I remember the exact moment that I realized I was a coward. It was a warm summer’s night in July, on Myrtle Beach, about 30 years ago. I was just a kid, vacationing with the whole family, and having a blast with cousins I rarely saw. We lived in our own giddy world on these trips, bouncing from one sugar high to the next, utterly uninterested in our beer-drinking, Scrabble-playing parents.
We had a bunch of cottages on the beach. After dinner, in the early evening, just after dark, whilst the adults were settling into a game of cards, my cousins and I would go out and explore the beach. It was magical: the warm sea breeze on my face, the smell of the ocean, and these amazing glow-in-the-dark crabs. The locals called them ghost crabs. And they really did look like ghosts: bluish-white, recently-chomped, Pac-Man ghosts.
They were so fast. But alas, we were often faster. I wanted to pick them up so badly, so very badly. But I couldn’t, I just couldn’t do it. I was afraid of getting pinched by those big claws. My cousin Andy, who was younger than me, had no trouble picking them up—even though he was pinched hard repeatedly. His courage shamed me, and yet I still couldn’t bring myself to pick up the crabs. It was then that I realized that I was a coward, by nature, and that I would need to struggle against that basic fact for the rest of my life. I realized, as well, that I would be forever in awe of naturally courageous people.
In The No Asshole Rule (2007), Robert Sutton describes, often in excruciating detail, how badly behaved adults can poison a work environment. Among other things, he recommends that you get rid of these types as soon as they show their true colors—viz., after the first blow-up, shouting fit, or temper tantrum. What Sutton says makes perfect sense to me, so long as the person we’re firing is mediocre or incompetent. And they are. Most of the time. Probably 95% of the time. But not all of the time. Because sometimes, just sometimes, the difficult diva in question really is the best.
Sometimes the prima donna really is the best person for the job. For instance, Dr. Gregory House drives everyone nuts on the popular TV series House—he’s precisely the kind of employee that Sutton says you should fire in a heartbeat—and yet House’s boss, the Dean of Medicine, Dr. Lisa Cuddy, deals with his bullshit because House really is an amazing doctor. Likewise, in Homer’s Iliad, Achilles drives Agamemnon insane with his arrogance and insolence—and yet Agamemnon is forced to deal with his bullshit because Achilles really is amazing. People put up with Sherlock Holmes for many of the same reasons. Same is true of Dr. Temperance Brennan on the hit show Bones. She’s incredibly arrogant, hard to get along with, and shockingly deficient in empathy and tact. But her boss, Dr. Camille Saroyan, puts up with her bullshit because she’s a genius, because she’s the best.
Humble people who selflessly devote themselves to the common good of the organization are rare. If you happen to have a few of these silent saints in your organization, treasure them, for they are indeed worth their weight in gold. But alas, these would-be Atlases cannot bear the weight of the world, nor can they bear the weight of your organization. If you want to get things done, you’re going to have to involve the loud-mouthed egotistical show-offs—you know, the pushy people who love to listen to themselves talk. You’ve got to engage these people, let them take over an existing part of your organization, or create something brand new.
These Type A’s won’t give you their all, and they’ve got a great deal to give, unless they feel that they’re in charge. You can’t micromanage them; they’re touchy, and don’t take criticism especially well. They’re going to claim ownership of territory within your organization. And you’ve got to let it happen if you want to realize their potential. But, and here’s the big BUT, these pushy people have a tendency to grow more and more arrogant over time, especially if their endeavors prove successful. The hot air of their hubris propels them to ever higher heights of delusion, until they come to see their little part of the organization as the most important part of the organization. Indeed, they may even come to view the organization as itself unimportant. They may come to believe that the entire organization’s raison d’être is to serve and support their particular needs. They may lose sight of the common good altogether.
Eventually, you’ll find yourself at a meeting, wondering what to do. Some will say squash them, put them in their place, fire them, defrock them, or humiliate them. Though these options may provide sadistic satisfaction to some, they’re rarely good ideas. The real question—rooted in a perennial problem that has bedeviled organizations since the beginning of time—is this: How do you knock these puffed-up buffoons down a couple of notches without losing their valuable contribution to the life of the organization?
