Why? Because someone’s gotta be one.
“Are any of you cantankerous? Ill-tempered? Surly? Irascible? Querulous? Then you want my job.”
As a proud alumni of the High School of Art & Design, I do what I can to give back to the institution that did its best to educate me. Part of the way I do this is by participating in “Career Day” twice a year. As a (former) Director of Production for a glossy consumer magazine, my job had both the six-figure income and apparent status required to inspire a bunch of unruly teenagers.
When asked why such seemingly undesirable qualities are required for my job function, I tell impressionable young minds:
“Well, somebody’s gotta be the asshole.”
Almost immediately after I make this statement, invariably some kid–in a misplaced attempt to be PC–asks why being an asshole is a good thing. It’s at that point I launch into the following joke, much to the chagrin of the faculty.
The Boss of the Body
One day the body was having an argument about who should be in charge, and each part of the body offered passionate testimony as to why it should lead. “I make all of the decisions” said the brain, “so obviously I should be in charge. “I pump the blood” said the heart. “Should I stop beating, we’d all cease to exist.” “You may pump the blood” said the lungs, “but I provide the blood with oxygen. See how long you last if I stop breathing.”
And so it went, each body part voicing its personal and entirely valid reason why it should be in charge. Finally, the asshole spoke. “Actually guys” it said flatulently, “I think I should be in charge.“
There was a moment of silence. And then the entire body burst into collective laughter. “Put the asshole in charge?” it ridiculed. “That will be the day. You’re full of shit. Shut the fuck up.”
A sensitive creature, the asshole took its hurt feelings and heeded the body’s advice, shutting tighter than a clam.
After the fifth day with no bowel movements, both the stomach and large intestine conceded. After the seventh day, there were toxins backed up into the blood stream; the heart cried “uncle.” After ten days the brain could no longer think clearly, and so joined the rest of the body in capitulation.
“The moral of the story” I inform the children “is: sometimes, in order to be the boss, you just have to be an asshole who won’t shut up.”
There are four types of people who work in traditional magazine publishing. Those that write and/or edit, those that design, those that shoot pretty pictures, and those that sell. Like the arguing members of the body, each of them think their job most important. Creatives receive accolades. Salesmen receive commissions.
A Production Director receives neither. They’re simply responsible for making sure the final product is representative of the hard work that everyone else has done. If (s)he’s done a good job, you don’t notice; there’s perfection, and there’s “you’re fired.”
If anyone doubts the validity of this maxim, please read the biography of the most venerated asshole of our times, Steve Jobs.
This requires the sort of tenacity necessary to–on occasion–pull rank on your superiors. Diplomacy–the ability to tell someone to go to hell in such a manner that they thank you and request directions–is often required, but not always efficacious. Someone has to handle the unpleasantries, hopefully in the most expeditious manner possible.
During my last ever interview for a corporate position at one of the most popular magazines on earth, the editor in chief wanted to know if I understood the dynamics of this relationship. I demonstrated my perspicacity by telling the following joke:
A Creative Director, an Editor-In-Chief and a Production Director are walking down the beach. One of them stubs their toe. When they reach down to recover the offending object, they retrieve from the sand, an ancient lamp. As they rub the lamp free of dust and debris, a djinn appears. “You have freed me from my prison of ten-thousand years” the djinn yawned, stretching it’s mighty arms. “To display my gratitude, I will grant you three wishes, but as there are three of you, you’re each allowed a single wish. Begin!”
The Editor-In-Chief rubbed his chin. “I’ve got a masters in literature. I’ve always wanted to write the great American novel,” he lamented “but never had the time. What I’d like is a million dollars and a house in the woods, where I can write in peace.”
The djinn snapped his fingers and poof! he vanished, his wish fulfilled.
Seeing this, the creative director spoke next. “I’ve a masters in fine arts. I’ve always wanted to paint masterpieces, but never found the time. What I want” he said “is a million dollars and a house on a beach somewhere, so I can focus on making art.”
The djinn snapped his fingers and poof! in a puff of smoke, his wish was fulfilled.
“Only you remain” spake the djinn to the Production Director. “Tell me your hearts desire, and it will be fulfilled.”
After careful consideration of the circumstances, he spoke. “I have deadlines on Friday” he said “and both of those guys still owe me pages. Could you please bring them both back here, right now?”
The wonderful thing about “asshole” as a personality trait is: much like charisma, you only need a tiny bit to power the entire mix. Sometimes, just knowing someone has the potential to be an asshole is all that’s required to keep a situation in check. Once, while working on an important presentation, the Advertising Director of the magazine where I was employed stood over my shoulder, impatiently tapping his foot. He and I enjoyed a terrific working relationship, based on mutual respect. This, despite the fact that I’d seen him shred underlings like a pulled pork sandwich.
“Is that going to be ready in time for the meeting?” he snapped. I paused, just long enough to “placate” him. Very carefully, I removed the blade from the exacto-knife in my hand, and placed it inside my mouth, between my cheek and gum. “During my first week of high school I learned how to have a conversation with a razor blade inside my mouth” I said, smiling. “I mention this only to say: your standing over me as I try to concentrate is probably not helping me finish this any faster.”
“If that’s your version of intimidation” he said, retreating to his office “it’s working. Call me when it’s done.”
I’m convinced similar hierarchies exist in every field of endeavor. However unpleasant and inglorious, a minimum amount of assholery is required. If you doubt this, imagine how inconvenient it would be if even for one week, your asshole decided to stop doing its job.
This singular biological function which allows society to operate with a modicum of civility is: sphincter control. Fortunately, after infancy, this is largely involuntary. One can only imagine how quickly civilization would disintegrate, should everyone simultaneously lose control of their bowels. Everybody poops, but voluntary control over where and when you poop allows us to maintain the illusion of propriety. Few things are as noxious as someone who’s lost control of their sphincter.
Verbal diarrhea is equally distasteful.
Conversely, the inability to discretely and voluntarily dispense with “crap” makes life uncomfortable at best, and in a prolonged scenario, impossible. The fifteen or so seconds a day your asshole voluntarily opens to perform its sole job function makes life grand.
Therein lies both the power–and the ethics–of assholedom. You’ve got two ears, two eyes, two arms and legs, etc., but only one asshole, which–when working properly–only does one thing for a few seconds a day. Anything more or less would make life unmanageable.
Now that I work for myself, the ethics of being an asshole are more relevant than ever. While my business partners are far more competent in their respective areas than myself, the most unpleasant tasks are, by default, assigned to the “designated asshole,” namely: me. It’s now an inside joke among us; we don’t play “good cop, bad cop.” We play, “good cop, bad cop, suspended cop.”
Suffice it to say I’ve learned to be succinct.
Similarly, when entering into negotiations with a potential new vendor, I’m quick to identify who the asshole in an organization is. I’m not entirely sure I trust someone who doesn’t have the potential to be an asshole, and look for discretionary use of this very important ability. I need to know that a person has the capacity to say/do unpopular things, if that’s what is required. This explains–at least in part–why historically, most of my heroes have had a bit of asshole in them: Michael Jordan, Ernest Hemingway, Picasso, Prince, Ghandi, Baltasar Gracian. I’m convinced that in this world, no great feat is ever accomplished without someone who’s willing to be an asshole, when required.
So thank God for assholes. Just remember, one is enough.
© Jackie Summers 2011
image: public domain