Stop Telling Good People to Be Nice

In 2003, I attended a lecture by Kamran Elahian at Stanford BASES. He was the Founder and Managing Director of Global Catalyst Partners, a VC company investing in semiconductors. In his early career, he made his millions in a computer chip company he founded and was on a roll to Silicon Valley’s hall of fame. Unfortunately, some things did not go as planned and he pushed for a product for which the market was not ready. It was Momenta — an early prototype of the iPad.

After his epic failure, he went on a long vacation. His wife urged him, he told us. Apparently, she had had enough, he said wiping his forehead. So go he did and off he went. All around the world, primarily adhering to places less influenced by modernity. He wanted answers. He wanted to know who were the terrorists and why they were willing to blow themselves up.

What Mr. Elahian had discovered — and remember we were freshly post 9/11 here — was something that ended up radically altering his worldview. What he’d found, he told us sitting on the edge of our seats, was that 98% of the people he’d encountered were very good people. It was those few and far between that were willing to commit a variety horrendous acts.

Why am I bringing up a lecture I’d attended thirteen years ago? Because my dear readers, it perfectly illustrates the title that’s already been divulged. Most people are good. They don’t want to kill. They don’t want to steal. All they want is to live in peace, watch their children grow and contribute to their communities. The petty skirmishes they get into, are not world threatening.

Harmful Obedience

Each year, the self-help industry generates over $10 billion in revenues. That’s only in the United States. Furthermore, most consumers become multiple time buyers, keeping the number on a steady incline. Now, I understand the need to read about how to become a better person. More self-realized person. More compassionate, more empathic, more understanding. I’ve contributed to that number.

Back in the day, Borders was my second home, conveniently located one block away from my office. At least once a week, and usually during lunchtime, that pivotal moment n a worker’s day, I’d be there. I’d scour the aisles of the newest self-help offering and consume it with relish. All in one hour, ideally. So that when I got back into that office, I’d be as good as new. All would be forgiven, most would be forgotten, and whatever was left, ignored.

But this consistent under-the-rug sweeping was a lot like managing a landfill. Eventually, you’ll need to sort through it, lest you suffocate in your own garbage. I was soon to learn that majority of those self-induced lunchtime workshops were mostly for naught. In fact, some even made things worse.

What I deemed a dose of preemptive therapy for the most part turned out to be feasts of repression. And once all those repressed emotions started to come out, things got ugly. To spare you the gory details, let me just say that at least one river got to be cried, and all of my relatives had been damned. Multiple times. And at least one tree had been chopped and computer trashed to immemorialize the magnanimous events on paper and chip alike.

Some of it helped. In the course of five years, I managed to get a divorce, my own place all by myself ever, experience what it is to be single for the first time since I turned sixteen and make my boss cry during my epic one-hour meeting, in which I had to explain to him all the reasons why it was time for me to leave my job.

So what’s my deal with the self-help industry? Didn’t I just admit that it helped me cope thorough some of the toughest times in my twenties? Well, that’s because virtually everything they’d taught me was wrong for me. The beneficial part consisted of all the venting I needed to go through to restore a semblance of equilibrium within myself after a given book rocked the otherwise jammed up boat of my reality.

You see, I’m generally a nice person. Too nice. Since I was little, I’ve never missed my thank you, please or you’re welcome. You’re welcome! That’s all very nice on paper… Except, there is a serious problem with that picture.

Good girls who are already nice and wouldn’t hurt a fly should not really be taught how to be nicer yet. More obedient. More emphatic. More understanding. Repressed, hurting and finally self-loathing. Too much niceness can be toxic. I know, right? Who would’ve thought! Do you know what too much niceness does to us? Leaves us vulnerable to manipulation. We get bullied, sometimes raped and even killed — if not in flesh, often in spirit — be it by employers, media or bad boyfriends. By the way, you could rewrite the above paragraph and just switch the sexes; swap girls for boys. Same scenario applies.

If the books I was reading and believing to be serving valid advice made me only more defenseless against human jabs, why in the world was I buying books that made me fall even deeper into this ditch? Because there was hardly anything else available in a mainstream bookstore! And even if there were books by Erich Fromm or Wilhelm Reich on the shelves somewhere up there near the attic, I lacked the foundational knowledge to understand that that’s where the gold is at. Like most if us, I went for the shiny new covers with blown up taglines and promises.

‘Anybody can become angry — that is easy. But to be angry with the right person and to the right degree and at the right time and for the right purpose, and in the right way — that is not within everybody’s power and is not easy.’ –Aristotle

Individual Authenticity as a Prerequisite to Collective Peace

Stop telling good people to be nice. Hey Tony, Michael and Deepak. Yes, you too Oprah and Marianne. The people who are buying your books don’t really need them. What they need is to get properly angry. They need to express their fears. They need to embrace themselves fully for who they are right now, not try to become like your jolly, chest beating selves. They need is to claim their ground and speak the truth the way they see it. Not smooth their way to enlightenment by popping your paragraphs and Prozac in an effort to numb their grief.

What they could really use is authenticity, maybe a little encouragement to be more fully themselves. Maybe a little faith that deep inside, under that veil of blind obedience they already know what’s right. Because they do.

Those people need the courage to stand up for themselves and say ‘No! and ‘Enough!’ and mean it. They need to realize that it’s perfectly appropriate not to feel good sometimes. In fact, in certain situations disappointment and frustration are more fitting than pretending to be happy. Please, stop acting that all is well only to make another person like you. That never works. Be you. One hundred percent. That’s the secret.

We can have no universal peace without truth. And I don’t mean some abstract version of objective truth, as that version doesn’t really exist. I mean ultra-subjective truth that arises when all points of view are heard and included; an amalgamation of multiple perspectives. That can only come when all of us become authentic. When we dare to be different.

Witnessing what is, which unfortunately at this time includes widespread human suffering, rarely leads to violence. But unadulterated truth can lead to taking inspired action. When Mr. Elahian returned from his travels, he was compelled to start an organization that built mud schoolhouses in Tanzania and Bangladesh. In the schools they built, traveling members of the crew installed computers and printers shipped from Silicon Valley friends like Dell and HP. There, they trained orphans and widows in taking early steps towards sovereignty and independence.

So please, dear coaches and new age gurus, while we take individual steps to feel ourselves to liberation, you go pay a visit to our world leaders. They could definitely use a lesson in empathy. While you do that, we shall share our version of the story.

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