It’s an old argument. Baseball fans will see Leo Durocher (“Nice guys finish last”) on one side and Yoga Berra (“Love is the most important thing in the world, but baseball is pretty good, too”) on the other. Putting aside the question which of them will be remembered longer and more fondly, let’s consider three recent documentaries that add their own takes on the topic. We all know Steve Jobs was often brutal and possibly unscrupulous. But we also love the products he made – and the utopian ideals underlying them. (The Apple Watch, Apple’s first major non-Jobs new product, is no Mac, iPod or iPhone.)
Jobs has been getting a lot of screen time lately. The Danny Boyle/Aaron Sorkin feature earned mostly excellent reviews, where, on the documentary side, Alex Gibney’s Steve Jobs: The Man in the Machine has taken heat for being unbalanced in its attempt to de-mythologize its subject. It is nevertheless compelling viewing, full of recollections from people who knew Jobs well and archival interviews with the man himself. On the question of assholiness, a New Yorker profile of Apple design chief Jony Ive casts an interesting light. Ive recalls Jobs arguing that being nice to underperforming team is a trap. “You don’t care about how they feel! You’re being vain, you want them to like you,” Jobs lectured Ive. “It’s really demeaning to think that, in this deep desire to be liked, you’ve compromised giving clear, unambiguous feedback.” Ive maintained Jobs’ “intention, and motivation, wasn’t to be hurtful.” (Similarly, the new book, Becoming Steve Jobs, reportedly also takes a kinder view. But today we’re talking docs.)
And speaking of beloved creations from a guy who may not have been what he seemed, there’s always Walt Disney, subject of a new American Experience profile. It’s your basic yes-he-was-a-genius-but-yikes-what-a-dark-side story. Say what you will about the dispiriting blandness of later efforts like Disneyland, those first animated features (Snow White, Pinocchio, Fantasia, Dumbo and Bambi) redefined moviemaking.
In both cases, the filmmakers conclude that these two titans wouldn’t have been who they were, or been able to do what they did, without being pushed by cruder forces.
On the flip side, there’s Kindness Is Contagious, a less lavish but charming argument for the virtues of being nice. Our friend, fashion-photographer-turned-adman David Gaz, made the film out of a sense of mission to set the record straight, as it were. Among other things, the film highlights the science behind kindness, including hopeful data on the exponential “pay it forward” effect of good deeds – and how nice people are happier, live longer and have stronger relationships. (David frequently points out “the occasional psychopath may end up hugely successful; but – statistically speaking – many more end up in prison.”)
On the original question of whether you need to be an asshole to succeed, the answer probably boils down to your definition of “success.” The subjects of these three films make their answers clear.
Photo Credit: Image of laptop with coffee cup courtesy of Pixabay.