Today is May 4 and the Navigate the Chaos question to consider is “are you more clever or kind?” While navigating the chaos and practicing the art of living well there are many choices to make. One such choice rests with the decision to choose between being clever or kind. Now, there are times when life demands us to be both, but the real task is to figure out when to be clever and when to be kind. Being clever at the expense of being kind can be hurtful.
In a 2010 Baccalaureate address at his alma mater Princeton University titled “We Are What We Choose,” Jeff Bezos, the CEO of Amazon, recalled a trip he took with his grandparents when he was young. During a road trip, his grandmother started to smoke in the car. Bezos, a self-proclaimed precocious 10-year-old, laboriously calculated the damage to her health that his grandmother was doing by smoking.
His conclusion was that, at two minutes per puff, she was taking nine years off her life. When he proudly told her of his finding, she burst into tears. His grandfather stopped the car, pulled alongside the road and said to Bezos: “One day you’ll understand that it’s harder to be kind than clever.” In his speech, Bezos went on to distinguish between gifts and choices. “Cleverness,” he said, “is a gift. Kindness is a choice. Gifts are easy—they’re given, after all. Choices can be hard.” He then challenged the graduating students to think carefully about their ability to be clever or being kind.
Sir Alfred Downing Fripp, a British surgeon responsible for the reorganization of the Royal Army Medical Corps after the Boer War noted: "If we cannot be clever, we can always be kind." At any point during our navigation of the daily chaos we can choose to be kind. Being kind requires no college degree, no access to capital, no brand of car, or no social media presence. Being kind is perhaps the easiest thing you can do for someone else. Television host and visionary Fred Rogers quipped “There are three ways to ultimate success: The first way is to be kind. The second way is to be kind. The third way is to be kind.”
Such an elementary observation is bound to be criticized by Type A personalities who need to overachieve, win at all costs, and strive for more. Today’s reflection, for some, may seem a bit counterintuitive. Rest assured, one strategy some people use to navigate the chaos and practice the art of living well involves kindness and thoughtfulness. In a study published in the Journal of Social Psychology by researchers Lee Rowland and Oliver Scott Curry in 2019 found “being kind to ourselves or to anyone else — yes, even a stranger — or actively observing kindness around us boosted happiness.”
In "The heart and science of kindness" post on the Harvard Health blog, Dr. Melissa Brodrick reminded readers that everyone we come across has challenges, most of which you will never know. How we treat them matters. Brodrick noted “If you knew that your coworker delivering the curt response to a question or the snarky critique of a project had recently learned of a serious illness in their family, wouldn’t you cut them some slack? And better yet, might you then want to reach out with support? When we are compassionate, we are recognizing our shared human condition. Compassion can guide us to acts of kindness.” The art of living well involves treating others with kindness and thoughtfulness, even when we do not feel like it.
In its May 29, 2020 blog post "The art of kindness" The Mayo Clinic suggested why we should be kind, even when we do not feel like it. “Kindness has been shown to increase self-esteem, empathy, and compassion, and improve mood. It can decrease blood pressure and cortisol, a stress hormone, which directly impacts stress levels. People who give of themselves in a balanced way also tend to be healthier and live longer. Kindness can increase your sense of connectivity with others, which can directly impact loneliness, improve low mood and enhance relationships in general.” In short, being kind and thoughtful has a variety of benefits that you may not have considered.
The nuance involved with today’s reflection requires us to recognize, accept, and process why unkind people succeed. As Jeffrey Zaslow of The Wall Street Journal wrote in a March 29, 2004 article “really big jerks almost never acknowledge their devious behavior. In many ways, that's the secret to their success.” Their lack of self-awareness allows them to steamroll over the emotions of others. Dr. Susan Krauss Whitbourne discussed this nuance in "Why Toxic People Get Ahead," published March 2018 in Psychology Today and summarized the research around three personality characteristics known as the Dark Triad. The core of a toxic personality includes 1)a tendency to exploit others (Machiavellianism), 2)to have little feeling or regard for their fellow human beings (psychopathy), and 3)to seek, to an extreme degree, being the center of attention (narcissism).
But herein lies the problem. Being kind is extremely challenging when people mistake your kindness for weakness. This misunderstanding of kindness for weakness is a common phenomenon found throughout popular culture. One such example can be found in the 2015 song "FourFiveSeconds” recorded by Barbadian singer Rihanna, American rapper Kanye West, and English musician Paul McCartney.
I think I've had enough
I might get a little drunk
I say what's on my mind
I might do a little time
'Cause all of my kindness
Is taken for weakness
Now I'm FourFiveSeconds from wildin'
If your kindness is taken for weakness for too long, you might get close to, as the song says “wildin’ or fighting. In another popular culture reference to this mistaking kindness for weakness life situation, Christopher Walken’s character of Mikey in the 2002 film Poolhouse Junkies gives the following ‘Lion Speech:’
“You got this lion, he’s the king of the jungle. Huge mane out to here. He’s laying down under a tree, in the middle of Africa, he’s so big, he’s so hot! He doesn’t wanna move. Now, the little lion cubs they start messin’ with him, bitin’ his tail, bitin’ his ears, he doesn’t do anything. The lioness, she starts messing with him, coming over making trouble, still nothing. Now the other animals, they notice this, and they start to move in. The jackals, hyenas, they’re barking at him, laughing at him. They nip his toes and eat the food that’s in his domain. They do this and they get closer and closer and bolder and bolder, till one day…that lion gets up and tears the shit outta everybody, runs like the wind, eats everything in his path, ’cause every once in a while, the lion has to show the jackals who he is.”
So be kind as much as possible. But if your kindness is mistaken for weakness and you keep getting attacked, realize at some point you will need to go ‘wildin’ on those eating your food, barking at you, and laughing at you. Being walked on will prevent you from navigating the chaos. Like so many decisions in life there is a fine line here. You first need to decide if a life situation requires you to be clever or kind.
And if kindness is your choice then you need to decide if people are mistaking your kindness for weakness. If so, how long will you tolerate it before you show them you are king of the jungle?