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Being “mean”
isn’t always
the key to success

March 2000

disponibile anche in italiano

  Giancarlo Livraghi
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For quite a while we’ve been living with reverse rhetoric. The "good boys" still win occasionally in fairy tales, sentimental movies and police sitcoms. But the prevailing myth is the opposite: success is for the shrewd, the ruthless, the selfish, the "lean and mean" or the crooks. Being "good" is often understood as being stupid (or hypocritical). Caring for other people is the mark of the loser (pretending to care can be part of a winner’s tactics, as long as it isn’t done too seriously and it doesn’t distract him from minding his own business.)

Of course the myth of "goodness" always winning was misleading. But so it its opposite. The "bad guys" in the money and power game often get tangled in their own lies and fall into fairly obvious traps that their arrogance overlooks. The ruthless and the greedy can be hurt just as badly as the hapless that get trampled in the rush.

Mean people are often stupid. In his classic definition of stupidity, Carlo Cipolla explains that "intelligent" people are those who do good for themselves and for others, "bandits" are those who do good for themselves but harm others, "stupid" are those who harm themselves and others. Many of the ruthless and selfish are bandits that stumble easily into stupidity; but they are too egotistic, hurried and megalomaniac to understand what they are doing.

We are taught to be selfish. To care for ourselves, our family, our immediate environment – and money über alles. To pay lip-service to issues of common good, fairness and civility, occasionally support some charity... but concentrate on greed and serve the rich and powerful so we can share in their fortune (or so we hope).

Power is sexy, money is elegant; the rest is a shabby, colorless mass that sometimes can be exploited and otherwise is better ignored. It’s useful, of course, to bring to the limelight the few that win a lottery – or are displayed here and there in the media circus, and become famous for a while; just to keep up the illusion that there is "opportunity for all". But that’s just cosmetics, to keep the shabby crowds quiet while they watch the glamorous fashion shows crammed with extreme luxurious unclothing that not even the rich and beautiful will ever really wear.

Let the masses join the gambling in the stock exchange. Let a few win, for a while. It makes the show popular, the big money-mongers admired. Who cares if some not-so-rich people ruin themselves? In the merry-go-round there will be enough winners to sustain the delusion of "easy money for all".

I know lots of young people who want to get rich very quickly. They expect to "make their first million dollars" before they are 30, or even sooner; to join the club of the very rich or to be able to retire in luxury while they are young. A few will succeed. Many will not. They are bright, well-educated people. Whatever happens they will have a good career, a well-paid job. But they will have to work for a living, and that will make them terribly disappointed – maybe unhappy for the rest of their lives. In the meantime they will have made a number of unpleasant (and unsuccessful) compromises that they will live to regret.

Not all the pretty girls who line up for the casting couches become stars or wealthy divorcees. Not all the people, young or old, who are prepared to compromise their ethics and human standards for a "quick kill" are successful. Quite to the contrary, most of them fail – and get thrown back into an ordinary world that they no longer like or understand.

Is this a clever, efficient, intelligent system? Is this the only standard available in today’s economy and culture? It this our only choice – other than dreaming of fairy tales and lost paradises? That’s nonsense. Reality can be quite crude and we are not living in a world in which "goodness" and caring are always rewarded. But the opposite isn’t true, either.

It’s no coincidence that in discussions about the internet we hear so much about community, sharing, customer care and customer power. The net is not a universal equalizer. There is no level playing field. There will always be differences in wealth, ability, leadership and success. But it is a place where effective communication is more immediately related to understanding other people – and business success is more closely related to customer care and service.

This isn’t paradise. But there’s lots of room for "intelligent" people and organizations, that know how to gain by caring – sharing knowledge and serving the interests of others. It may take a little longer for them to be successful; but they are more likely to win over time. Quick-and-dirty "banditism" is beginning to show its weakness (there are many more flops and failures than the few reported in mainstream media). We can make the world a bit better (and business more reliable) by investing our efforts, and our money, in the "intelligent" enterprises that really care for their customers and for the environment.

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