When I was a freelance magazine writer, I wrote a profile of a well-known Canadian billionaire who played polo in Britain with royalty. I was able to spend five days seeing him daily. So I got to know him more than I would from an interview. My article appeared in a glossy Canadian magazine of the day.
One line never made it into the final piece (and I paraphrase): “Despite the royalty, the polo ponies, and what must be immense social and business pressures, [his] niceness is indisputable.”
The editors approved of the story but so disapproved of that line they presented me with a framed blow-up of the excised passage from my typewritten manuscript. They mockingly called it the "National Magazine Award for Pandering Prose." Or something like that.
Citing niceness was not acceptable in journalism back then.
The beauty of niceness came to me in an epiphany at age 17. I woke up one day and decided to be nicer to everyone. No more stupid teenage pretensions. No more ignorant snobbishness. Just pleasant engagement. I was nice to all the girls being shunned for lack of looks. I was nice to all the boys suffering from various ways teenage boys torture each other. And it worked. There was no cost to me. The gains were pure sunshine.
Now, in retirement, niceness is one of my ongoing projects. There’s more time to practice. There are no downsides and plenty of upsides.
While the word “nice” might be the lamest adjective on earth, we all know what it means. It means kind, sweet, solicitous, gentle, helpful, and lots of other highly desirable traits all packaged into one four-letter word.
Granted, in the business world nice can invite abuse. Be nice and get taken advantage of by the not-nice. Nice guys (and girls) finish last. We all know that line of thinking.
It's flawed. In a recent blog post titled, "The Jerk Fallacy," Seth Godin wrote, "There’s a common misperception, particularly in media, business and politics, that being a jerk is a necessary ingredient on the way to becoming and staying successful."
Seth says there's no data to support the jerk fallacy. And "[the] problem with the jerk path is that not that it isn’t more effective, it’s that you have to spend your days being a jerk."
In unharried, non-competitive retirement, we can spend our days exemplifying the opposite. Nice can be our default position. When in doubt, be nice. When anywhere, be nice. With everyone. Why not?
We can even be nice when we don’t feel like it. It’s commendable to be nice to people who aren’t. It can disarm them. Charm them. It’s certainly a way to model the behavior you’d prefer from them.
I can imagine if you’ve read this far and you are a nice person, you are thinking, “Well ya, of course.”
But if you’re a grump, you are either scoffing, which is your habit, or thinking, “Gee, that fellow might be on to something.” Allow me to say that if you are even a mildly repentant grump able to allow a few thin shafts of light to penetrate your armor, I highly recommend practicing some niceness.
The Japanese, I’ve been told, have a long tradition of growing sweeter as they become older. It’s perfect timing. With age, our needs can increase. If you have needs, it pays to be nice. Needs and niceness work well together. Old grumps, on the other hand, are hard to like. I imagine they often stew in their needs. (Stephen Hawking said, rather bluntly: "People won't have time for you if you are always angry or complaining.")
If you want to leave a legacy, niceness is open to us all. There are worse things attendees at a funeral can say to each other than, “He was a nice guy.”
It’s nice to be known as nice.