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The case for not being mean

Startup guru Paul Graham writes really interesting essays. Judging by the date stamps on his website, he’s been easily doing it for more than a decade. And he’s gotten really good at it – everyone in the startup community reads them. Whenever he posts one, I know I read it. No question. 

His most recent essay is called: Mean People Fail. And in it, he argues that the structural changes that have happened in our economy have also meant a reversal in the correlation between “meanness” and success. I know that might sound a bit funny, but hear him out:

For most of history success meant control of scarce resources. One got that by fighting, whether literally in the case of pastoral nomads driving hunter-gatherers into marginal lands, or metaphorically in the case of Gilded Age financiers contending with one another to assemble railroad monopolies. For most of history, success meant success at zero-sum games. And in most of them meanness was not a handicap but probably an advantage.

That is changing. Increasingly the games that matter are not zero-sum. Increasingly you win not by fighting to get control of a scarce resource, but by having new ideas and building new things.

That has always been the case for thinkers, which is why this trend began with them. When you think of successful people from history who weren’t ruthless, you get mathematicians and writers and artists. The exciting thing is that their m.o. seems to be spreading. The games played by intellectuals are leaking into the real world, and this is reversing the historical polarity of the relationship between meanness and success.

This makes sense to me. But the other reason I find this interesting is because I’ve wondered before if I should be more of an asshole in my professional life. Some people are really good at being assholes. I’m not. It’s not in my nature. When I manage and work with people, I’d rather try and create intrinsic motivation as opposed to using some form of brute force. In my view, the latter burns social capital.

So if you happen to be of the same mindset, you might like to hear that you’re probably sitting on the right trend line. Don’t be mean.

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