Much of Clay Shirky’s recent rant about women rang true to me. However, it took me much of the day, including talking with my friend Val Liberty to figure out what felt off about his rant. Over a whole day of dog walking, chatting over coffee and monopoly with the kids, we spent about 5 minutes talking about Clay’s post, but our talk colored my thinking about it. We covered gender issues, success, humility, and diversity, along with tech talk and business plans.

I know there are many paths to success. I routinely meet and do business with successful people who value integrity and honest communication. Peldi Guilizzoni, founder and CEO of Balsamiq, has recently modeled how to become a huge success while being a genuinely nice guy (and perhaps partly because of it). I know many other folks who have taken similar paths to success, though I don’t know anyone else who has documented it as thoroughly.

You don’t need to be an arrogant jerk to be confident. It is not lying to state what you believe you can do, instead of merely what you have done in the past. Clay Shirky clearly states the issue in the middle of his rant:

…people who don’t raise their hands don’t get called on, and people who raise their hands timidly get called on less. Some of this is because assertive people get noticed more easily, but some of it is because raising your hand is itself a high-cost signal that you are willing to risk public failure in order to try something.

However, he follows that by saying that it is a false hope “to imagine that women could be forceful and self-confident without being arrogant or jerky.” I disagree. Sure we have to risk being perceived as arrogant jerks (or some less pretty name). Perception is seldom reality, and the reality we live rarely matches that of our male peers. We have to put up with being criticized as emotional when our colleagues are admired for their passion. Nevertheless, we share the world and we need to figure this out. We have to work together with our non-sexist peers to change what is acceptable… both by changing what people are used to seeing and hearing from women AND by modeling other ways to become successful.

3 thoughts on “must we be arrogant jerks?

  1. Try poet Anias Nin for the answer.

    For an easier version, get hold of the Martin Clunes version of Goodbye Mr Chips. The teacher teasing a boy for being called Colly is what Clay is talking about. The whole story is your answer.

  2. I think a lot of women’s issues in this regard isn’t being the obnoxious jerk, but the *fear* of being the obnoxious jerk. If we stopped being self-conscious (which I construe as a social paradigm and not some intrinsic failing) then life opens up lots and lots of options.

    And it’s not just a burden on our shoulder- every time someone thinks “she doesn’t really know that,” or “women in power are so bitchy” they are playing into the social stereotypes of making women in the public eye self-conscious for what they say and know. Whereas, we rarely give men that much scrutiny. Not that we should all start bullshitting about things we don’t know about- but more- let’s be honest in our criticism. Do we question men who speak at conferences as roughly as we do women? Or do we just turn away and decide not to listen?

    I was at a party as a precursor to She’s Geeky weekend, and an old friend started criticizing a female speaker as, “well she doesn’t know what she’s talking about.” It really pissed me off, as 1) the speaker did 2) the old friend had no idea what she was talking about 3) she was passing on her husband’s views without thinking. It was sad, and yet another way that we fall into this world view of taking down women in power, or women in the spotlight. I new the backstory- her husband was jealous that this woman was getting more speaking opportunities. It was petty, and her passing on the information in a kind of conspiratoral gossipy way was classic, and sad, too.

    I agree that women don’t self-promote that well, and it’s something I strive to do with friends, buoy them up and give them confidence to present their ideas. I try to attend almost all the talks my friends give, because as an audience member, we can help almost as much as being another speaker at the event.

  3. I thought of your post tonight as my daughter and her (coincidentally all-female) high school study group were writing their self-reviews for a class. “I feel like I am defending myself instead of just trying to list what I have done. This is so hard!” I was pleased to listen from a distance as the girls worked out their self-doubts together. They each took time to praise, recall and support the efforts of their peers and encourage inclusion of positive experiences that the girls initially were hesitant to note about themselves. In the end, each seemed to come up with an honest review of her work. I feel great about this next generation.

What do you think?