Boring Nice Guys versus Attractive A-holes

Editor-in-Chief Nabil Mohamed looks at the people and the companies that treat us badly and ask why we keep falling for them.

Nabil Mohamed, Editor-in-Chief
Nabil Mohamed, Editor-in-Chief

I’ve been noticing this phenomenon a lot lately. I’d be sitting somewhere with a friend listening to them talk about their personal life and they would say something like: “That guy I went out with last week is such a flake and he’s so full of himself. Rubs me the wrong way. Thinks he’s the shit all the time…but there’s just something about him. I can’t get him out of my mind!”

I’ve equally been hearing things like: “She’s a really nice girl. Decent, hardworking, upright, but I’m just not attracted to her. She’s kinda dull”.

The same goes for how we think about companies. There are a handful of companies over here that give people the distinct impression that they’d like nothing more than to reject them. So tons of people apply. Never in my life have I seen anything like it.

And it’s not like I’m innocent, certainly no more than anyone else. Case in point: I flew out to Chicago last week for final round interviews with a really good company. Three other HBSers were there too. We debriefed about our interview experience and company tour, and I went first:

“There’s nothing exactly wrong with them,” I said. “They’re straightforward, well-run, truly happy that we’re here, and sincere about growing our skillsets. It’s just…I don’t know. There’s something about them that’s distinctively uncharismatic.”

I instantly regretted what I said, fearing that the others would find it ridiculous. It came as such a curious surprise, then, when they all wholeheartedly agreed. Terms like “unsexy” and “meh” came up a lot during the discussion, and I felt justified in my hesitation to join the company, realizing that my criteria for the perfect job are not unique.

I concluded that it’s just human nature to go for that which repels you. You like the challenge, the “game”. It makes you feel special when that a-hole chooses you over everybody else; when you’re the one – and not anybody else – he’s treating well.

It feeds your ego and your sense of self-worth. Its effect even trickles down to small things like the way you walk, how much eye contact you make, and how clear your voice is.

When people ask you where you work, you tell them in a half-nonchalant, half-artificially-modest sort of way and watch with pleasure as the effect of the brand name rearranges their facial features into expressions of awe and admiration.

“But some people out there are just genuinely looking for a nice partner/career,” remarked one of my colleagues. And I believe that she’s right, but with a caveat. I have not, to my memory, seen any guy/girl looking for a nice girl/guy except after having been through a bunch of a-holes first.

Similarly, I have yet to see a person here at HBS who, in their recruiting criteria, solely focuses on doing what they love (which is, or course, inspiring) except if they’ve been through a 16-hour-a-day consulting/banking job pre-business school and have terrible memories of what it was like to work there.

And they will never paint a black picture. It’ll usually be a very dark shade of grey, but that small sliver of white will always happen to be that thing in your life that you’ve always been wanting.

Allow me to elaborate. Phrases like “The money was awesome, but other than that you’re really setting yourself up for a terrible life”, or “I mean, yes the sex was amazing, but the guy was a freaking douchebag in all other areas” do not leave the person on the other side of the conversation satisfied at how pointless it would be to pursue the a-hole. The only thing it does is leave them wondering how it must feel to have a lot of disposable cash, or to have amazing sex.

But at the same time we’re told here at HBS, every day in fact, that we should always go for things that we’re not sure we can do. Go outside our comfort zones. Take a leap. Take risks. Don’t do something that you already know you can do really well.

Well isn’t this a nice little pickle we’ve got ourselves into? Of course it’s easy to be with the nice guy. Because he’s nice! It’s easy to keep him at bay, to satisfy him, and keep him wishing for more.

And what’s hard is to be with the a-hole. That’s where the risk is. That’s where you get all the points for doing something ballsy and not settling for the security of a mellow job or the protection of a large bureaucracy. He’s demanding, short-tempered, harsh-tongued and -sadly- extremely good at what he does. But who in the world ever took a “risk” by dating a nice guy? Let’s face it. Boring = riskless. And risky = attractive and sought-after.

A typical example, now that I think of it, is my racing days back in college. As a mechanical engineer, I experimented a little bit (and when I say a little bit, I mean a little bit less than BMW’s R&D lab) with the boundaries of a car’s speed and power. I tuned up my car in every way you could imagine, and my best friend and I started joining race competitions all over the city.

Here we were: two nerdy, badly-dressed, eyeglass-sporting engineers, showing up at post-midnight circuit races and testing the limits of what a person can do with a car. And all of a sudden we were the shit. I’m not tall, I’m not an EQ genius, and I’ve never been the sweet-talker type, and yet just because I was doing something extremely risky (and often plain stupid) I became attractive.

Being 19 and all, I was too busy basking in all the attention I got to stop and think about why this was happening. But now that I’m about to hit the ripe old age of 27, I’m looking back to all those time-freeze moments when I was about to hit another car at maximum speed, only for one of us to swerve at the last second. And I’m wondering whether there isn’t an extremely fine – if not blurry or even nonexistent – line between taking healthy risks and chronically hurting yourself.

So I leave you with this question: how do we separate taking a risk (i.e. taking a chance at doing something we’re not sure we can do, and if attempted has a potentially large downside) from essentially sentencing ourselves to lives of never-ending (but addictive) disappointment?

If you figure it out let me know, because I certainly haven’t.