The sting of truth

Kevin Fong on why 'Fong, you're an idiot' was invaluable feedback.

January 17, 2008

They say that genius and insanity go hand in hand. They say that progress is rarely made by reasonable people. But isn't all this just a polite way of saying that many great people have a tendency to behave like complete assholes?

So the question is this: how do such successful and smart folk manage to go through life without mastering the most basic rules of being nice to people? If you work in any half-decent university, you know exactly the type of person I'm talking about. I adopted this as the topic of one of my University of Life PhDs (written by me, supervised by me, examined by the bloke behind the bar at the pub) and here is a precis.

One day, many years ago, a schoolteacher of mine passed on the following wisdom: if someone levels a criticism at you, rather than take offence, you should greet it with a simple: "Thank you for telling me." This, he told us, is in acknowledgement of the fact that they have done you a favour in pointing out something that needs fixing, thus giving you the opportunity to alter said trait and later improve yourself.

"What do you do if they tell you that your eyes are too close together?" I remember asking. "Fong, you're an idiot," he said. "Thank you for telling me," I replied.

About a decade later, I got out of detention and realised that he was right, of course, on both counts. The jokes people tell about you and the faults they highlight are your personality barometer. They stop you from taking yourself too seriously; they are the reason why your friends need to make fun of you and your wife shouts at you. You can consider these slights as a lighthouse on the rocks of conceit, a "Danger Ahead" sign on the cliff of vanity. At the very least, they are the "Caution: Contents May Be Very Hot" sticker on the microwaved apple pie of hubris.

I consider myself most fortunate therefore to be surrounded by friends, family and colleagues who never cease to tell me what a loser I am, helping me to keep it real and immunising me from any delusions of grandeur. (In fact, truth be told, they do a good job of preventing me from mounting any sort of self-esteem building response whatsoever.)

The problem, as far as I can gather, is that as you get older and supposedly wiser, people are generally less prepared to tell you the truth - at least to your face - and being hugely powerful and influential only compounds things. As you get promoted through the academic ranks, it's easy to mistake the bigger offices and pay cheques for evidence that you're also progressing as a person; that those facets of your personality that used to get you beaten up on a regular basis in the playground were simply misunderstood by an inferior infant peer group who didn't recognise greatness when they were in the presence of it.

And there you finally are, soaring high in the career stratosphere, master of all you survey, with all around telling you that you can't put a foot wrong. Until one day you turn up to work having forgotten to put any clothes on and suddenly you notice that nobody is willing to tell you that you're naked.

Success and seniority don't change people; they just allow them to be much more like themselves, for the rest of their lives, than they have any right to be. If you've got to the point when no one is prepared to tell you that you're making bad decisions or behaving unacceptably, then you're in deep trouble. If you have the sneaking suspicion that this column might be about you, then take heart. It's January, and there's still time for a New Year's resolution.

For the truly omnipotent and terrible among you, things are not so easy. How do you recognise if you've reached the point at which absolutely everybody is too afraid to tell you what they think? And what are you supposed to do about it anyway? If you suspect that this might be the case, a more radical approach is required. I suggest you conduct the following exercise: get everyone in your department consistently working like a dog for no particularly good reason for at least a month, ring around one Saturday night demanding that all attend a crisis meeting at 6am on Sunday morning about the paperclip supply shortage, sack anybody who turns up and head off on a truth and reconciliation retreat in the Maldives with anybody who doesn't.

To those of you who labour under ogres who have little or no insight and who are content in the belief that they are right and everybody else is wrong, you have my sympathy. To you, I give a New Year's gift: this page of text, to pin anonymously to the boss's door.

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