Ramblings of a Feverish Mind

First published February 16, 2012 in Mediapost’s Search Insider

I’ve had the flu for going on a week now. My head hurts and my tongue feels like a terrycloth towel. My voice sounds like a cross between Satan and a barking seal. Any lucid thoughts I may have had have long been beaten into submission by repeated doses of NyQuil. And now I have a column to write.

What strikes me the most about my current state of mind is how little tolerance I have for the stuff that normally makes up my life.  The saying “Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff” must have an illness-triggered corollary: “Fever-induced sweat seems to wash away all the little crap.” Before I got sick, I had a mountain of stuff that was all vitally important. Then I lost two-and-a-half days because I simply couldn’t raise my head from my pillow. Something had to give. Actually, several things had to give. And you know what? The world didn’t end. Life went on.

It’s a revelation of much less significance than Steve Job’s more eloquent version in his 2005 Stanford commencement speech: “Remembering that I’ll be dead soon is the most important tool I’ve ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life.” But you get the gist. We fill up our lives with little crap, and it drowns out the significant stuff we should be focused on. Steven Covey calls them our “rocks.” But why do we need something like a death sentence or being waylaid by a particularly virulent flu virus to remember it? Why can’t we keep focused on the big stuff every day of our lives?

The ironic thing is that most of the stuff we do in a day, we do for others, not ourselves. We don’t want to drop the ball, leave someone hanging or let something fall between the cracks. Delivering on these multiple imperatives is the price we pay for being social animals. We want to keep the acceptance of the herd, so we’re hardwired to make other’s priorities our priorities. And, in the process, we keep shuffling the stuff that’s truly important to us to the back shelf. The only way to avoid molding your life around someone else’s priorities is to be a narcissistic jerk — like Mr. Jobs, or yours truly when spiking a fever.

This got me to wondering. Don’t these selfsame jerks have a natural advantage over the rest of us “nice guys”? The fact that they don’t care about other’s priorities and naturally advance their own agendas, expecting others to adopt them as their own, seems to indicate that they’ll actually get the stuff done they care about.

After three decades in the business world, I’ve come to the sad and wearied conclusion that to be wildly successful in business, you have to be an asshole. Nice guys may not always finish last, but they seldom take home the gold.  The most successful CEOs typically have a Machiavellian side, ideally buffered by some social skills.

By next week the flu will be gone, I hope. But part of me is also hoping that the forced perspective it gave me lingers a bit longer.  Maybe a little flu-induced “dickishness” wouldn’t be a bad thing the carry through 2012 and beyond.

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