Nice Guys Really Do Finish Last (Why Being “Nice” Is the Kiss of Death in Love, Work, and Life)

Originally posted on 11/19/11

 

It’s an old saying that nice guys finish last, and mothers all over the world are still fighting to convince their sons it isn’t true. And why wouldn’t they? They want their boys to grow up to be good, honorable men who treat even strangers and stray kittens with kindness. They want their daughters to have their pick of generous, loving men to become husbands and then fathers to their future children.

Still, generation after generation, girls continue to swoon over Fonzie but not over Richie. Unscrupulous businessmen pull ahead even in the toughest economies. Incompetent workers lie, cheat, and sleep their way to the top of corporate ladders. Professional athletes, celebrities and politicians excel in spite of—nay, perhaps because of—their indiscretions.

All around us, nice guys have to step aside or risk being stepped on. Or so it seems.

Maybe the truth is that nice guys really do finish last. Maybe not. Consider the meaning of the word “nice.” It’s one of the most overused words in the English language. It means everything and therefore means nothing. We use the word nice to describe everything from the weather to that hideous sweater received as a gift. We have a nice time going to a nice restaurant with nice people. We get nice seats to watch our favorite team make a nice play. How was your trip? Oh, we had a nice time. Our hosts had a really nice house. Everyone and everything was really nice.

See what I mean? Actually, how could you? I’ve said nothing!

So back to the question of nice guys and how and where they finish. If you’re a nice guy, what exactly are you? According to most dictionaries, you are “satisfactory,” “friendly,” and maybe “pleasant.” To put it another way, you’re “okay.” Etymologists agree that the word “nice” is so cliché that it has become far too general to mean anything that can’t be described better with one of it many synonyms. So when someone calls you “nice,” how could you NOT finish last? You’re sure not going to finish first if the best a person can say about your work ethic, your performance, or your manners is that they are okay or satisfactory. “Nice” is the kiss of death, but not for the reasons you may have grown up trying not to believe. If you’re a nice guy, don’t lament the fact that you’re not a bad boy. Instead, strive to be something more than nice. Be nicer than nice. Be so darn nice that the word “nice” just doesn’t say enough about you and what you bring to the table.

Every time someone uses the word “nice” in reference to you, that is your opportunity to assess how you are coming across to people and then decide if you want to be seen differently. You may decide that it’s time to consider asking a little more of yourself in areas of life that matter to you. Think about it: when people use the word “nice” to describe you or something you did or something you own, does that satisfy you? Are you satisfied with being satisfactory? Are you okay with being just okay?

Do you see yourself in any of these scenarios?

  • You submit an important report at work. Your boss says, “Nice work.” What do you wish he’d said? Do you wish he’d noticed and complimented? That you are prompt? Thorough? Motivated? That your report will increase productivity or revenue?
  • You’re leaving a networking event, and you overhear someone say, “He’s a nice guy.” What do you wish they’d say? That you were so funny? Engaging? That you really listened? That you are informed, competent, and would be a powerful partner?
  • You buy a loved one a birthday gift, and she says, “Thanks, that’s so nice.” What response would you have rather heard? That you’re so thoughtful? That it’s the perfect gift? That it’s amazing you remembered when she mentioned how much she loves that brand?
  • You have friends over for a get-together, and you hear from a mutual friend that one of your guests described the evening saying, “We had a nice time.” What lasting impression do you wish they’d had? That you were a generous host? That you make everyone comfortable and welcome? That the food was delicious? That you noticed when someone’s drink was empty and brought a new one without being asked?

Some people will always fall back on easy vocabulary, so you can’t base your self-worth on whether people use the word “nice” to describe you. But what you CAN do is consider whether you have been complacent, and whether you’ve been holding the bar too low for yourself, and whether maybe “nice” really is the most accurate word for you. If you’re not okay with being just okay, then it’s time to do a little more where it matters most. Don’t do it to get higher praise or a better compliment. Do it because you want to be better, and then watch what happens. I’ll bet your efforts will be noticed by others. I’ll bet they’ll respond to you differently. I’ll bet you’ll start getting more specific feedback that reflect where you are growing and changing. I’ll bet things will start to happen for you. And you’ll get a whole lot more of what you want. And wouldn’t that be nice?