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Keep Your Eye on the (Ass)Hole, Not the Donut
"By my foes, sir, I profit in the knowledge of myself." —William Shakespeare, Twelfth Night
Having decided to make a start, it's time to focus on where you want to go. There are flyboys out there, men who have polished prickhood to a glossy sheen. And there's a name for such people: co-workers. Also: role models. Go find them. These masters of disaster can be found in almost every neighborhood, office, SUV, reality TV cooking show, and roman à clef. Look around. Whether it's your boss, your brother, or the guy who's sleeping with your spouse, these people have what you want. Watch them and learn.
If you open your eyes, you will see Assholes everywhere. I guarantee this in writing. It doesn't even matter where you are, although I understand many of them live in the South. My wife Gloria and I ran into an outstanding example at our car rental place, and he unwittingly guided me to this First Step.
We were standing in line on a Friday afternoon. Let's say there were eight or ten of us at a small car rental facility on the Upper West Side--a long line, for that location. There were three agents behind the counter doing what I assume they were paid to do since they did it every time I was there: stare at their screen, poke at their keyboard, say, "You gotta call the 800 number!," disappear for an hour, make two personal calls, then say, "The system's down." And God help you if you were going to try to redeem frequent-renter points for your car. To do that you had to spend the night on the little couch by the water fountain.
Tension was high. Then someone arrived who took the game to another level.
He was a short man with an unruly, curly mop and glasses he obviously needed, holding a green carry-on bag and a tiny folded umbrella. His American Express Platinum Card was already out as he crashed the front of the line.
"I'm running late, I've gotta emergency!" he growled. "President's Circle member--name's Scheuer."
One of the counter ladies--the one who had spent the last six hours looking for the "Esc" key on her keyboard, and then another two aiming for it with her twelve-inch nail--said, "How you spell that?"
"Slow down," she requested.
Now, this was New York City. We know what to do with line crashers. Some are given a suspended sentence of immediate banishment from the building, but most are stripped naked and insulted to death. At least, in our minds.
"There's a line," said the woman who was at the front of it.
"Yeah," added someone else.
"I'm running late," said Mr. Scheuer.
"We've been waiting."
"Yeah," whined the guy behind her, "we were here first."
The counter lady asked Mr. Scheuer if a midsize vehicle would be all right.
The short answer was: no. "You get this wrong every time," he sneered. "I can't believe this. I need a full-size—how can you fuck that up all the time?"
"It's not me, sir."
"I don't care," he said. Then a thought occurred to him. "I need a free upgrade—you know how much I spend here. Look that up. You got any Jaguars in?"
"No, sir, we sure don't."
"Don't help him," whined some pathetic guy at the back of the line, "he cut in front." Oh, yeah, that guy was me.
"We have an Escalade," said the counter lady, whistling in admiration. "Only four hundred miles. Practically brand new."
"Sounds okay to me," said Mr. Scheuer. "Throw in a NeverLost with that."
"Already on board, sir."
After he had driven off in his magnificent machine, my wife and I had a couple hours left in the line to ponder what we'd just seen. Our reactions were different. Mine was that it was unfair and poopy and I would get revenge by taking my two hundred dollars of annual business to another rental company, and that would show them. I was livid, although you would never have been able to tell from anything I did.
On the other hand, Gloria started a girl-to-girl round-robin with some people in the line about what a dick that guy was, which somehow morphed into a free mini-seminar on folding omelettes.
I wasn't even listening. In a dark part of my soul, I admired that guy.
He had something I wanted so badly I could smell it. And he reminded me of somebody. It took me a moment to connect the dots, but when I did I realized there was a cesspool of Asshole wisdom right in front of my nose: the Nemesis.
So your first order of business is to find a good role model. If you live and work in America, this won't be hard. It's important to observe the schmuck closely for a period of weeks. It's even more important that you do not let him know what you're doing, for obvious reasons.
