Mean people, incentives, and timing


I had three threads converge at the same time:

  1. The cartoon above and how time changes our view of things, and how falsely smug you can be
  2. How Paul Graham came to the conclusion that in the whole, Mean People Fail.
  3. How successful people fall into the same “time” trap as society can do (as in #1)

Time is an important lens, and is one that the cartoon captures. Once you have your leg up, you can think differently about what you do for the others around you. Sometimes you don’t give a crap and actively keep people down, and sometimes you try to be more subtle and make it look like you are doing all of these great things while only really giving it 40% effort.

I think it is easy to get into that trap… the smug trap, where you think you are a great person, but you are still causing oppresion. It just so happens that you have fooled yourself that you aren’t part of that system.

When it comes to mean people, some commentors have been quick to point out that “Wait, wouldn’t some call Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, and Larry Ellison mean?” (let alone the hedge fund-ers, frackers and oil barons? ENRON!)

Being “mean” is so subjective isn’t it? One person may think they are just being pushed, while another may feel like they are treated awfully. Meanness, like beauty, can be in the eye of the beholder.

When you are on your way up, you may feel like you need to break some more egg shells, but later on you may either: a) have what you need to be successful or b) have the experience to know that you don’t need to be mean at all to get the best out of people.

People love to talk about Steve Jobs being “mean”, but when you listen to the accounts of how he changed over time, and how the NeXT years changed him, you realize the the picture of the man is nuanced. I think that Steve gained experience that allowed him to deal with the various types of people out there, and could get the best out of more people with that understanding. We aren’t all equal, and we can’t all be pushed in the same way.

I do think the context that Paul brings to the table about today is broadly true:

Another reason mean founders lose is that they can’t get the best people to work for them. They can hire people who will put up with them because they need a job. But the best people have other options. A mean person can’t convince the best people to work for him unless he is super convincing. And while having the best people helps any organization, it’s critical for startups.

This wasn’t always true. It isn’t true in all fields and locales. In many places people just do need a job and are worked darn hard for pitance. In the bubble of silicon valley we are very very lucky indeed. I would choose to work for Bret Taylor at Quip vs. Travis at Uber (but then again, Uber doesn’t seem to be hurting?)

Philanthropy and legacy

Once you have made your money, you can look to your legacy. You may have lied and even done some very dark things to get you to the top, but now that you are there you could choose to silently repent and become a better person.

Everyone should be able to transcend their mistakes, but it can be a lot easy to not stand up for the mistakes that got you to where you are now and instead choose to do better “from now on”.

I think that few men will fully own up to what got them there, and make true restitution. Hell, often it is too hard to calculate… but has society been “fair” to the Native Americans? No equation can answer that.

This leaves me with a new respect for the path, and making sure that you do the best you can every day. I try hard not to fall into the “means to an ends” trap. This way I will have less need to concern myself with the equation that can’t be solved. You can’t get away from it though. I feel like I have had a leg up. I got to go to great schools, with fantastic teachers, with a healthy environment. Now I need to do what I can to help the most people possible.

I really hope that incentives align so that Paul’s hypothesis becomes more and more true. Mean people suck.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *