Keeping Your Soul Without Losing Your Edge
June 29, 2011 7:16 AM   Subscribe

I have, unexpectedly, become something of a celebrity and I think it's changing my behavior for the worse. In short, I am worried I am becoming a complete pill because I now have the freedom to tell people to screw off.

Quick Summary: I'm in my mid 20s and a hard working member of the art world. I have had some public and private success recently and got lots of money and lots of social capital as a result. I get to have meetings in big rooms with really important people and so on.

I credit my success to being nice. Not just pleasant but nice. I am obnoxiously nice. I didn't grow up with people who thought very much about other people so I tried to be the perfect social butler, so to speak. I knew the name of every single person there and what they liked and how to talk to them and I was pleasant. If something came up that I disagreed with, I would volley it back into the crowd or try to draw them out, make them explain, kill them with kindness, charm them to my point of view, give them enough rope to hang themselves with, or just smother them with good natured spirit.

That worked. It was good. I liked being known as That Person. Social Graces up the wazoo. Emotional Bomb Department. But then I started to get money. And Jobs. And a reputation. And I found myself not caring anymore. I was rude. Curt. Snappy. Normally if someone would say, express an opinion I disagreed with I would try to draw them out, make them explain themselves, and so on.

Now I just say "That is the stupidest thing I have ever heard" and ignore them. I've lost whatever patience I used to have. I am finding myself going "Well they're not X" as an excuse to just blow people off. I used to make friends by the barrel and now it seems like I'm just concentrating a small pool of people who agree with me

I am sitting outside myself thinking "Wow, if you're not careful you're gonna be a horrible person surrounded by yesmen" with the other half going "No, suffering bores for a decade was horrible, now you don't have to deal with that cause you have actual clout which you worked for."

So, how can I make sure I use the new power and status and position to be happy and move through life without turning into an awful person? How do you avoid the Yesman trap?
posted by anonymous to Society & Culture (56 answers total) 37 users marked this as a favorite
Were you being nice as a means to an end or do you want to BE a nice person?

You need the answer to that first.
posted by St. Alia of the Bunnies at 7:21 AM on June 29, 2011 [11 favorites]

I wonder whether you are finding your new position somewhat stressful? could this be contributing to the behavioural impacts you describe?
posted by biffa at 7:22 AM on June 29, 2011 [5 favorites]

I always remember celebrities if they are nice people. It's nice to be important....but it's important to be nice.
posted by JtJ at 7:24 AM on June 29, 2011 [1 favorite]

Fame and power are fleeting. If you behave this way, you're going to lose the people who truly care about you and surround yourself with those who are only willing to put up with your behavior because you are famous and powerful. Please try to avoid doing this. Just be a nice person. The way you are viewed by the public and the artistic community doesn't have one thing to do with the person you actually are. It's all fake.

Someone I used to care about quite a lot has gone down this road over the past few years and alienated all the good people in his life. It's sad, frustrating, infuriating and bewildering. And more than any of those things, too, it's just distasteful that a formerly level-headed person of integrity allowed himself to get sucked into an ephemeral world of superficiality. Someday he (and you, if you allow this to happen to yourself) will wake up and be very lonely as a direct result of only his own actions.
posted by something something at 7:25 AM on June 29, 2011 [8 favorites]

This is the folly of youth. Your ego is convinced you are going to spend the rest of your life on top of the power pile. Your ego is mistaken. The low-powered underling you cut down today will be in a position to give you funding or introductions in 10 years, and you will likely no longer be the toast of the town and instead, be grateful for the contacts and good will.

Don't burn your bridges. I have basically built a career on being abrupt and plain speaking, but it is always in the interests of helping the person I am speaking to get on board with the best possible outcome for the project. There are three occasions in 15 years when I have torched bridges, and I regret two of them deeply. One one occasion, a person against whom I released a nuclear arsenal of weaponry turned up as a judge on an industry panel 5 years later. It didn't have a negative outcome (the client I had submitted still won) but if she'd made the connection between me and the client, it would have.
posted by DarlingBri at 7:28 AM on June 29, 2011 [16 favorites]

Be polite and be fair, because you'll see all these people on the way down as well.
posted by chillmost at 7:29 AM on June 29, 2011 [2 favorites]

For some reason I'm reminded of Charlie Brooker's recent column in the Guardian on entitlement. Perhaps you just need to get out of the success bubble from time to time. In the UK, we describe people who have a life outside their main pursuit as "having a hinterland": do you have a hinterland to fall back on?
posted by pharm at 7:29 AM on June 29, 2011 [3 favorites]

I think part of getting older is being more picky about who you associate with. Professionally, there will be a divide between you and your colleagues as you each pursue different goals. Personally, you may find that the handful of values that brought you together in a "younger" friendship are not enough to bridge the gap between the differences of opinion that emerge when people refine their values in older age.

Having said that, isn't there a middle ground you could try and find, if only to grease the wheels? You don't have to suffer fools for hours on end, but telling someone their opinion is the stupidest thing you've ever heard is extreme. I think you would find some value in being a more "moderate" person, socially.

Thinking about your reputation so much is exhausting and the reputation you built as "That Person" doesn't appear to be your actual personality.

Perhaps you need to think of a new strategy. Be polite, be courteous, but distance yourself before you erupt in anger.
posted by cranberrymonger at 7:29 AM on June 29, 2011 [5 favorites]

Well, ask yourself if you were nice to people before because you were genuinely a nice person or if you felt it was the best way for you to get ahead.

Certainly all is not lost, you want to be a better person and that's the only way to start down that road.

But you have to remember what brought you to the show, you being human to people and not a dick. The biggest lie people at the top tell themselves is that this is always how it will be now. It won't. It can and often does change. Don't let yourself be led by the nodders who say yes. They don't really lead you anywhere. Challenge yourself by surrounding yourself by people who aren't scared of you, people who you respect. If you spend all your time with people you feel are beneath you, you'll end up hating yourself in the end.

I wish you luck in finding yourself again. I can only imagine that journey will make you a better artist.
posted by inturnaround at 7:31 AM on June 29, 2011

Just remember that even if you're important to some people, you're not that important in the grand scheme of things, and it's probably better to have and give pleasant experiences.
posted by entropone at 7:35 AM on June 29, 2011 [2 favorites]

Unfortunately, the way you describe your "niceness" sounds a lot like manipulation to me. Not just manipulation for power, but that sort of middle-child make nice-nice manipulation of the chronic peacemaker.

So it's entirely possible you've never actually liked people - you don't say if you used to - and now you can get away with saying it out loud. It's easier to start out faking it, so you might focus on cultivating your manners to start with so you're at least not treating people like crap superficially, and then work on maybe starting to like people. Focus on seeing their side of things, giving them the benefit of the doubt, letting them be who they are and appreciating them for that.

But really: do you like yourself? You'll need to, in order to like other people. And if you don't, you might find that the more you like yourself that other people aren't actually a problem anymore.
posted by Lyn Never at 7:38 AM on June 29, 2011 [13 favorites]

For what it's worth, it's possible to be blunt and still kind. It's just a tricky bit of balancing.
posted by nebulawindphone at 7:39 AM on June 29, 2011 [1 favorite]

Very simple principle: Be nice to people on your way up, you may well meet them again on your way down.

Also, I think St Alia of the Bunnies and Lyn Never are spot on about figuring out WHY you want/don't want to be nice.
posted by bardophile at 7:46 AM on June 29, 2011 [1 favorite]

DarlingBri speaks the truth.

My two cents is that you can lose this as easily as you got it. And you're more likely to lose it if people think of you as an asshole, worse yet as an asshole who let his success go to his head. If people start wanting to hurt you more than help you, it's harder to hold on to your success and certainly harder to rebuild what you lose.

My limited knowledge from friends involved in "the art world" indicates that the above is true there as well as in areas where I have more experience.

You certainly can speak your mind more and be less mainpulatively nice, but I would think being outright rude is a little much.
posted by mrs. taters at 7:47 AM on June 29, 2011

I am sitting outside myself thinking "Wow, if you're not careful you're gonna be a horrible person surrounded by yesmen" with the other half going "No, suffering bores for a decade was horrible, now you don't have to deal with that cause you have actual clout which you worked for."

So, was suffering bores for a decade horrible? If so, I don't see why you should feel compelled to go back to doing that. On the other hand, I'm not sure why you set up this dichotomy of "nice but suffering bores" versus "rude but efficient." Isn't there a third option -- nice (or at least "not rude") but assertive?

"Nice" is not a technique, nor is it an invitation to be taken advantage of. There are plenty of nice people who are successful and efficient. There are also plenty of successful people who come to realize that they just aren't really "nice" and now can get away without faking it. Which are you?
posted by pardonyou? at 7:57 AM on June 29, 2011 [2 favorites]

"That is the stupidest thing I have ever heard"

There are people I know who are "on the way up" who I refuse to support or work with because of infractions far less disrespectful than even this. It's not even about personal slights, it's about whether someone can be trusted to consider anyone's stakes but their own. I understand how personal shit can sometimes eclipse someone's professional view, and there but for the grace of God go I -- but if someone cracks or snaps like that in front of me, they go immediately to the rear of my list of people to potentially work with or reach out to someday.

In other words, you may be closing doors behind you faster than you are opening new ones ahead of you.

Worse than being surrounded by yesmen is being surrounded by people who are afraid of you, or who don't really respect you but think they can benefit from tolerating you for a while. And if you drive off all the genuine people, these others become your main source of support. That's scary and sad. I've worked with/for older people who suffer in this condition. They've been lied to, they've been stolen from, they've been used. All their real friends and most illustrious contacts hold them at arm's length, afraid to get too close to the whirlpool.

Social and professional interaction is transactional. It works on an economy of giving. If you start withholding, people sense that and adjust their expectations -- and how much they offer in return.
posted by hermitosis at 8:01 AM on June 29, 2011 [22 favorites]

Dude, cut it out. You've had some success. You worked your butt off. AND you got lucky.

There are lots of people who work their butts off and don't get lucky. Now is the time for humility, not entitlement. Look at the people around you and remember what it was like when you were trying to get where you are now. You are in a position to help them along their path, or at least model to them how grateful you are to have stood on the heads of giants.

Stop being a pill. Just stop it. Your rationalizations are tttthhhhhhhiiiissss close to justifying serious assholery.

At the same time, do not be afraid to set boundaries for yourself. Your schedule is busier than it used to be. In some ways, your time is more valuable than it used to be. That means you are allowed to prioritize. That means you are allowed to say, "No." It is possible to be firm and set boundaries without being dismissive and rude.
posted by whimsicalnymph at 8:05 AM on June 29, 2011 [8 favorites]

First of all, congratulations. I'm an artist too and know how difficult it is to get to where you are. You're in the top 1%.

Remember: art is about people. There are other things, but in the end of the day, it's about people. The more you distance yourself from this, the more difficult it might become to make work that gets to the heart of what matters.

Three suggestions:

1) Seek people in your life who have less. It feels good to help them and they'll remind you of what you have (and when you have a lot, this is surprisingly easy to forget).
2) Seek people in your life that are on your level. You can talk with them easily.
3) Seek mentors, people who are where you want to be. They provide vital hints.
posted by Murray M at 8:06 AM on June 29, 2011 [2 favorites]

There's a middle ground between engaging someone you disagree with to convince them of your position, and being outright rude. There are responses which discourage further debate or discussion of the matter (and may or may not also imply that you disagree with the position) yet are still polite.

See this previous question for a variety of options, which cover many points along the continuum between "very polite" and "borderline rude," so you can fine-tune your response depending on how much disdain you want to convey.
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 8:10 AM on June 29, 2011

You should continue to have nice as your default setting. You are now obviously aware that you are capable of being an arsehole. Don't worry, you're not alone. The good thing is that you are aware that your behaviour has changed so it shouldn't be too difficult to go back to being a nice person because if you weren't fundamentally nice you wouldn't be questioning yourself right now.

Being nice has a flow on effect. Pay it forward may be a cliche, but it's a nice one.
You treat people in a decent way because that is how you would like to be treated. You should avoid making other people feel like shit because they, like you, have one life to live and what gives you the right to litter other people's lives with shit just because you can't be bothered to edit yourself?

Being nice is easier than being an arsehole. It makes you feel good about yourself. People will think well about you and you'll feel well about yourself. You'll be able to live your life secure in the knowledge that you didn't fuck someone up because of your incapacity to imagine the emotional state of someone apart from yourself.

You can't always be nice and you should certainly take care of yourself. But consider this - how do you feel when someone doesn't give a single fuck about your feelings? Compare that to how it feels when someone puts themself out to do something that makes your life easier.
posted by h00py at 8:14 AM on June 29, 2011 [1 favorite]

Also consider that colleagues who are very good at what they do will quickly choose to work with and for other people and that eventually, you will be stuck with folks too green to get the hell out.

C'mon, you don't want to wake up knowing YOU'RE the jerk that everyone shares hilarious stories of outrage about at the bar, at parties, etc. Don't treat people like things. Remember that you are not always right. And bad reputations linger a hell of a lot longer than good ones and karma is a very, very real thing.
posted by smirkette at 8:15 AM on June 29, 2011

This sounds more like stress than anything else - now you have less time to think about being friendly and less energy to put into it, because you have to spend time meeting in big rooms with important people. And there are fewer immediate social costs to snapping at people - and probably there's some aftermath from growing up around unpleasant people. Maybe if you didn't see the adults in your life acting properly, you don't have a model for how to have power and be pleasant.

Also, I don't think there's anything wrong with deriving some self-worth from being nice to people - I personally derive self-worth from doing political work and helping my friends when they need it, and I think it's totally reasonable to say "I am a good person because I make the effort to do Z and Y good things." Works rather than faith, if you like.

I've often wondered why famous people act like such jerks. It's interesting to read about this from an insider's perspective.

I snap at people a lot. I've found lately that I've been able to think "I don't want to snap at PERSON. I like her. I know some stuff about her work; she works very hard. I will speak slowly and thoughtfully." When I prep myself by thinking this all through, it helps me to be polite. Especially when I run through what I know about the person's situation or work - "PERSON is responsible for ALL the financial paperwork for this large entity. She has to do X and Y today, and Z has to be wrapped up by next week, plus she has to supervise A." or "PERSON is pregnant and out of work, naturally she is stressed out."
posted by Frowner at 8:15 AM on June 29, 2011

It sounds to me like your "niceness" hasn't ever been particularly genuine. Rather than figuring out how reload your weapon of choice, I suspect that you should figure out how people are really genuinely nice.

Don't worry, you're halfway there. You've stepped outside yourself and observed abhorrent behavior in yourself. That's farther along than some people ever get. You've got one new (seemingly mortifying) perspective. Now you need to get another one: a role model, or an ideal. You know, someone just really really decent. Jimmy Carter. Jiminy Cricket. Jesus. Julie Andrews. And then you need to make that your mantra: WWJD?

And then practice it. Often. Until it becomes natural. (Again.)
posted by jph at 8:21 AM on June 29, 2011

I echo many of the sentiments here, and I'll also add that in my experience as a somewhat lowly assistant who crossed paths with celebrities quite a bit, the biggest, most successful celebrities were generally the ones who treated me kindly and attentively (despite my being a "nobody"), while the middling (sometimes newly famous) celebrities were the rudest and most arrogant.

In other words, it seems to me that maintaining a kindness to others helped with the long-term success of the actors, artists, musicians, etc. that I encountered, while the rude ones seemed to hit a wall after a while. So: be nice to others. Everyone deserves kindness.
posted by Ms. Toad at 8:22 AM on June 29, 2011 [11 favorites]

Personally, I would love to have money and social capital. This is not because I need to live a life of luxury or power; I tend to live in a low-budget way. But exhausting or terrible things keep happening in life: you get sick, you need to pay for treatment, stuff breaks, you need to get it repaired, things get lost or stolen. Maybe you can't take that nice vacation to visit your friends because you can't afford it or you're running late and can't take a cab because that costs too much too or you have to be very careful about what you buy at the supermarket.

The thing is that money makes all that easier. I like to hope that if I ever do have money, I wouldn't spend it on random crap; ideally I'd live well within my means and enjoy the luxury of being able to throw money at any real problems that do show up.

I think that social capital works the same way, although maybe that is a stretchy metaphor.

The point is that it might help, possibly, to thing about what you really want to do with the new resources you have. In what ways can they make your life better, and do you want to live large and deplete your reserves, or live below your means and have one hell of a helpful buffer.
posted by trig at 8:23 AM on June 29, 2011

It sounds to me like the OP knows that he or she is turning into a spoiled asshole and wants to know what to do about it: the hard part is that being obnoxious now feels just as natural as being nice once was, and it's not obvious how to reverse that.

I can't say that I have any life similar life experience to draw on, but it seems to me that your newfound status has eliminated a lot of the factors that had previously kept your ego in check. In my experience, spending a nontrivial amount of time pursuing an interest with people who are much better at it than I'll ever be is humbling all-around: maybe it would be helpful for you to take up a new hobby that you're not already good at (e.g. a new foreign language, a new sport, or a new martial art). I think that this might be what pharm is referring to as "having a hinterland."
posted by Dr. Eigenvariable at 8:27 AM on June 29, 2011

I guess that time is a factor.

You are probably coming into contact with a lot more people since your success and are also probably a hell of a lot busier. I think that you likely do not have the time it takes to be nice.
If you can figure out quicker ways of being nice you might fare a little better.
posted by therubettes at 8:31 AM on June 29, 2011 [1 favorite]

On reflection, it's possible that your brain just wants to glory for a while in finally being on top. In that case, there's always noblesse oblige.
posted by trig at 8:32 AM on June 29, 2011

Now I just say "That is the stupidest thing I have ever heard" and ignore them. I've lost whatever patience I used to have. I am finding myself going "Well they're not X" as an excuse to just blow people off. I used to make friends by the barrel and now it seems like I'm just concentrating a small pool of people who agree with me

My father used to say, "you don't have to be friends with everyone, but don't make people your enemy."

The guy above was right that the nature of being older is that you become more selective about whom you socialize with. At the same time, you need to learn to compartmentalize better. You're an artist? Great. If one of your colleagues says something ignorant about how much he hates bike lanes, let it slide. Point out that you disagree/like them/use them, and move on. Your interest in that person with the disagreeable opinion is about whatever his core competency is, not about what he thinks about dogs vs. cats as pets.

Knowing everyone's names and what they like? That's an awesome set of social graces to have. The next set of social graces you need to develop is how to disarm someone-- don't turn everything into a validating socratic dialog, but don't bluntly tell them off, either. Deflect and move on with the conversation.
posted by deanc at 8:39 AM on June 29, 2011 [1 favorite]

It sounds like you're overwhelmed by all the attention and new opportunities, and it's worn down your patience for the less important people and things. That's totally understandable, and I suspect it would happen to anyone in your position.

Getting ahead in the world often involves a lot of saying yes to every opportunity that comes your way. Now that you've got to a certain point, you can start saying no to things. You have to start saying no, or you'll burn out. If you can learn to graciously decline or bow out of things without blowing people off, it will help you keep your sanity and your reputation as a nice person.

It also sounds like a key part of your problem is vocally disagreeing with people when they say something you don't like or agree with. The wider your sphere, the more people you'll meet who have differing opinions. Let people have their opinions, however stupid they may seem; they are unlikely to change for anyone or anything.
posted by Metroid Baby at 8:40 AM on June 29, 2011

Normally if someone would say, express an opinion I disagreed with I would try to draw them out, make them explain themselves, and so on... Now I just say "That is the stupidest thing I have ever heard" and ignore them.

You seem to indicate that these are your two choices here. But you have other choices—you don't have to spend the time to have a calm discussion on every opinion you disagree with, without saying something ridiculously rude. You can just move on, either without indicating your disagreement ("Hmmm. Hey, what do you think about that new sculptor?") or with it ("I don't really agree with that, but can we talk about the new sculptor instead?").
posted by grouse at 8:40 AM on June 29, 2011

You need a manager or an agent. Oprah is legendarily nice irl. But she surrounds herself with pitbulls in pumps--her executive producers are legendarily unpleasant and brutal, but extremely loyal to her.
posted by Ideefixe at 8:41 AM on June 29, 2011 [1 favorite]

With Great Power comes Great Responsibility.

Right now, you describe wielding your new found power irresponsibly.

You have the power to really hurt people now. Do you remember what it was like to get hurt by someone more powerful than you, someone you couldn't win against? It was devastating, right?

Don't be that person.

You're right, btw. I live in LA now, and I believe that the most successful folks in this town, with the longest careers and biggest level of personal happiness, are almost always the nicest folks in the room, too.
posted by jbenben at 8:43 AM on June 29, 2011

Let's face it: you were never a nice person. You were tolerant because you knew it would get you ahead, which was actually a shrewd, cutting business move.

I think being nice is overrated, and there are actually benefits to conducting yourself with honesty. But I've also conducted myself that way from the outset--I'm in a field where being saccharine-nice (like, camp counselor nice) is the usual model of garnering success, but instead I've presented myself as someone who vocally believes in honesty and excellence. And it's alienated a few people, but it's also helped me get ahead.

Where you'll likely run into bumps is in the fact that your social persona is suddenly doing a 180. This is a problem with not being true to yourself from the beginning--the cracks begin to show, the real you starts to come out. So I'd sit down with yourself for a few hours and do some calm reflection on, first of all, the type of people you admire most whose models of behavior are ones you could actually maintain. Figure out models of generosity which you feel comfortable with--like one of my teachers in graduate school, who was infinitely patient and giving with his students despite having an industry reputation for "meanness" about issues of quality in others' work. And above all, once you've figured out your own values, be consistent in acting with accordance to them.

Because it's hypocrisy that'll bring you down, not necessarily just not being "nice."
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 8:54 AM on June 29, 2011 [5 favorites]

Conversely, I think you could turn this into a game. Watch movies and read about people who are really truly despicable social climbers who use people to get ahead and have little concern for the well-being of others. Watch "All About Eve" and "The Opposite of Sex." Read up on Becky Sharp and her conniving in "Vanity Fair." Or take the subject lightly and watch Cady and Regina duke it out in "Mean Girls" or watch Gladys Leeman pick off teenage beauty pageant contestants in "Drop Dead Gorgeous."

There is no dearth of cautionary tales out there. Seek them out and become the expert on what constitutes good and bad behavior. Since you're already being reflective on this subject, this could be a fun way to engage yourself in the process of thinking about who you want to be when you grow up.
posted by jph at 8:55 AM on June 29, 2011

Anonymous, I also grew up around self-involved people, and when you describe yourself as a "social butler" it strikes a chord. I grew up as a people pleaser because my world was a selfish place, where people valued me to the extent that I was useful to them. So I grew up being "nice," and extremely adept at keeping people happy.

But niceness is not the same thing as kindness. Niceness is a social skill. Kindness is a genuine concern for others. I suspect you're both nice and a kind person, because unkind people generally don't spend a lot of time worrying about whether they're horrible. But you must recognize that your niceness and the kindness in your heart are separate things.

You've achieved some measure of status, money, and power, and your problem now, very likely, is that your niceness skills just aren't as necessary now as they once were. Whatever favor or approval you once used niceness to obtain, are now offered to you without any effort on your part. The niceness is a tool you can, for the moment put back in your box.

The problem now for you, I'm guessing, is that you don't know how not to be nice. That is, you don't know how to relate to people without the crutch of "nice" that you relied on before. You're in a position of authority so you need people to perform for you, and your niceness doesn't work in that context. What you need now is your kindness. And you may not quite know how to be kind without being nice.

I think you should think about why you're behaving with hostility towards people around you. Perhaps there's some anger there that goes back to your days of having to appease selfish people. Perhaps when you lift away your niceness, what's left is a long-simmering resentment that's pouring out over those around you.

You're in a great place in life, because you no longer need "niceness." You don't have to cater to others the way you once did. So maybe now is the time to exercise your genuine regard for other people, to see them as human beings rather than the clients of your social butler. Those people around you are now the ones appeasing you, who are being nice to you. It's tempting to feel contempt for them, perhaps seeing them as you imagined you were seen by those you appeased. But if you do that, you're still just playing the same game you had to play when you were younger.

Instead, try to see those people as nothing more or less than human beings like yourself -- all just trying to get through life, to reap whatever measure of happiness they can from their day. And treat them with kindness -- not out of obligation or self-interest, but simply because that is who you are.
posted by Pants McCracky at 8:56 AM on June 29, 2011 [10 favorites]

It sounds like you're tired and busy and it's become a big burden to try to be nice all the time. Maybe what you need is an assistant - you can delegate some of the more time-consuming, boring (to you, but maybe not to a young, enthusiastic assistant) relating work.
posted by amtho at 9:07 AM on June 29, 2011

"I echo many of the sentiments here, and I'll also add that in my experience as a somewhat lowly assistant who crossed paths with celebrities quite a bit, the biggest, most successful celebrities were generally the ones who treated me kindly and attentively (despite my being a "nobody"), while the middling (sometimes newly famous) celebrities were the rudest and most arrogant. "

Ms. Toad has this right. Way back when I spent a number of years training alongside professional athletes, semi-professional athletes, and dedicated hobbyists. With very few exceptions the most genuine, unassuming and welcoming athletes were those at the highest levels- the olympians and world class competitors. They were secure in their own abilities, recognized the amount of luck (natural aptitude) and hard work went into their athletic careers, and were also aware that there was always someone more talented and harder-working than them out there. This self awareness coupled with gratitude for their success meant they were extremely tolerant of people on the lower rungs, even those inevitable annoyingly clueless people who constantly approached them with training advice (?!).

Later I spent 8 years working in NYC theatre production alongside movie stars, multiple award winners, and television celebrities. Two of the nicest, most personable, most "normal" actors I worked later won Tony awards. In fact, with very few exceptions, all of the "stars" I worked with were decent, generous, and managed to keep their egos in check. Especially in live theatre, people who gain a reputation for having nasty or difficult personalities are passed over in favor of team players. The rehearsal and production process is stressful enough for everyone involved without toxic energy being thrown into the mix. This is something you should keep in mind- you are only making your path forward more difficult by treating other people callously. Word spreads quickly in creative subcultures. Can you be thankful for the turns your life path has taken and be gracious to those who aren't as lucky?
posted by stagewhisper at 9:10 AM on June 29, 2011

I think you need to step outside of yourself for a moment. Personally when I'm in similar situations, where I'm not happy with how I'm behaving, I find reading a book to be immensely helpful. The Consolation of Philosophy by Boethius is about as classic a treatment of the issues you're ever going to find. Buy a copy (a recent translation would probably be better) and read. It's short, it's great, it's helped thousands in the kind of situation you're in right now for 1500 years.
posted by Kattullus at 9:21 AM on June 29, 2011

I think most people are exactly and only as polite as they think they need to be. I've had friends turn noticeably more rude the moment they attain even the smallest, most podunk level of success. Now I am not a megastar myself by any means, but when this happens I silently disengage and stop dealing with them any more than I have to. I've had people I really valued and with whom I looked forward to years of fruitful collaboration, just turn on a dime and become people I'm embarrassed to have any association with. Evidently it's no punishment for them to be denied the unalloyed joy of my company, but I also think I'm probably not the only person whose respect they've pissed away and, eventually, one of those people will turn out to be the Wrong Person to have offended. Or not. Either way, it makes me sad.

Very few people ever consciously recognize when they're going downhill, and ask for help to correct it. So, just by asking this you are already far ahead of most of humanity as far as I can make out.

I also think that, previously, you were putting a huge amount of energy into Social Skills which were not necessarily required in order to be Polite. Being Polite involves learning when and how to say "no" to people without blowing them off, for example. It's about protecting your boundaries and respecting others'. So I suggest you get yourself a copy of "Miss Manners' Guide to Excruciatingly Correct Behaviour" and start reading it avidly. She is incisive and accurate and holds the highest standards of any etiquette maven out there, and at the same time, she is very very funny.

I would also suggest that you make a list of everyone you can remember being rude to, and writing them a note of apology. Put your behaviour down to some nonspecific temporary insanity, rather than the pressures of fame; just say that you have great respect for them but that clearly, in that moment, your actions and words weren't showing that. Make the notes handwritten, because people love that.

And also, yeah, maybe get an assistant. A lot of this probably comes from being tired.
posted by tel3path at 9:39 AM on June 29, 2011 [1 favorite]

When I was 17, I had the opportunity to assist one of the most important American artists of, oh say, the last 15 years. I was TERRIFIED that she would be mean to me, a lowly high school student. Well, she was one of the most patient, sweetest people I have ever met. When I wasn't doing what she wanted to her standards, she sat down next to me, showed me what she wanted and talked to me about the "why" behind the piece we were working on. When there was a particularly stressful day in the shop, she made tea and cookies for everyone. This is someone who is WORLD-freaking-FAMOUS. She also asked us questions about our lives and showed genuine interest in them. I, too, am an artist and when I think about what I want my career to look like, I think about her. Authenticity makes for some powerful art and it is a valuable personal characteristic to have. You don't have to be sticky-sweet to everyone. Be assertive, be compassionate and be authentic. I get the sense your earlier version of nice was not really authentic. There is a place between killing with kindness (which is actually not a very kind thing to do in most instances) and being a huge jerk and you need to find that place that is true to you.

I will say that as much as I try to cultivate kindness and empathy in my own life, there are times when I am around jerky, negative people a lot or I am particularly stressed and this leads to an increase in my bitchiness. I try to keep mean people at a distance and find other ways to manage stress and anxiety besides lashing out at others. Think about the people who are around you. Are they particularly critical? Do they say mean things routinely? That shit is contagious, I swear! And managing stress. . .well, that is a personal journey. Good luck! Its never too late to be a kind person.
posted by rachums at 9:45 AM on June 29, 2011 [11 favorites]

Forget "niceness" - your facade is crumbling probably because you were never sincere. Be fair, be firm, be polite, and you'll attract people who behave in the same way, who will be agreeable company yet honest enough about their shortcomings and yours.

Also, just read this Reddit thread about Hollywood nice guy Keanu Reeves.
posted by peripathetic at 10:00 AM on June 29, 2011 [2 favorites]

Could it be that you're just stressed out? Good things are stressful, too. Maybe it's worth getting into meditation or mindfulness exercises. I'm partial to the Lovingkindness Buddhist ones, though I'm not Buddhist or anything else.

This may or may not apply but most attitudinal problems I have aren't solved by acting on them directly.

To quote a friend of mine: The solution is simple. The solution is spiritual. The solution has nothing to do with the problem.

For me, when the problem is impatience and being judgemental, the solution is to slow down, meditate, exercise, and generally Be Here Now.

Why yes! I DO live in California. Why do you ask?
posted by small_ruminant at 11:09 AM on June 29, 2011

Important people often have managers, handlers, assistants, etc so that they don't have to personally fend off waves of people. It seems like you might need one.

There is absolutely no reason whatsoever to be rude to people simply for offering ideas. Assuming that these are not strange paupers from the streets who chase you down without your asking, the proper response to their ideas will be more along the lines of a firm but polite "I'm sorry, that won't work."

Think about the last time someone rejected an idea of yours in a non-jerk way. What did that look like? Emulate that.

(If you can't think about any time someone rejected an idea of yours in a non-jerk way, then you have serious mental problems.)


Also remember that having a core team of yes-men exacerbated Michael Jackson's public, profound, latter-day nuttiness. No one was around to tell him when he was off-base, and he never listened to anyone who told him "no." Do you want to be like that guy?
posted by Sticherbeast at 11:31 AM on June 29, 2011

One other thing, that, in re-reading your question struck me:

with the other half going "No, suffering bores for a decade was horrible, now you don't have to deal with that cause you have actual clout which you worked for."

You don't have to suffer bores. But it's entirely possible to avoid bores without being rude. Invited to a social event where you know people will annoy you? Politely decline the invitation. You don't have to say why you're declining. "I'm sorry, I won't be able to make it," is perfectly acceptable. You don't have to give a reason at all; and even if you want to, it can be a vague one, "...I have other plans." You don't have to say the reason you're not going is that you find the hosts tedious and their conversation inane, or that your "other plans" are to stay home and watch a Tosh.0 marathon.

Depending on how many people you find boring, this may turn you into a recluse, but it's better to be a recluse than an asshole.
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 12:08 PM on June 29, 2011

A series of real life anecdotes...

I once heard a Very Important Curator say that the most successful artists were also the best dinner party companions. It was not a causal thing (ie, that successful artists got to the top by being good guests at important dinner parties), but an observation that the two characteristics went hand-in-hand.

Several times, I've been involved in conversations where the topic among decision-makers was which artists were awful to work with, and which ones were delightful to work with. I get the impression it's often a pet topic in such gatherings. In one such conversation, a VIC mentioned a particularly difficult artist and said, "the work is good, but it's just not worth it to work with this person -- there are too many other good artists out there who won't make my job miserable."

Such decision-makers seem to be willing to humor (some) bad behavior from artists in their 20s. The herd starts to seriously thin out once artists hit their 30s and beyond, and it's not necessarily based on the quality of work an artist makes.

Longevity in this career is hard-won. There are many, many artists whom you have never heard of in the middle to later part of their lives who were in your exact same shoes at the peak of their careers. Seeing such success so early on is great, but if you want to keep the momentum going, focus on being a genuinely generous, approachable human being and a gracious, interesting dinner party companion.

Also, hire an assistant. It's a lot easier to be that kind of human being when you've got somebody helping out behind the scenes.
posted by mmmcmmm at 12:52 PM on June 29, 2011 [3 favorites]

Some of the best advice I ever heard was "Not everyone deserves your time, but everyone deserves your kindness."
posted by OrangeDrink at 1:02 PM on June 29, 2011 [4 favorites]

The "little people" you aren't kind to will sense your contempt and, within a small professional community, have more power than you know to either outright sabotage you, or at least do nothing affirmative to carry you forward or afloat in your current position.

Pride goeth before destruction, and an haughty spirit before a fall./Better it is to be of an humble spirit with the lowly, than to divide the spoil with the proud.