I began my field work one night as I was leaving the office. Carrying my travel tote filled with important direct marketing papers, I stopped by the Nemesis's office. He was typing furiously with two fingers and a thumb on his huge Mac computer.
"Hey," I said, buddy to buddy.
He didn't look at me and kept typing.
"Working late, huh?" I asked.
"It's only eight."
"Oh--you're right. Thought it was much, much later."
I stood there for a long time until he finally chose to stop pounding on his innocent keypad and notice me for real. "What's up?"
"How're the projects going?"
"Okay," he said.
"Working on any good pitches?"
"Need any help--?"
"I'll let you know."
He started scrutinizing e-mail on his outsized flat screen. I noticed that his neck was almost bigger around than his head. That must have taken a lot of the kind of weightlifting I didn't even know existed. Did people lift weights with their head? Also, his hands were enormous, and we all know what that means.
On the walls in his office he had an art poster of--I'm not making this up--a credit card, and a framed photograph of an ATM. His desk had a little bobblehead of a St. Louis baseball player, a Rubik's Cube keychain, four staplers, a black Swiss Army jackknife, a scary-looking silver letter-opener, and an unspent round of automatic ammunition.
"Cool," I said. "Lunch next week?"
He looked at me like I'd just taken a dump on his rug.
Just to make sure, I looked down.
Over the course of a week or two, make a careful case study of your role model. Be thorough but quick; he's always moving. Think of it like those documentaries on Animal Planet that profile a struggling species and then say it will die out in a few weeks due to an oil spill. The only difference is you are the struggling species, and the role model is the oil spill.
Now I must confess up front that in the course of my time observing the Nemesis in action, I did not see or hear explicit evidence of a number of behaviors you might have expected. For instance, he never actually pummeled a colleague in my presence, at least not physically. He never called a woman a "skanky ho"—although he called many men that. And despite his reputation for having a mercurial temper, I did not see him pistol-whip or machine-gun another VP, at least in the office.
Those are the things he didn't do.
What he gave me were priceless lessons in the ways in which an A-plus Asshole can operate in the corridors of corporate America through a combination of high volume, wild egomania, and a breathtaking lack of social skills. His techniques can usefully be divided into major themes--what we might call The Asshole's Six Secrets of Workplace Effectiveness.
They are, in order of importance:
Number 1. Show No Interest in Others
At first glance, this one may look easy. Most of us are self-centered in the extreme, and it should be no big deal to kick it up a notch or two in order to gain maximum benefit from our hobby. However, the fact is that where true selfishness is concerned, the Nemesis makes us look like Saint Francis.
The Asshole is self-seeking and proud of it; this is America, whose motto was recently changed to "Land of the Me." If there's one more cookie left on the plate, you know who's taking it. If it means standing up for more than ten seconds he's not giving you his seat on the bus. The trouble with the rest of us wannabes is we don't follow through. We fail to take this First Secret literally and show NO—that is, zip, nada, empty circle—interest in others.
We had a regular parade of job candidates coming through our doors to replace the people who had seen the light and left, and we interviewed them in teams. That is, four or five of us at various levels would meet with these people for a half hour, one after another, and grill them on their backgrounds and present a "case," or marketing thought experiment, so they could show us how they'd tackle it. Then after each victim had left we'd meet in the boss's office to debrief and come to a decision.
The Nemesis and I were often on the same interviewing team, meeting the same candidates and attending the same debriefings. And because my division was about three thousand people stuffed into an office space built for fifty, the interviews usually had to be held in semipublic places like conference rooms--even, one time, on a window ledge next to the copy machine. Thus it was very easy for me to "happen" to overhear the Nemesis "interviewing" a candidate.
His encounters with the candidates were very different from mine. Most of the airtime was eaten up by the Nemesis, in effect, interviewing himself.
"So, walk me through your résumé," he'd start.
