Saturday, 25 October 2014

Do nice guys really finish last?

Ask any Malaysian kid: if you go to public school in the suburbs, the kind where your parents and your friends' parents come visit during recess, the type of school where there's a PTA meeting every month so your teachers can tell your parents if you've been too naughty in class -- you're going to feel the heat of competition making the comfy seat uncomfortably hot and you're going to feel compelled to stand up and stand out. This was more so in elementary school than later years, but that's when our personalities are shaped.

Every time there was a test, we would make score comparison charts featuring everyone else in class - like Excel for children, but with pen and paper in our composition books. "How much did you get for Bahasa Inggeris? What about Matematik? What about Sains?" We'd fill out each other's charts, skulking around classrooms in rotation to get everyone's grades. Then we'd tally up the totals to create class rankings.

Oh yeah, and we were about ten years old.

The weird thing about this anecdote is that even if I could turn back time, I wouldn't change anything about the past. As horribly embarrassing as it is to look back at the silly things we did as children, I think having that sort of foundation in being competitive meant I could survive -- even thrive. I believe that being competitive gives you the ambition to improve, to be better than your best self and not to rest on your laurels. Being competitive goes hand in hand with being able to set goals and compete with yourself and the world around you to try your damn hardest to attain them.

But many people view me as not assertive enough, not aggressive enough... because even though I believe I am a fundamentally competitive person, there are so many hundreds of thousands of people more competitive than I am. There's always someone who wants something more and will do anything to get it.

The sign says "No Parking Here"

So here's my question: where do you draw the line? If you're running a race and your opponent stumbles and falls, do you turn back to give him a hand to help him back up on his feet... or do you take advantage of his fall to race to victory?

I don't have a hard and fast answer to that -- I'd say it depends on how badly I want the prize at the end of the race, what kind of person I feel my opponent is and what I have riding on this competition. But I don't believe I could deliberately do anything to harm someone else on the path to my goals. Maybe it's because I'm fortunate enough not to have to want anything that badly, or maybe I'm just fortunate enough to not desire for so many of the things that so many people wants -- fame, power, excessive wealth.

One of my professors says that there's always a low-hanging fruit, mid-hanging fruit and high-hanging fruit. I'm okay with just enough, with that low-hanging fruit: I don't want to be famous or powerful, I just want to like my job and be good at it, take home enough money to comfortably pay the bills plus have enough for emergencies and savings, have a life, be a good person.

But no nice guys finish last? Being in LA for over a year now, I've come to realize that even though PR people have the knack to be really friendly and charismatic, the truth is that public relations is a competitive industry with lots of politics and cutthroat ladder-climbing... just like every other job! However, last week we had a guest speaker in one of our classes who was a specialist at lobbying and spinning. She said something that I thought was very profound: "Always bank goodwill."

She meant that having goodwill with people we worked with would open doors for us in the long-term, and that's why we should never step on other people if we can help it. Currying favors, gaining a reputation for being a good person without being a pushover and developing rapport with people seemed to be a key to success. And I ate it up: I love being the good guy, even though sometimes I have to put on my boss hat when people screw up or don't do their weight. But I love goodwill. If I could do PR for Goodwill or Make-A-Wish or a nonprofit and still be able to pay the bills, I would love my job. Maybe I'll get lucky and score a job managing CSR or charitable initiatives at a corporation.

In grad school we often have to talk about our career goals. "I want to be the CEO of Microsoft," someone says. "I want to be the president of a university," someone else says. "I want to run my own business and expand it across three countries," says another someone.

When it comes to my turn I never feel like I have an answer on the same level of ambition as anybody else. I can't say "I just want to be happy" because that sounds cliche even if it's the truth. I usually ramble something like "I'm open to opportunities that I come by, but I hope to work in areas of my interest: digital, social, multicultural."

How do I know what my career goals are if I don't know what's available? I need to try my hand at jobs I can get, and then carve out a career path based on the interests and expertise I develop, connections I make and opportunities that arise. It's hard enough that I'll be in a city I didn't grow up in with only a handful of friends: I guess I never was one for ambitions unless it was something I felt I could realistically make happen.