Do You Have to Be a Jerk to Get Ahead?

You have probably heard the saying “nice guys finish last.” Quite possibly, you’ve experienced this yourself at some point in your life, where being “nice” and accommodating did not pay off.

Why is it that rude inconsiderate jerks seem to get ahead more than they ought to?

Are they onto something?

When power is good

Researchers have found that individuals who feel powerful behave in certain ways that tend to enhance success. For instance, they are more likely to take action towards their goals, to take risks, express their emotions, and ignore situational pressures.

When power is bad

Of course, there is a fine line between acting assertively and being a jerk. While the above behaviors can be positive, they can also manifest in some pretty negative ways as well. For instance, powerful individuals are more likely to interrupt others and invade personal space, ignore other people’s suffering, take more cookies from a common plate, be patronizing, cheat, take credit for others’ work, and treat others as a means to their own ends.

We don’t usually like people who act in such ways. But according to a series of studies conducted at the University of Amsterdam, we seem to perceive strangers who act like jerks as being more powerful than those who act more in line with social norms.

Put another way, we seem to jump to the conclusion that people who act like jerks must be important, powerful people for whom the ordinary rules of polite society don’t apply.

What? You want me to dance?

I had a conversation with a singer last week, and when I mentioned this study, she drew an interesting parallel to an audition experience she once had.

It was for a role she had performed successfully many times in the past. So naturally, she went into the audition supremely confident, even cocky, with no doubt about her ability to nail the part.

The audition went great – until she was asked to dance. Much like the Friends episode where Joey has to dance in an audition of his own, she was taken by surprise and not at all prepared for this.

She did what she could, but left the audition convinced that there was no way she would get the role.

As it turns out, she received a phone call soon after with news that the job was hers.

Weeks later, she asked the casting director how it was possible that she got the part. He looked at her in surprise, and asked what she meant, saying she had a terrific voice, was a talented actor, and had a great audition. Yes, the dancing was a mess, but she didn’t apologize for it.

When apologizing is in bad form

How often do we apologize for our perceived shortcomings on stage? By carrying ourselves in a manner that communicates a lack of confidence, an expectation of failure, or uncertainty and tentativeness? By telegraphing our mistakes through facial expressions and body language? By mentally quitting on our performance after we miss a note?

Great artists make mistakes and have imperfect performances too. All the time, in fact. But you won’t find them apologizing for it in the midst of a performance.

You are on stage to catalyze within us a meaningful emotional experience. And wincing after every imperfection, looking sheepish, or otherwise communicating doubt/worry/insecurities about your performance does not enhance our experience, but instead engenders the sorts of emotions we don’t particularly want to feel when we go to a concert.

Take action

Telegraphing mistakes and responding negatively to mistakes can easily become a habit.

Instead, practice being more of a “jerk” onstage by refusing to apologize for imperfections no matter how egregious. Make the appearance of complete poise and command your default visual presentation, by working on this in run-throughs in the practice room. By reinforcing this in lessons, coachings, and low-key performances. By reviewing videos of performances to see what the audience sees, and ensuring you are sending the message you wish to send.

(And just to be clear so as to avoid any misunderstandings, this research should not be interpreted to mean that if you want to be a successful conductor you must act like a jerk towards the members of your orchestra…)

photo credit: trix0r via photo pin cc

Ack! After Countless Hours of Practice,
Why Are Performances Still so Hit or Miss?

It’s not a talent issue. And that rush of adrenaline and emotional roller coaster you experience before performances is totally normal too.

Performing at the upper ranges of your ability under pressure is a unique skill – one that requires specific mental skills, and perhaps a few other tweaks in your approach to practicing too. Elite athletes have been learning these techniques for decades; if nerves and self-doubt have been recurring obstacles in your performances, I’d like to help you do the same.

Click below to learn more about Beyond Practicing – a home-study course where you’ll explore the 6 skills that are characteristic of top performers. And learn how you can develop these into strengths of your own. And begin to see tangible improvements in your playing that transfer to the stage.


5 Responses

  1. Hmmm. Not so sure I agree with you totally here. I look for several things during an audition and one of them is the performer’s abilities to ignore mistakes and/or self-correct quickly. We all make ’em, but great performers are able to ignore them and are not deterred as they move forward to their objectives. Also…we, the audience, tend to buy into whatever we see on the stage. If a performer is tripping over oneself and feeling embarrassed and uneasy, that is what the audience perceives and gets caught up in. That your sample auditionee kept moving forward, kept trying, did not apologize, said volumes about her willingness to take risks and hang in there. That kind of heroic effort is what we come to the theater to see!

  2. Sorry to see the false either/or — the polarization between two extremes — here. Whatever happened to having a modicum of functional self-respect, which means treating everyone (including oneself) as worthy of both courteous treatment and civilised expectations?

    And agree with Linda about heroic effort. It is heroic, now, to put self-consciousness aside — but only those who can do so belong on stage. Apologising for mistakes is not an option. Apologising makes the standing of the self more important than the performance — which by rights ought not to be about the self at all.

    Self is an illusion, an irrelevance. The music is what’s real.

  3. Thanks for this article. A few years back I had joined my first jazz band, and was extremely nervous at my first performance. It was a VERY low-key performance amongst friends and the school community, yet I couldn’t even look up the entire time I was so nervous. A friend approached me afterwards and commented on how nervous I appeared, I never forgot that … your article really clearly articulated for me how important it is to take proactive steps against telegraphing the wrong emotional experience to the audience. I’m going to take these exercises to heart. Thank you!

  4. lol…..very funny and not factual. Uh, there are two people in this world that get ahead. The first one is the good-looking, charming individual who is honest and friendly and everyone falls in love with. You know already whether you are this person or not. If you are not, then you need to learn jujitsu in jerkishness. I have seen it work over and over again, but only the smart ones who use it right work their way to the top, just like refined gold is worked to the top, or bottom, whichever you prefer.
    I carry my jerkishness all the way up to the violence level, and then I do not cross the violence level. If someone gets violent because of my charming asshole ways, then I leave the scene before it gets out of hand. Violence works well in third world countries, but it will land your butt in jail in this society. Don’t do it. Say whatever you want short of threats, sexual harassment, and violence.

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