"Well, I graduated NYU in—"
"I applied there," he interrupted, "got in. Stern's a good school but you know it's the brand name that really counts. Don't you think? That's why I went to Bowdoin."
"I had a good experience," they'd continue, "particularly in corporate fin—"
"Amazing what's happening east of that neighborhood," he said, stretching wide his arms and yawning, meanwhile unwrapping a bagel he'd forgotten he'd brought with him for breakfast. "I shoulda bought down there five years ago--you know, I've got a building out in Phoenix, I gut rehabbed it. There's a lot of red tape when you renovate. Still it's the best long-term investment--even short-term. Real estate. So where do you live, Steve?"
"Jacob. I live in—"
"They didn't toast this! Man, oh man—they always forget the fucking toasting. How hard is it to do a simple thing like that? I'm gonna have to get another guy fired."
By this point, the candidate was usually staring at the Nemesis wondering whether maybe he should go back to massage school.
"So what can I tell you about this place?" asked the Nemesis.
"You mind if I eat? I went jogging this morning and let me tell you, it's been a while. I'm gonna hit the marathon next year--did that before. I coulda placed higher but there were all those freakin' fat people in my way. They should have a weight limit, at least on the bridges, right? So what job are you up for again?"
And so on. It's amazing he came to any conclusions about any of them. Or not amazing, because he always had the same reaction.
"I didn't like her," he'd say.
"Can you be more specific?" Dale, the HR guy, would ask during the debrief.
"Not sharp enough. Too stupid."
"You say that about all of them."
"That's 'cause the people you're bringing in here are horse shit. Pardon my Uzbeki."
Yet another of his irritating habits: He invented this expression, "Pardon my Uzbeki."
I was known as an "easy interview," respectful and quiet, probing gently into areas where they'd excelled, not too hung up on a "right answer" to the case. They could leave the interview not knowing a single thing about me beyond my name.
And I liked them all. The Nemesis and I always negated one another. We didn't help decide a single hire.
Extreme self-centeredness serves to make others feel small and insecure. You can then jump into the power vacuum, and start taking names.
Number 2. Speak Loudly, Interrupt Often
The Nemesis liked to interrupt early and often. Think about what it does: shuts people down. It's pure and simple dominance in the human animal kingdom. I'm talking—you talk over me. I stop. You control the frame.
Outside skilled eye contact, interrupting may be the single biggest pellet in the Asshole's shotgun. Much more important than what you say is when you say it.
Consistency is also important—as in, acting like a broken record. Changing your mind, listening to reason, these are the fatal weaknesses of the Castrated Beta Male (CBM).
One time we had a guest speaker come in to talk to us about women small business owners as consumers. She was highly prepared, with a slick slide show, young but articulate and dressed in dark blue slightly above the occasion, and her opinions were more than usually grounded in data.
"What we see," she said, "is women are very responsive to messages with seasonal language. Talking about Renewal and the Spring and even what seems like old-fashioned stuff—oh, Harvest-time and Back-to-School—all that really resonates with this audience. We think that's because women are—well, they're more seasonal or cyclical biologically if you know what I—"
"I don't know about that," interrupted the Nemesis, chomping on some Cool Ranch Doritos from a little bag in his lap and almost yelling. "You're talkin' about cycles and stuff but actually running a business is a—"
"Can we save the questions till after," she said.
"—It isn't a question, it's an answer."
"Let me tell you something about women," he went on. "I know women. And this seasonal stuff is total shit. Pardon my Uzbeki. Women are always in a bad mood and it doesn't even matter what part of the year we're in. And they're really messy. Let me tell you, my girlfriend…"
We were treated to an oration on the Nemesis's knowledge of women, which seemed to consist mostly of things he'd picked up in the group showers back at Delta Gamma house. This guy knew women like I knew dog training.
What surprised me more was that he was not married. Mostly because he regularly rhapsodized about the great wit and wisdom of "my incredible wife, Mary."
But only when clients were in the room.