6 Life Lessons You Can Learn From Successful A**holes
“He’s such an asshole. How come he gets all the glory?” – You, the hardworking nice guy.
We want what these douchebags have – the money, the women, the jet-setting lifestyle, the fulfilling career – but without resorting to the dickish power moves.
The problem with trying to follow in the footsteps of assholes is that it’s too easy to focus on their bad behaviour, like the lying and the bullying and the sadistic abuse they giddily inflict, and miss what they’re actually doing right.
“Assholes don’t succeed because they’re assholes,” says Aaron James, a professor of philosophy at UC Irvine and the author of Assholes: A Theory. “The asshole tendencies make it easier for them to accept some basic strategies for getting ahead that nice guys might forget.”
A lot of conduct that may look like assholery isn’t, James says. And the theory isn’t that you should simply “play nice”. You have to assess what’s appropriate on a case-by- case basis, and sometimes make unpopular decisions. What makes the difference is remaining aware of the consequences. Assholes aren’t so conscientious, James says.
You can prioritise yourself and be content with winning, but you don’t have to destroy the competition too. Here’s how assholes do it:
1. Be Overconfident Even If You’re Clueless
What do Gene Simmons and Muhammad Ali have in common? They both considered themselves extraordinary long before anyone else did. “I am the greatest,” Ali said. “I said that even before I knew I was.”
Why It Works: David Dunning, a social psychologist at the University of Michigan, helped come up with a theory to explain this reality disconnect. The Dunning-Kruger Effect, as it’s called, is a cognitive bias where incompetent people don’t recognize their own incompetence, says Dunning. Lacking the skills or talent for a task but taking it on anyway can be a bad idea, like if you’re piloting a plane or doing surgery. But when the risks are lower, self-confidence can pay off.
“Michael Jordan, long before he was a superstar, was asked what he thinks about before he takes a shot,” James says. “Jordan replied that he always thinks he’s going to make it. He only made it half the time, but he never thought about that in the moment of shooting.” The facts didn’t matter to Jordan until his ability caught up to what his head was telling him.
Make It Work For You: You don’t have to be as talented as Jordan or as arrogant as Simmons to benefit from some dubious self- belief. “The true asshole will deny, deny, deny any evidence against him, perhaps convincing himself that others are being unfair to him,”James says.
At the same time, you don’t have to stoop to that level of self-deception. There is no fake news when it comes to your potential, only in accepting the outcome of a best foot forward. “It’s not about denying the evidence,” says James. “It’s just not caring about it. Any evidence, good or bad, has limited relevance until you try.”
2. Be Immune To Criticism
Assholes are strangely unfazed when confronted with their own assholery. Remember that time when Kanye West publicly admitted, “I’ve read the complaints about my embarrassingly narcissistic behaviour, and you raise some valid points”?
Of course you don’t. Because it never happened.
Why It Works: It’s not just that they’re ignoring the critics; assholes might honestly not realize they’re being criticised at all. In a 2014 experiment with 338 MBA students at Columbia University, people took part in fierce negotiations and were later asked to assess how they thought the others perceived them. Sixty-four percent of those who had behaved like assholes – pushy, loud, aggressive – believed their fellow group members probably thought they acted appropriately, or even less assertively than they should have acted.
Make It Work For You: Billionaire businessman Mark Cuban has received his fair share of criticism – some mean-spirited, some legit – and he doesn’t universally ignore all of it. Nor does he give his haters his total time and attention. Instead, he trusts his instincts without forgetting to “check my hole cards,” he says. For non- poker types, the hole cards are dealt face-down, which could make or break your hand.
“You never look at your hole cards just once,” Cuban says. “It’s smart to always check to make sure you’re right.” That’s how Cuban says he responds to criticism. He doesn’t ignore it, and he doesn’t acknowledge it directly. But it might be a reason to check his hole cards one more time.
3. Be Your Biggest Fan
While accepting his Best Actor Oscar in 2014, Matthew McConaughey revealed the identity of his childhood hero. “It’s me in 10 years,” he said, with a big, shit-eating grin. Across the globe, in dozens of languages, millions of viewers muttered, “What an asshole.”
Why It Works: McConaughey isn’t the first narcissist inspired by his own reflection. In a 2015 study from the University of Amsterdam, researchers concluded that powerful figures are more inspired by their own tales of glory than by the accomplishments of others.
“They tend to inflate their own importance, and that just reinforces their feelings of self-worth,” says social psychologist Gerben van Kleef, the lead researcher.
