All-American Assholes

I am an asshole.  Perhaps a recovering asshole, but as the saying goes, “Once an asshole, always an asshole.”  If you are a white male whose life began in the United States between World War II and when Kennedy was slain in Dallas, you might be an asshole too.  If you’ve got a few bucks in your bank account, a respectable title after your name, a house or houses paid for, and a family that mostly tolerates you, then you are probably an asshole.  Add to that a membership at a country club, a seat on someone else’s board (and yes charitable boards count too), and money contributed to political candidates or Super PACs, you are most definitely an asshole. But, “Wait!” you say, “You’ve just described what a successful American man is supposed to be!  You are talking about what Tom Wolfe celebrated in his 1998 book, A Man in Full.”  Yes, but success, or being “full,” doesn’t make you likeable; rather, it probably assures your membership in an unprecedented and oversubscribed club of assholes.

Just look around you if you think I am exaggerating, or if you think I may be spiraling into a dive of self-deprecation.  Ask yourself, is that older white man you know really all that nice?  Does he listen when spoken to, or is his mind occupied by what he is going to say or do next?  Does he care for his spouse, children, and friends as well as he cares for his many possessions?  Does he actually do charitable work, or just write checks and show up at the ball?  Does he yell at other white male pundits on TV, or stare at the charts and crawl on CNBC?  Does ESPN stream on his smartphone on weekends during the only significant time he has to spend with you?  Does he have the answer for everything?  See, we assholes are everywhere.  But, it is not all our fault.  We became what we were expected to become, and damnit, it was easy.

We came of age in the final and glorious ascent of America, when the U.S. became a superpower that defeated godless communism, and then ushered in the digital age.  We helped create more wealth than the world has ever seen (even though much of it proved illusory in 2008).  We were taught to play to win, not to collaborate.  We sought promotions even if we only met half of the stated qualifications.  Our lives became a series of objectives without any end in sight.  Our mantra is “More!”  Sometimes also “Better!” (in deference to fellow asshole Steve Jobs), but always “More!”  More money, more power, and more toys.  Confident? Damn right we are.  We view successor generations of American males as narcissistic pussies, if and when we consider them at all.  Rush Limbaugh, Bill O’Reilly, Chris Matthews, Stephen Colbert and Jon Stewart are all assholes (even though the last two are much more clever assholes).  Presidents Clinton and Bush? Yup.  Donald Trump? Duh!  Collectively, we institutionalized the American male asshole.

To be sure, women can be assholes too, but they usually need a book to tell them how.  Recent contributions to this field to train female assholes include Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In, Arianna Huffington’s Thrive, and Katty Kay and Claire Shipman’s The Confidence Code.  It is worth noting that the best-trained female assholes achieve aptitudes that meet or eclipse the Trumps and Limbaughs, but it is not a natural disposition; it is learned.  Sadly, too often in an irreversible manner.  Unlike male assholes, female converts are unlikely to return to a more reasonable or graceful state.  Just ask their female cohorts upon whom they direct most of their acquired asshole skills.

There are some things, however, that we male assholes can do to affect our liberation.  While those like Trump and Limbaugh are clearly beyond help, the rest of us run-of-the-mill assholes can escape more or less intact, and we might even enjoy our lives a great deal more.  Here are six suggestions.

  1. The first step is to realize that if your life is all about, or mostly about, yourself, it is a life of no significance whatsoever. I don’t care how much money you have, or houses, or places that have your name on the wall, your family and friends will likely be quietly pleased when you are gone.  They may even do what they can to accelerate your departure.  (Be careful when signing that power of attorney.)
  2. The next step is to realize that yes, my aspiring Buddha buddies, less is more.  Get rid of all your crap.  Downsize your footprint on the world by living smaller.  Introduce yourself to the Goodwill Donation Station and slip a Benjamin in the pocket of that Brioni suit you donate to the next poor schmuck who wants to be like you.  Trade complexity for simplicity.  If you do, you will have time for what follows below, rather than spending your day acquiring and maintaining more stuff.
  3. Next, take a lesson in humility and go back to school.  It has probably been years since you had your butt kicked, and seeking an advanced degree will do that and more.  Study something well beyond your current knowledge or skills.  The ultimate goal is to unlock your head and become a whole-minded person again, like you were when you were a boy.  Then once you think you know something new, apply or teach that knowledge to something or someone else.
  4. Serve and share. Stop writing checks to charities and showing up with your newly bleached teeth for the social pages photo-op.  Pick a place in your community and actually volunteer your time and energy.  Get dirty in the reality of the lives of non-assholes.  There won’t be a new plaque on the wall with your name on it, but you might actually like yourself better in the process.  And, express gratitude for the opportunity to serve.  Trust me, you will get more out of it than they will.
  5. Create rather than optimize or maximize.  As I have written here before, Rembrandt claimed only beautiful things are truly durable.  Aesthetics are as important as function.  (Jobs understood this.)  Leave your optimizing and maximizing skills behind and focus on creation for the sake of creation.  It doesn’t matter what it is, as long as it appeals to your senses first, and your analytics last.
  6. Slow down, dude.  Breathe.  Speed is no longer your friend. Enjoy movement frame by frame—as a set of still photos rather than high-def video.  You’ll be amazed by what you have been missing, and it just may add years to your life.

Follow these steps and you may just make it out of the club.  Moreover, people may actually, genuinely, like you again.  Or, stay on the path you are on and get thick, frail, and even angrier than you are today.  After all, the Senator McCains of the world need someone to listen to them.