confidence against socially-propagated myths of the abilities/qualities of women.

  17. Linda says:

    I hate to go against the consensus here, but there is definitely a place for jerk-dome. Maybe you could call it confidence, maybe sense of self.

    My situation is I am nice, thoughtful, kind. I am not appreciated because I do not demand to be appreciated. People don’t know how great I am, because I don’t tell them.

    In business, I often feel like I’m swimming with sharks. This is where the benefit of being a jerk comes into play. Posturing and strutting feels so fake to me, but when I have a short time to make an impression I need to put on an act of bravado, even if that is not my nature. To display my accommodating nature means I will be taken advantage of, by people who really are jerks.

    So, I am sorry to say, I do agree with Clay Shirky. In the short term, acting like a jerk benefits the jerk. If you want to get ahead, you’ve got to be willing to go for it.

  18. Had this same conversation on Scott Berkun’s blog, and I’ll repeat what I said there: Maybe I’m missing a subtlety here, but it seems to me Shirky is saying that, since women don’t usually succumb to those extreme versions of self-promotion as naturally as men do, they are also less likely to make artful use of the beneficial and positive versions of those bad behaviours.

    I think it’s horrific to think of a world where women try to be more like men. I’m powerfully in favor of a world where men try to be more like women.

    Perhaps it’s my huge respect for Shirky’s writing and thinking that makes me look for an understanding that fits better than the literal and extreme interpretation many have given his comments.

  19. Cathy says:

    Thanks for introducing me to Clay Shirk!

    I don’t care for the self-aggrandizing arrogant jerks myself, but I didn’t read Clay’s post that way. This sentence struck me as true:

    “To put yourself forward as someone good enough to do interesting things is, by definition, to expose yourself to all kinds of negative judgments, and as far as I can tell, the fact that other people get to decide what they think of your behavior leaves only two strategies for not suffering from those judgments: not doing anything, or not caring about the reaction.”

    Reminds me of college days. In one class I got a B- because of my “lack of participation” (aka not speaking up). That B Minus, amongst other Pass/Fail courses that semester really fouled up my overall GPA.

    Fast forward a few years. I’m taking Econ 101 at a local university. The guys shout out the answers to the prof’s questions so I quit raising my hand and started shouting out answers, too. I felt somewhat uncomfortable and the other girls clearly disapproved (stares, whispers, giggles, ignoring me, etc) but class participation was part of the grade and I wanted the best grade I could get.

    Was I a jerk? My female classmates might say yes. My prof might well say no. Who knows? I learned my lesson, and got my A.

  20. Well, you’ve heard the saying, “If you haven’t tooted your own horn, you haven’t heard good music.”?

    It’s hard to set yourself apart in a competitive environment and not everyone is suited to the entrepreneurial life.

  21. John Bardos says:

    It is one thing to have confidence in your skills and abilities and market yourself in a favorable way and another to fabricate stories and bend the truth just to get the cash.

    I personally am getting a little tired of all the exaggerated claims.

    Book a meeting room at Harvard and you are a ‘Harvard Lecturer’

    Never get a real job and you are ‘self-employed my entire adult life.”

    Work in an English school and you are a ‘linguistic expert.”

    The marketers selling ebooks and training programs are even more deceptive. “Only for the first 50 signups.” “One time only.” “Demand on the servers was so high that it crashed.” “Sorry, I made a mistake on that last link and many of you emailed to say you couldn’t register. Here it is again.”

    I think astute evaluators can see through those non-sense claims but there are a lot of gullible people ready to buy ebooks and training programs who are not.

    Is it okay to get the sale or job at any cost? Do the ends really justify the means?

  22. jskipburns says:

    neat article and great response to it Mr. Fields, but what’s really cool is the discussion that’s coming up amongst the comments. Nice job getting that going.

    I totally concur with:
    Lisa Robbins Young
    Cathy (well that was a neat story)

    I sort of concur with Joel D Canfield

    It’s tough and difficult, but just be yourself…unless you’re a jerk by nature. Then you should stop being yourself. Immediately.

    skip “not a jerk” burns

  23. I’m in the entertainment industry, and the rules there are simple: There aren’t any. I think it’s most important to be yourself, actually, no matter what niche you’re in, and if you’re “That guy,” maybe that works for you….

  24. Mrs. Micah says:

    Thought-provoking. For myself, there’s a certain point after which I will basically write off anyone who’s too much a self-aggrandizing jerk. I may maintain basic contact, especially in a professional way, but I will do absolutely nothing on my own to help them get ahead. I won’t recommend them, I won’t offer advice when I think I can help them. It’s not even a conscious thing, they just don’t make it into the network of “people I care about.”

    At the same time, I struggle with the desire to minimize a lot of my accomplishments (it amuses me that a recent troll on my site criticized my having written about accomplishments recently–under a female pseudonym, though since it was a troll I don’t know gender). I’m applying to graduate school and learning to find that balance between being aware and confident and being obnoxious.

    I prefer interacting with men and women who know what they have to offer but who don’t irk me by constantly needing reassurance or by constantly bragging about their successes. Middle road. 🙂

  25. Barbara Winter says:

    This post comes at a time when I’ve been watching and wondering about a couple of very popular narcissists. I, too, admire the kind of quiet leader that you describe so am perplexed that someone who seems only to be interested in themselves could attract so many followers. Maybe, like me, many of them are just watching in horrified amazement.