An Idiot’s Take On Anthropology #4: A Fuck You Attitude Is The Key To Success
While re-watching Netflix’s F1: Drive To Survive documentary series, I noticed Red Bull Racing’s team principal – Christian Horner – constantly mentioning something known as a ‘fuck you’ attitude. Former Red Bull driver Alex Albon apparently didn’t have it, which led to him being bullied out of wins on the grid. Albon would eventually find himself demoted to the role of reserve driver and replaced by Sergio Perez for the current 2021 season.
In contrast, you have someone like Albon’s former teammate and current Red Bull superstar Max Verstappen, who – as any Formula 1 fan will tell you – has zero qualms about putting himself first and getting over the line by any means necessary. Outside of his professional life, while this isn’t exactly a deliberate sleight, it’s worth noting Verstappen not only took Daniil Kvyat’s seat at Red Bull, but also started dating his ex-girlfriend/mother of his child, Kelly Piquet.
In other words, he’s an operator who has the ‘fuck you’ attitude.
For his aggressive driving style, Verstappen has been rewarded with 11 wins, 44 podium finishes, and a total of 1,206 career points at the fresh-faced age of 23 (as well as consistently challenging the Mercedes hegemony for the world championship from 2019 to present day).
So is a ‘fuck you’ attitude the crucial ingredient to success?
Why we love a successful asshole
At this stage, we’re all well-acquainted with the personalities behind the generation defining impacts. You’ve seen (a portrayal of) Mark Zuckerberg at arguably his most cut-throat in The Social Network, read the stories about what it’s like working under tech tyrant Steve Jobs, and even circulated the “taking it personal” memes about the Michael Jordan.
On the more fictitious side, who are the characters we – specifically BH readers/employees – are most drawn towards? The brash and vulgar Ari Gold from Entourage, the Machiavellian Thomas Shelby OBE from Peaky Blinders, the emotionally-stunted Don Draper from Mad Men, as well as the king of the ‘fuck you’ attitude, Bobby Axelrod from Billions.
The through line here – and the reason why we tend to revere talented pricks in pop culture – is because they exercise an option most of us wouldn’t even dare to dream about: they take what they want and make no apologies about it. Regularly at the sacrifice of their personal lives, sure, but when you’re building an empire, you can (apparently) afford to be a shittier family man.
At its core, the enduring validation of the brilliant asshole cliche represents the very same brand of wish fulfilment demonstrated by suburban dads and Jason Statham DVDs after an arvo of mundane house chores. Where real life seldom offers us any measure of control, seeing someone impose their own will – whether it be Stath kicking an Albanian goon’s teeth in or anyone else accomplishing an impressive gain – is the next best thing.
Social thresholds: going against the grain
American sociologist and Stanford University professor – Mark Granovetter – researched threshold models of collective behaviour. Essentially, he sought to rationalise how fads are created, why some ideas carry weight, and why we behave the way we do in a group dynamic.
The classic example is a riot. Why do otherwise law abiding people with an established set of morality suddenly loot, attack one another, and cause general chaos? For the longest time, social scientists maintained there had to be a powerful catalyst to suddenly abandon their beliefs about right and wrong.
“There was a lot of intellectual tradition that said that when people got into a crowd, their independent judgment went out the window and that they somehow became creatures of the crowd,” says Granovetter.
“And that there was some kind of – I don’t know – miasma of irrationality would settle over people and they would act in ways that they would never act if they were by themselves or if they weren’t influenced by the mob mentality.”
Of course, Granovetter wasn’t buying it. He proposed it was a matter of social thresholds and social proof. Someone with a low threshold wouldn’t require much social proof – or persuasion – before they caved into peer pressure; whereas someone with a high threshold would require a whole lot of convincing before they did things differently (and that’s assuming you can even change their minds). They know what they’re about and everything else is just gravy.
For a far more coherent (and entertaining) examination of this phenomenon, be sure to check out this episode of Malcolm Gladwell’s Revisionist History podcast.
Now here’s where everything ties together. The possible explanation linking the ‘fuck you’ attitude, being a prick, and success comes down to the double-edged concept of social thresholds.
On one side of the blade, someone with a high threshold would be invested enough in their own pathway that over time, unwavering consistency in the face of adversity, doubt, and discouragement would eventually yield results. The other side of the blade would shed light on their treatment of everyone else. If other people’s opinions didn’t particularly matter to you, it’d only be natural that you’d have less of a regard for their feelings as well, right? To quote a certain HBO fantasy series, a lion doesn’t concern himself with the opinion of a sheep… and oftentimes, it takes a lion to succeed.
This is, however, a delicate balance. Research has also shown tipping the scales too far – narcissism territory – leads to an over-prioritisation of one’s own opinion, over confidence in one’s own ability, and so forth, which can only spell a tunnel vision-style disaster (also see: the Dunning-Krueger effect).
Do you have to burn bridges to win?
The short answer is no. Success, or the pursuit of success, doesn’t necessarily bring out the worst in people. And that’s not what the ‘fuck you’ attitude is really about, either. While in certain cases such as Formula 1 and creating a tech monopoly, a degree of selfishness is required in everyday life. It’s more about subjectively evaluating how to approach certain methodologies regardless of the social proof, having enough faith in your own vision, and remembering you’re worth more than your means.
Be sure to check out the first three instalments of An Idiot’s Take On Anthropology: