Are Successful People Awful?

I’m a bit late to the podcast game. I had listened to them on and off over the years but hadn’t really taken to them. Why would I want to listen to someone prattle on about something when I can listen to music? That was my stance for a very, very, very long time.

Then two things happened. First, COVID. And more specifically, my inability to commute, which was when I listened to the bulk of my music. And that meant keeping me indoors (or generally just around the house). I still listened to music, at least as often as I could. It also meant that I didn’t get remotely enough exercise. And all that sourdough bread I’d learned how to bake was starting to take a toll with my waistline (and sweatpants weren’t helping in the slightest).

This led me to walking around a lot. I would walk 3-5 kilometres a day in an effort to keep some level of fitness (and also get out of the house, which was increasingly feeling like a prison). And you can’t stream music when you’re out of the house as, even with audio quality dialled down, you’ll eventually run out of data (because Canada has highway robbery-levels of mobile data rates). Which happened more than once.

Second, Only Murders In The Building. If you haven’t seen this (it’s on Star on Disney+), I recommend it. A solid whodunnit that stars Steve Martin and Martin Short (who together are hilarious, no matter what they’re doing), plus Selena Gomez as the bored-with-20s-trash-talking-old-guys character, all three of whom get involved with a murder in their building (hence, most of the name; there’s a second one later that delivers the plurality). Aside from being delightfully funny, one of the key parts of the plot is that these three characters create a true crime podcast of it.

Suddenly, I was transported many, many years back to Grade 8, when we were tasked with making a radio show that told a story, and four friends and I holed up in the nurse’s room over lunch (literally before the assignment was due) to record a very rushed script (courtesy of yours truly) about the trials of teenagers. I still remember one of us (I struggle to remember his name, as he left before Grade 9, so I have no yearbook with him), yelling (as we opened and slammed doors to sound like lockers) an ad-libbed: “Hey Joey! I heard your mom got…”, followed by the sound of us all very urgently trying not to bust a gut laughing (we had one take with the time we had left). And I remembered how awesome it was to hear a recorded story that you could only hear.

Then, probably through an article I read somewhere, I heard about 13 Minutes To The Moon. This is a rather brilliant BBC podcast, recorded by Kevin Fong, who is a part of a helicopter EMS team and formerly with NASA’s Human Adaptation and Countermeasures Office in Houston. He worked where, on 20 July 1969, two humans climbed into a rickety space craft and descended over 13 minutes from lunar orbit to the surface. The podcast is about all the things and people and events that went into that 13 minutes to success. In additional to the audio clips and interviews, there was a brilliant soundtrack by Hans freaking Zimmer. Damn near brought tears to my eyes just listening to it. And listen, I did! (If you’re into non-fiction space stories, I can’t recommend this enough!)

The episodes sometimes includes promos for other BBC podcasts, which is how I came to be aware of another little gem called You’re Dead To Me. This podcast, created by Greg Jenner (self-described “head nerd” on BBC series Horrible Histories, a favourite of Choo Choo), is about bringing a historian and a comedian together to discuss a person or a place or an event from history. The podcast apparently ended at the end of 2021, which I think is a tragedy and I truly hope this is only a temporary break.

That brought me to Evil Genius, another promo that was tacked onto You’re Dead To Me. This show is all comedians, dealing with a singular topic – a person – and whether or not they’re evil, or a genius. It’s an all-out debate that started to raise the question: can a genius be a good person?

And that brings me to this topic. Still with me?

One of the key premises of Evil Genius is that geniuses have dark sides we tend to forget or deliberately not see. John Lennon, the first victim of the show, might have been a brilliant lyricist (when in partnership with Paul McCartney; his solo work is less wonderful), but was an absolute ass as a father and beat his first wife. Roald Dahl, the author who brought us Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and BFG, among others, was a horrific narcissist, seemed to be an anti-Semite, and also treated women terribly. I won’t even start on Richard Pryor, whose private life was anything but private.

And it started me to think: is there such a thing as a pure genius, someone whose work or philosophy has led humanity to a better place, without all the dirt?

The truth is … well, complicated. That’s history for you, really. For every shining moment, there’s probably a handful of dark ones. They might vary from the relatively harmless neglegence right up to inadvertently creating a weapon that can destroy a city, but they’re usually there. And although we love to think of our age as enlightened and far more educated and caring that our predecessors, we don’t need to go far to find bad behaviour. Lest we forget, we are still terribly racist and classist and xenophobic, no matter how united and loving we might pretend to be as a society.

It led me on a slight tangent, though. Not so much “genius”, but “successful”: people who have done well in their profession, their sport, their branch of science, their art. And I’m not necessarily referring to anyone truly famous, though they would also be considered in this classification, I’m even thinking of the people you know who have been put on the proverbial pedestals for their achievements. Are these good people, or do they have those darker qualities?

I’ve known a number of “successful” people over the course of my life. Some of them were friends at school (even as far back as high school, which we all know is a bastion of ideal behaviour), some were coworkers (who went on to “bigger, better things”), some were my mentors and managers (most of whom had their own agendas and manipulated others to achieve those goals), and the rest were those I’ve met along the way (the proverbial “single-serving friend”). How did they get there? What sacrifices (personal or offered) were made? The moment I walk away, is my back to fill with blades? Is it even possible for someone to be successful without having left behind a trail of skeletons in closets?

And that led to a rather uncomfortable thought: Are any of us truly good? Do we, in the pursuit of whatever passions that push us around like sails in a storm, do what it takes to get what we want at the expense of others, intentionally or not? I can certainly reflect on my own history and spy a few things that I’m not proud of. Given, in context with today’s society, they’re not truly horrible. But it was also fashionable to be anti-semitic back in the 1920s and 30s, a practice that a majority of society (we’ll sidestep that right-wing Christian evangelist rabbit hole) frowns upon today.

A googling of “philosophical goodness” begets results about “perfect goodness”, an theological idea that considers the presence – or more specifically, the lack of – evil. Even the most saintly people I know (and having married into a family of ministers, I’ve met a few) have shady points in their past. Whilst I hate to cast everyone in a general light, I do truly wonder if anyone can be “perfectly” good? (Even Mother Teresa isn’t above reproach.)

Almost hilariously, this leaves us with the classic Dungeons & Dragons alignment chart: Lawful to Chaotic on the x-axis, Good to Evil on the y-axis, and you fall into one of nine boxes (the middle sections being “Neutral”). A bit more flexible that merely “good vs. evil”, though in D&D ths is meant to be a choice rather than how you’re wired. To be honest, I’m not even exactly sure where I’d land in that grid, though I suspect I trend more to the “good” and “lawful” corner. (My next D&D character, however, is going to be catfolk so I can be chaotically neutral and walk around knocking things off of tables.)

So I’ve ended up talking more about the general human behaviour than “successful” people, but perhaps that’s because the spectrum we all operate in is perhaps narrower than we believe it to be – it’s not much of a spread between doing something good or something bad. And sometimes, the “bad” isn’t really awful, just something less tasteful.

And in 100 years, that perspective might be totally different anyway. The Robot Uprising will, no doubt, cast all humans as evil, so it really won’t matter what we do.

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