Thing I am realizing

Feb 17 2016 Published by under Day in the life of DrugMonkey

Being a decent person is fundamentally incompatible with achieving great things or making significant structural change happen.

25 responses so far

  • Philapodia says:

    Disagree. You don't have to be an asshole to make changes, it's just a lot harder to do so in a short timescale. I think in the long run, slow and steady (and decent) win the race.

  • Emaderton3 says:

    Funny you should write this since I had a conversation with my wife about this just a little while ago. It does seem like people that have accomplished great things seem to have more skeletons in their closets and/or have stepped on many toes. I wonder if it is the cost of making it to the top. I feel like you see it in many walks of life, most notably politics. Perhaps it coincides with a certain personality type that is more amenable to risk taking. Perhaps all of the neuro folks could shed light on this . . .

  • shrew says:

    Balzac: The secret of great fortunes without apparent cause is a crime forgotten, for it was properly done.

    Paraphrased later for The Godfather: Behind every great fortune there is a great crime.

  • bacillus says:

    I remember a cartoon of Hitler with the caption "Right! No more Mr. Nice Guy" Apologies in advance if this upsets anyone's sensibilities, and DM can just remove it if he sees fit.

  • Selerax says:

    Note sure there's a correlation.

    My understanding is that Lincoln was a great guy, LBJ was an ass, but they both got important things done.

    Basically, to do great things, you need to convince other people. You can do that with charisma, with shaming, or with just plain old coercion. Not sure one way is fundamentally more efficient that others.

    (tl/dr: Neutral Good FTW)

  • dr24 says:

    Thinking so called "great achievers" are worse than others is like thinking glam-papers are less likely to be true because there are more retractions. Nope. Just greater scrutiny.

    Human decency and achievement are completely orthogonal. Plenty of examples all along the achievement spectrum of both.

  • Philapodia says:

    "Basically, to do great things, you need to convince other people. You can do that with charisma, with shaming, or with just plain old coercion. Not sure one way is fundamentally more efficient that others."

    If you just want to do one thing and then never again, use shaming or coercion since it's quicker. If you want to do multiple things, charisma works better since you don't have to fight against your poor behavior from previous interactions. Personally, if someone acts like a dick to get what they want from me, I am not likely to help them if they come back again for help unless I don't have a choice and I probably will do the bare minimum. People who treat me with respect are once are much more likely to get me on board the next time they ask and I will go above and beyond what they ask for. Being nice takes more work on the front end but generally results in bigger gains in the long term for both parties.

  • drugmonkey says:

    And power, Philapodia? Where does that come in?

  • Emaderton3 says:

    Correct me if I'm wrong, but I thought Lincoln was not so decent in his personal life. Don't we now know about a mistress and illegitimate children? I guess that's what I was alluding to before with certain personality traits/types. Does one who bends/breaks the rules to get ahead professionally do similar things in their personal life since that is just how they operate in life?

  • MoBio says:


    I would amend to say:

    "The ability to accomplish great things (however that might be defined) and not to be an asshole are independently inherited traits"

  • Philapodia says:

    Power is the ability to get people to do things for you, and can be used either negatively or positively. People will do more for less if they treat them with dignity and respect (look at volunteers!), or they will do less for more if they don't. You can still get stuff done either way, but how much varies.

  • DJMH says:

    Obama? Seems like a very decent guy, accomplished some health care and other things that hadn't happened under other people. I think it's easier to rise in power structures if you're a jerk, but not everyone who rises in power structures is a jerk.

    But if you go digging, all of us have negative qualities. If I were famous, probably the press would find out in short order that I'm a nose-picker, or whatever. (Of course, I am not a nose-picker.)

  • fjordmaster says:

    How are you defining "decent" in this context?

    My guess is that most people have something in their closet an observer would call a skeleton whether or not they achieved anything great.

    If you are talking about boorish or rude behavior, I think that depends on whether you are aligned with the person's goals.

  • baltogirl says:

    All of us know a few eminent scientists who consistently make interesting discoveries ("achieving great things") and are also wonderful ("decent") people.
    It is true that there aren't many, but there really are some. Therefore, it is possible.

  • eeke says:

    Jimmy Carter
    Rita Levi-Montalcini
    Rosa Parks

    Not assholes. Assholes are everywhere, but these people and plenty of others have achieved great things. Without being assholes as far as we know.

  • drugmonkey says:

    "As far as we know". Mmmhmmm.

  • E-rook says:

    Being a decent person is fundamentally incompatible with [the perception of] achieving great things [full stop] or making significant structural change happen.

    Significant structural change is only recognized in retrospect, so the person credited for it might not be a decent person. But a lot of structural change happens "organically," which is very small and minor things -- a bureaucrat somewhere cloistered in an office somewhere making one of a thousand decisions that changes how an institution interacts with an individual, multiplied by a thousand bureaucrats....that ... in my opinion is how significant structural change happens. One hobbit at a time.

  • Curiosity says:

    So what to do when you're a young person who attracts the ire of the powerful bsd in your field? Saw this in study section. They are bullies.

  • jmz4 says:

    I think it's incompatible with getting credit for achieving great things, but probably not the actual achievements or changes themselves. E.g. Wosniak.
    Also, no one really achieves anything alone. The ones that make it look like they have are probably self-serving, ego centric glory-hounds. So not decent people.

  • Neuro-conservative says:

    Agree completely with DM, and props to shrew for the quote I would have posted. In many ways, it is easier to be great than to be good. These are not orthogonal traits -- not traits at all -- but rather the consequence of choices made in real-world interactions.

  • Kix says:

    Fully disagree: many great people have achieved important things:
    Abbé Pierre:
    Mother Theresa:
    Then, it depends on why you want these changes. If it is for personal reasons, then you are doomed

  • jojo says:

    I dunno. I think people are generally more incensed when assholes do well, and there's no counteracting emotion there. It's pure, righteous indignation "UGH so and so is such a douche, I just know s/he purposefully scooped Dr. super-nice, science is broken, Glam journals have no standards blah blah".

    OTOH, It's hard actually to be mad at someone you know to be a good person that does well, but the underlying envy sort of dampens the joy one might feel for seeing a good person succeed.

    As a result of these human failings I think we notice and talk about assholes winning much more than when good folks putter along doing their thang.

  • becca says:

    Choose two:
    *Being "nice"
    *Making a difference
    *Getting credit

  • Luminiferous æther says:

    Decency as perceived by whom? You can't make everyone happy.

  • anon says:

    I think you are right DM, but most people are interpreting it here as the causation being that achieving great things turns you into an a**hole. I think it may be the correlation-causation thing. People with certain traits, especially narcissism, are more likely to both successfully lead great societal structural changes and be perceived as a**holes by people close to them (not necessarily those further away). I see that all the time at a smaller scale around me - narcissistic egomaniacs are the ones who are pushing the hardest for change and are able to gather followers. Now here's the thing - charisma, unlike what some of the previous people have said, is higher in narcissists than the average person. To outward appearances they are charming and inspiring and they go to great pains to cultivate that image. It's only upon closer contact that their ugly inner life starts coming out. Another important point - despite their inner lack of empathy and ethical code, they tend to drive change that is good or at least perceived as being so by the majority of their peers.

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