Want to be happy and successful? Don’t be an a**hole
[Photo: Katya Austin/Unsplash]

[Photo: Katya Austin/Unsplash]

Want to be happy and successful? Don’t be an a**hole

This NYU professor makes the case for criticizing people less and complimenting people more.

Scott Galloway

I’ve been thinking about emotional and mental health lately. What makes kids and dogs so captivating on camera (actors feel upstaged by kids and pets), is that they’re 100 percent authentic.

Your kids don’t worry that lying on top of you during Outrageous Acts of Science will be inappropriate or unwelcome. Affection from offspring is immensely rewarding, as it’s raw—no objective, no expectation, no filter. Just a natural urge to feel your warmth and be close to you—someone they love and who loves them. My oldest reinforces this authenticity when several minutes later he declines the offer to wash the car with me. He’d rather play FIFA 18.

School, discipline, and parenting are mostly about constructing filters, so your kids stay in their swim lanes, stay out of jail, fit in, and chart a path toward a true north. Teens, around their parents, become experts at filtering everything you say and finding all the impurities in everything you do. As we spill into adulthood, we develop more filters in dating, college, and work.

There is a freedom and cathartic release, as you get older, to tolerating cracks in the filters, making them more porous, and your actions and words more genuine. My filters had little problem expanding at work and with service employees. I’ve been incredibly open with people who didn’t perform up to my expectations, the standards for the job, or the cab fare.

But my “feedback” has been the (non)gift that keeps on giving. I was always quick to remind the guy—who’s probably supporting three kids on $40,000 a year—that it took forty minutes to get my room service. Or expecting that if I’m working at midnight, the twenty-four-year-old who works for me should be as well. I try to compensate for the former by tipping generously, but that’s paying it backward. After all, I worked my way through high school and college (as a waiter, valet, and busboy) and saw myself in every service worker. Still, 25 percent is no excuse for being a jerk, and I’m trying to fix this.

What differentiates the near-successful from the super-successful

I’ve been around enormously successful people from a young age, mostly through work, and I’ve known many on a personal level. There is an arc to being an asshole. The aspirants (people trying to make a living) are generally kind. I don’t know if it’s the humility you develop from not having reached economic security, or if it’s reflexive, as many spend time in the service industry. The near successful (where I’ve spent most of my adult life) tend to over-index on the asshole meter. Somehow, our insecurity and anger at not being at the level we wish we are at makes us entitled.

The thing is, the super-successful people I know are usually nicer, more generous, and generally better mannered. The billionaire jerk portrayed in movies and on TV is mostly a cartoon—an animation of something that isn’t real. I want to think generosity and manners are a signal and cause of success, though I believe they are also a function of other factors. Firstly, billionaires have more to lose. Being a jerk to an Uber driver when you’re the CEO of Uber can and should cost you billions (and it did). Secondly, you take stock of your blessings and have an easier time being less of an asshole. One of the great things about aging is that while I’ve developed certain filters (like pausing before I criticize someone), other filters are coming down. I’ve found it much easier (and more natural) to compliment others.

The importance of praising others

I’m 100 percent certain there is no god—at least not the Morgan Freeman/Lifetime/Fox version of God. However, I do pray. Just as writing down your goals makes them more likely to come to fruition, being grateful has been proven to increase health and life expectancy. Psychology research consistently shows that there is a correlation between gratitude and greater happiness. Gratitude helps people feel more positive emotions, relish life’s experiences, improve their health, deal with adversity, and build strong relationships.

Writing about your aspirations and articulating all the things you’re grateful for is a form of prayer. I’m more committed to prayer in the company of others—being transparent about my objectives and expressing gratitude. Or, more often, being specific about how impressive the other person is. As a younger man, I felt that complimenting other men was somehow a zero-sum game. That acknowledging their achievements and attributes took away from mine. So small.

Time with my boys and exercising have been effective antidepressants. Increasingly, I’m adding a third: prayer in the form of appreciation/admiration. It’s not charity, as it makes me feel important, healthy, and confident to praise others. There’s still a long way to go, as my old insecurities die hard.

We all have good intentions that don’t lead to action. We have an even greater reservoir of admiration and good thoughts about others that get caught in the filters of insecurity and fear. To not let that dam burst is to cut life short and shortchange joy. There are so few absolutes. One of them: Nobody ever says at a funeral, “He was too generous, too kind, and much too loving.”

Nobody. Ever.

This article is adapted from The Algebra of Happiness: Notes on the Pursuit of Success, Love, and Meaning by Scott Galloway. It is reprinted with permission from Portfolio, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright © Scott Galloway, 2019.