We have a preoccupation with success and what’s responsible for it. Malcolm Galdwell’s latest book, Outliers, is an attempt to dispel some common myths about what makes people successful, and in a recent column, David Brooks makes the case that genius is more about practice than IQ. But increasingly I’m becoming convinced that success in the business world is about being nice.
It’s always interesting to work with smart people and marvel at how quickly their minds process information, and it’s a treat to experience the really talented. But if I think back to people I’ve known that are consistently and enduringly successful, the common denominator is that they’re quite likable. I suspect that this is the case because it’s one thing to come up with a smart business idea, but it’s quite another to implement it and build a business around it, because that involves working through people.
Cognitive scientists believe that our oversized brains evolved to enable us to manage social relations. All of the rest of what we need to do is easy, but dealing with people is complicated by how complicated they are. They can say one thing and do another, they can change from moment to moment, and they can even be consciously unaware of what they’re doing. While designing a sophisticated new chip has its own set of challenges, at least it doesn’t have a mind of its own that is constantly changing.
Likable people are successful because other people want to help them be successful. Maybe it’s our mirror neurons mimicking their mental state, but in their presence we too want to be likable, so we’re eager to do what they want us to do. Or maybe it’s just as simple as wanting to repay their kindness with our own.
The idea that success is about being nice is appealing because in contrast to IQ or specialized talent, it’s an ability we all share. To be likable, we simply have to behave the way those we find likable behave. The only challenge is to resist being so caught up in ourselves that we don’t focus enough on others. This means having the discipline to consistently direct our attention outward. If we do it enough, we strengthen the neural networks responsible for it. Perhaps being nice really is a talent, but like other talents, it’s a product of practice, not genius.