Mean People Fail: Do they Really?

This past weekend I was reading Paul Graham most recent article, Mean People Fail. If you don’t know who Paul Graham is, and you’re in the tech startup world, do some homework.

He’s one of the most influential minds in the space today, followed by every would-be and successful entrepreneur in the world. I can’t think of a single person in the space that I have engaged with, from CEO’s to investors, that have not heard of or don’t read his articles.

This notoriety actually makes his most recent article all that more interesting to me.

It’s About Perspective

I think perspective is determined by the side of the coin on which you sit. For instance, I read his article and I thought, “Who would knowingly be mean to Paul G.?”

He’s perhaps the one guy that can make or break your initiative, either through funding or connections. I would venture to bet that most people that meet him are often putting their best foot forward at all times, and those that truly let their true self show as mean are truly just rotten.

The reality is though that there are plenty of example of mean, or some form of meanness amongst successful people. Look at a moment at Steve Jobs? Perhaps one of the greatest minds of our time, and yet considered by most to be hell to work with. Is that a form of meanness? How about Travis Kalaick’s, CEO of Uber, his lack of moral compass seems to be all the discussion these days in media. Many would consider that to be mean? Mark Zuckerberg, CEO of Facebook, responsible for the greatest social platform of our time, many have not minced their words when describing how he came to be, would that be mean? How about Evan Spiegel? Do I even need to get into the history of how that platform was built?

Can we even talk about mean without talking about Linus Torvalds, founder of Linux, or Bill Gates, founder of Microsoft? Both have horrid reputations for being mean at some point in their tenure, often in the early days.

Yes. And I do it partly (mostly) because it’s who I am, and partly because I honestly despise being subtle or “nice”.

Linux Torvalds

The fact remains that when we look at some of the greatest companies of our more recent time, mean seems to be part of the recipe for many. They could truly be kind souls with the best of intentions, and yet their external presentation is sadly misinterpreted by the masses.

Two Faced Side of Startups

Paul’s perspective is defined through a window that few enjoy.

As a peer to many startups and growing organizations I can tell you that mean often excels in this ecosystem, and the face many see is not the true colors. It’s that cut-throat mentality that allows them to excel in many instances. The problem is that it’s often not in the individuals character, yet something that is engrained in them as time goes on, the weight of success bares on them and the struggles of maintaining that same success become reality.

To most, I would argue, being nice is how everyone starts. You really have no choice. Just consider those startups which Paul works with on a daily basis. Young teams essentially building cool technologies, with little resemblance of a real business. Many have no real business in hand, but instead a great idea or cool technology that someone finds interesting for fear of missing out on the next big thing.

Nice, at this level of startup, is all you really have. You’re looking for relationships, you’re looking for endorsements and especially in the Valley, you’re looking for the noise and exposure that comes from buzz.

I have seen time and time again founders and executives put forth a facade of sincerity, later underscored by pure disdain and ruthlessness to get ahead. Some of the most successful are actually some of the meanest behind closed doors. Why is that?

My business partner actually brought up a good point. The biggest challenge we face as startup owners and entrepreneurs is the separation of emotion and personal connections from that of our business. This alone, from the outside looking in, makes every successful businessman appear to be mean in the eyes of their friends, employees and followers.  Only very few have a small pocket of relationships in which their true self can really be apparent, and I would argue that those relationships that Paul shares are likely more fake than real unfortunately. They’re forged in the very disconnected world that is the startup bubble of places like Silicon Valley, New York, Tel Aviv and so many other incubators.

There are those that will embrace who they are, and those that will perform an act in public very different from their true self in public. John O’Nolan, founder of the Ghost platform, actually talks to this very point in his article – The Price of Success.

The price of success is censorship. We bring it on ourselves, and we enforce it on others. “Life” is a pyramid scheme.

John O’Nolan

Do mean people Fail?

I would argue that they really don’t.

I would say that those that are extremely successful have mastered the art of politics. Understanding when mean works, and when nice makes more sense.

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