The Case For Nice

In a world where business has become a kind of warfare and the icons we look up to willingly perpetuate the divide between have and have-not in the name of capitalism, is it possible to be successful and still be a nice person?

  • Case for Nice

By Jarred Cinman

As the richest man in the world, Jeffrey Bezos must be, wanted to be and cheerfully is the pinnacle of business success. He started Amazon in a garage and slowly, methodically and impressively turned it into the world’s largest almost everything.

Likewise, Musk who came from unimpressive roots in Pretoria, is a self-made man. Using pretty much just his talent – and his white maleness, let’s not kid – he turned grey matter into gold. And some Dogecoin.

What these and many others at the top of the earnings pyramid have is a total adherence to and love of the capitalist game. Kill or be killed; eat or be eaten. Crush your competitors. Never slow down, never stop, never accept defeat.

If this sounds militaristic it’s because modern business is the rightful heir to the great armies and battles of the past. Modern warfare is, by and large, conducted by machines and somewhat rare. In 1500, 100% of the time, the “great powers” of the age were at war. In 2000 that dropped to 0% (and has pretty much stayed there).

Yay for peace, but where has all that testosterone gone? Why have Sun Tzu on repeat on your audiobook player if there is no battlefield except for unmanned drones and geeky hackers?

Business, my friends. Business is the place where all that rage and competitiveness and drive and passion and purpose has gone. This has become the central truth of the world since the fall of the Soviet Union in the late 80s. The great question – communism or capitalism – was settled forever. The second “c” won, and it’s been blazing a trail ever since.

I don’t want this to drift too deeply into a debate about economic theory and economic reality. Suffice to say, the levels of inequality in the world have reached a state that would have made the pharaohs blush. In South Africa, anyone earning below R800 a month is below the “poverty” line. Jeff Bezos, by contrast, earns R57 000 every second. If you’re struggling with the maths, there are around 2.5 million seconds in a month. I don’t know if there is a word for the time unit in which he makes R800.

So here’s where I’m going with this: All the business books and rampant competition and market forces have led us to a place where some of us are doing well, but the vast majority are doing worse than ever. The people doing well are mostly white, overwhelmingly men, and apart from the oil money in the Middle East and the cocaine money in South America, that wealth is concentrated in “Western” countries, China and Russia.

Thus, the principles in most business books – the ones that teach you how to follow in the footsteps of Bezos or the other gazillionaries – are, in important ways, a recipe for poverty, neglect, famine and suffering.

There is a really simple antidote: be nicer.

Nice has a bad rap. It’s a word that sounds anodyne and lacklustre. It’s what you say when someone asks you “Enjoying your food?” and you aren’t. It’s what you offer when you can’t find the words “ugly”, “yuck” and “get me the hell out of here”.

But it needs to be reclaimed. Being nice does not have to carry with it an air of inauthenticity. What everyone needs, all of the time, is for more people to be nice to each other. To care, to try, to help, to act out of generosity, not self-interest. Sorry to boil it all down to something that I can’t turn into an Exclusive Books bestselling personal memoir or three-day workshop intensive. But it’s all anyone has ever really wanted from anyone else.

Being nice doesn’t have to be universal or comprehensive, either. Sometimes you have to win and you have to fight like hell to do it. Sometimes there really are wolves at the door or your children are at risk and the amygdala stuff has to kick in.

But a lot of the time – a lot more of the time that you think – being genuinely nice to other people is the best-case scenario. It makes those around you feel great and you feel euphoric. It is the ultimate dopamine hit and the biggest high I’ve encountered. And, without divulging too much, I’ve auditioned a few others for the part.

You can be nice and witty; you can be dark-humoured and nice; you can be nice to some and really mean to others (I have an article about cultivating enemies brewing). But if you focus your energy on strategic models and sales techniques and crushing the other guy, I promise you, you will miss out on one of life’s great experiences. It’s not on Maslow but it should be: caring about someone else and being nice to them. Maybe even stretch it to very nice.

As a person running a business, I find that I have many opportunities every day to be nice. Nice to staff, nice to clients, nice to partners, nice to people who just need some niceness. And I also do things that aren’t nice, some of which I regret. Unlike the auto-hagiographies that line the bookstores, I do not claim a special wisdom or new theory of life or to have some kind of special pact with the divine.

I have just taught myself a simple skill: when the rage is rising or the testosterone is pumping or the easiest and most obvious thing to do is to kick the other person when they’re down, instead offer a hand and an open heart.

Bezos is like the virtuoso violinist or pianist, but of money. We happen to value money in a way we don’t value music and thus he stands on the highest peak of human accomplishment. But that one skill dissipates on closer inspection: its mostly luck combined with privilege and seductive charm. If he is genetically smart then that, too, is just lucky. You can’t get most of what he has no matter how much you study and read and work. What I am offering, you can have today. And you don’t have to change your personality or adopt some weird faith to get it.

Originally published in The Citizen.

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