Make It Work For You: If you stuck around for the rest of McConaughey’s speech, it started to make sense. His hero isn’t really himself, he said, it’s his vision of himself – his ideal of who he could become in 10 years. Cuban has a similar definition. “I don’t get inspired by myself,” he says. “I get inspired by my competitive spirit.” It still sounds smug, but it also makes sense, at least to San Diego psychologist Erika Kao.
“McConaughey looks to a future self to inspire personal growth. That can be very healthy,” she says. “However, many powerful, high-achieving people find inspiration in themselves and get wrapped up in the pursuit of perfection. It’s easy to put down, neglect, and exploit others for personal gain. Remember that moderation is key.”
4. Be The Squeaky Wheel (Who Knows When To Shut Up)
If an asshole is upset, you’re definitely going to hear about it. It’s hard not to cringe when you see an asshole scolding a waiter. Does the guy really need to be so unrelentingly rude about everything?
Why It Works: During Steve Jobs’s reign at Apple, a chip supplier said it couldn’t finish an order on the timetable promised, so Jobs burst into a meeting with its executives and called them “fucking dickless assholes.” Not exactly constructive criticism, but it did the trick. The order was delivered on time. The strategy also works outside of Silicon Valley.
Many companies have a “squeaky-wheel system” of customer service, conceding to the loudest complainers just to make them go away. Also, complaining can be good for you: research shows that if you drop enough f-bombs while complaining, it can increase your tolerance for pain.
Make It Work For You: The reason a squeaky wheel gets the grease is because the wheel used to be quiet and now it’s not. A constantly squeaky wheel is easily ignored. Stanford professor Robert Sutton, author of The Asshole Survival Guide, notes that great sports coaches lose their temper only when they need to.
“If they’re always screaming, eventually their players will think, ‘Well, it’s not me, it’s him, he’s just an asshole.’ But when a typically calm and collected coach loses it, everybody pays attention.” Also, fake anger is easily detectable, research shows. “We’re hardwired to recognize fake emotional displays, rendering such displays less effective,” says Fadel Matta, a professor of management at the University of Georgia who has studied why jerks are (or aren’t) effective.
5. Eat and Exercise Like You’re Superior
It’s not that eating right and exercising makes you an insufferable jerk. (We hope not, anyway, because then we’d all be assholes here at MH!) It’s that some mofos are so arrogant and self-absorbed that they can’t accept anything less than physical perfection. “Narcissism is positively related to self-esteem,” says psychologist Erin Hill, of Pennsylvania’s West Chester University. Her research reveals that assholes tend to be more physically fit and experience fewer mental health problems, including anxiety and depression.
Why It Works: There’s something about healthy eating that justifies antisocial behaviour. In a 2012 study by Loyola University in New Orleans, researchers concluded that exposure to organic foods “can lead to harsher moral judgments”.
If participants viewed organic apples instead of, say, ice cream or mustard (their examples), they were significantly less likely to volunteer to help a needy stranger. The study authors think that organic foods may make you feel as though you’ve already done your good deed and are free to act unethically. Our take: maybe because you’re so hungry, you’re like, “Screw that homeless guy. Can I get some carbs before I punch a baby?”
Make It Work For You: The same narcissism that inspires assholes to work out, ironically, can be a reason they often sabotage themselves with risky behaviours such as drinking, drug use, and gambling. The trick is to find a happy medium – what Hill calls the “right” level of narcissism – between feeling like a god and remembering you’re mortal.
6. There’s No “I” in “Asshole”
Assholes are selfish. But sometimes they convince their followers they’re acting like assholes to serve the greater good. It’s why some CEOs and leaders get away with being such colossal dicks. As Republican congressman Duncan Hunter said about Trump, “He’s an asshole, but he’s our asshole.”
Why It Works: People are surprisingly forgiving of bad behaviour if they think it’ll benefit them. In a University of Amsterdam study, people were unimpressed with an asshole who stole coffee just for himself. If, however, he swiped a cup for the other guy, suddenly he was a hero and was rated as more powerful.
Make It Work For You: True assholes are rarely as selfless as they claim to be, and sooner or later their followers figure out that they’ve been had. When you promise to put others before yourself and then follow through, it can have life-extending benefits, such as lower blood pressure and reduced symptoms of depression.
But don’t be a pushover. The perfect balance is somewhere between asshole and saint. Being too generous without taking care of your own needs leads to stress, burnout, and crappy health. “The goal is to find opportunities that allow you to be good to yourself and to others,” says psychologist Jennifer Crocker, the study’s lead author. “A non-zero-sum.”