I've seen this go both ways, and it's powerful and real.
posted by availablelight at 2:14 PM on June 29, 2011 [6 favorites]

What's happening to you is that power inevitably turns you into an asshole. No, really.
posted by jenfullmoon at 2:15 PM on June 29, 2011

Lots of good suggestions here, so I'll come at this from a different angle.

I'm not an artist (am a once-musician and was actually asked for my autograph back when, wheee), but I do write when I can. My big thing currently is how relationships foster well-being, empathy, and... creativity.

I grew up in a shitty family too, but my soul was saved by friends. One now makes cedar chests, another is a car mechanic, a third makes chainsaw sculptures, there are a couple photographers, one world-famous trumpeter, a web designer who helps his husband run their comic book store, firefighter, forest manager, policeman (he has the funniest photos of things he comes across), a horseback riding instructor, mothers, fathers, goat owners, public school music teachers...

Only a very, very few of them are societally recognized as "brilliant". Several of them are shunned by society for their looks, their tastes in music, the fact that they never read, and a few are even mentally and/or physically disabled. They are all, every single one of them, my inspiration. Stop focusing on what you perceive as weaknesses and seek out the unique beauty in people. One guy I know is able to pinpoint qualities in his friends and express them in a way I'll never achieve. An outspoken gal cracks some of the funniest, most poignant jokes you'll ever hear. She wouldn't be able to tell Monet from Manet, but she sees straight into anyone's bullshit and lives her life with an independance I envy. There's a woman who knits so well, and sees potential in castaway clothes that she uses for recycled creations, that I am consistently amazed. Many of my friends are heroes in small ways no one would know without talking to them – they rustle up blankets to hand out to homeless people in winter; they donate lessons to underprivileged kids; they rescue cats, lizards, dogs, goats, ducks, owls, and probably some other animals I've forgotten; they donate and volunteer, bake cakes, make children laugh, and know that the one thing in life that will always hold its value is a true friend.

Try and look for each person's spark. If they're talking to you, it's because they're looking to better understand your own. What you see now as stupid or whatever else, is your own blinkers preventing you from going a step further to see who they are and how they might inspire you to expand your horizons.
posted by fraula at 2:22 PM on June 29, 2011 [5 favorites]

Aren't you simply experimenting?

It's a completely new situation. There's no wonder you aren't 100% adjusted to it immediately.

Being nice and being assertive both have their uses - both are means to ends. However, and more importantly, both are true building blocks for a beautiful awe-inspiring human being. Which is what we all want to be.

You don't have to judge yourself too much. Just mix humble and assertive together a little bit.

posted by krilli at 3:40 PM on June 29, 2011

Go to Branson Missouri. See a few shows. Wait for the performers to meet and greet after the show.

Reflect on your own bad behavior until the shame is too much.

Repeat as necessary.

NB - your power could disappear over night. Fickle thing, artistic popularity.

And props for recognizing the problem.
posted by IndigoJones at 4:44 PM on June 29, 2011

It was probably a lot easier to be a perfect social type and really go out of your way to be friendly to others when nobody wanted anything from you. Now it's clear that your time is valuable and you just can't cater to everybody.

I guess it'll just take time to get used to this and figure out how to gracefully extricate yourself from boring interminable conversations and basically from people who are using up your time when you don't have any time to give them. Because you just can't spend it with everybody now that you're well known and more people want to talk to you than you have time for.

Maybe you can get advice from others who are successful in the field and figured out this particular kind of social grace. Things like finding the right moment to politely say "well it was nice talking to you" and quickly move on, before you get exhausted and tempted to act rudely.
posted by citron at 5:53 PM on June 29, 2011 [2 favorites]

Lots of good advice upthread about creating buffers between you and the people that are annoying you. I fear that, although you describe the success coming and then your personality turning toxic, to some extent the art world, which is full of powerful pricks, is validating and encouraging your nasty behavior. And the disappointing fact is, it is very much possible to be an obnoxious jerk and a success in your particular field. The problem is that you're not entirely comfortable with how you're behaving, and the real pricks don't care. You're going to need to either curb your jerkishness or train yourself not to care. If you don't do one or the other, you're likely self-sabotage, and that's going to hurt a lot. So plan accordingly.

As for Yesmen, you avoid this trap by not being intellectually lazy, by not jettisoning the friends and colleagues who challenge your ideas, by not seeking out or believing bullshit praise, by staying creatively hungry, and by working very hard all the time. Failing to do these things consistently represent a much bigger threat to your health, career, soul and art than the rude behavior does.
posted by Scram at 12:40 PM on June 30, 2011 [1 favorite]

I have been lucky to have a small amount of success in my career. (But not "celebrity", so you are probably doing much better than me.) It does affect how people respond to you, which is dangerous. The way that I counteract this is to remind myself of the people who have accomplished so much more than me in so much less time. I mean, I have a decent career, but I haven't done as much as X. And X is pretty good, but even they haven't accomplished as much as Y. There are so many levels above me that I'd be a fool to take myself seriously.
posted by sesquipedalian at 3:51 PM on June 30, 2011

One man's nice is another man's not nice. You cannot please everybody. Be who you are, that is important.
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