I have no problem with show-offs, so long as they put on a good show (by being interesting and entertaining), just as I have no problem with bossy people, so long as they’re good at getting shit done once they’ve taken control. Most families would fall apart if it weren’t for the bossy matriarchs and patriarchs who make the trains run on time. My problem isn’t with difficult people per se; it’s with boring show-offs, and incompetent control-freaks who desperately need to have power but don’t know what to do with it once they’ve got it.
“Know what you are, John? You’re an asshole magnet.” She said other mean stuff (as did I), but I’ve forgotten the rest. We were in the middle of that particularly painful part of the break-up ritual: when the sweet wine of love turns into bitter vinegar in your mouth; when the potion you and Isolde quaffed a lifetime ago turns into a kind of Tourette’s-inducing truth serum, and we fall into an epileptic fit of compulsive truth-telling. Still, she was right about me. I do seem to have an unusually high number of difficult friends. But the reason for this has nothing to do with sphincters or magnetism, and everything to do with my lifelong love affair with courage. No virtue charms me more. But every love comes at a cost, even the love of a virtue.
We say “de gustibus non est disputandum” (there’s no accounting for taste) when we’re feeling cornered and embarrassed (e.g., when someone discovers your Céline Dion CDs, your kitten calendars, your extensive collection of vintage garden gnomes). We say it when we’re feeling lazy or wish to avoid conflict (e.g., you say “tow-may-tow” and I’ll say “tow-mah-tow”). We say it when we do not wish to defend that which we dimly suspect to be indefensible. Why do we frequently find it hard to give a rational account of our aesthetic judgments? I’m not sure. But I know it applies to our taste in people just as much as our taste in music, calendars, and collectibles.
Just as there are hot people who leave us cold, there are good people who we respect immensely but avoid socially. Love and friendship often march to the beat of unseen drummers. When pressed by a modern-day Socrates, I find it very hard, at times, to justify my seemingly eclectic taste in friends. Most of the time, I really couldn’t tell you why I gravitate toward the one, avoid the other. All I can say with certainty is that it’s got something to do with a highly idiosyncratic estimation of a person’s character.
I can tolerate some pretty major flaws in my friends, flaws that others find insufferable, and yet there’s one relatively minor vice, stinginess, which I find thoroughly repulsive. My estimation of the virtues is equally uneven. I find, time and again, that I am partial to particular virtues, such as courage. And I’m not alone. All of this has led me to suspect that de gustibus non est disputandum applies to ethics just as much as it applies to aesthetics.
I was sad to see noble Prince Oberyn Martell die. Still am. Still haven’t gotten over it. He was, without a doubt, one of the most compelling characters on HBO’s television adaptation of George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire. Though Pedro Pascal, the 39-year-old Chilean who plays Oberyn, is undeniably hot, the Dornish Prince’s irresistible charm isn’t a function of Pascal’s washboard abs, chiseled chin, or piercing brown eyes. It’s a function of the character’s noble virtues.
In Martin’s fictional universe, as well as our own, the love of pleasure and the love of honor are too often presented as contradictory drives that couldn’t possibly coexist (coherently, and more or less peacefully) within the same soul. You can have one or the other, or neither, but never both. The lusty earthbound virtues of a fun-loving Falstaff are, we’re so often told, fundamentally antithetical to the stoic virtues of the honor-loving warrior. Eddard Stark’s character is a case in point. He’s brave and courageous, and he’s just, but he’s also kind of boring. Ned’s a deeply honorable man, no doubt about that; but he’s also a bit of a cheerless puritan. We know he’s overcome his fear of death, but we wonder if he’ll ever overcome his fear of smiling. We know he’s ready to die, but we wonder if he’s ever really lived.
These questions just don’t occur to us when we’re contemplating Prince Oberyn, a man whose lust for life and love of beauty are in evidence in every smiling scene. Sure, he’s a decidedly dangerous dude, a fiery man with a very bad temper—the kind of guy who can fly into a white-hot rage at a moment’s notice. But he’s also the kind of guy who reaches out for pleasure, without guilt or shame, whenever it crosses his path. In short, Prince Oberyn is a lover and a fighter. And he’s also a hedonist. But it would be a mistake to assume that all of this hedonism has made him soft. Moral clarity’s great, but courage is better; because your heart can be in the right place, but if your balls aren’t, well, you probably won’t do the right thing when it matters.
—John Faithful Hamer, The Myth of the Fuckbuddy (2017)