George Bernard Shaw (on the virtue of disagreeableness)

I’m reading Malcolm Gladwell’s latest, David and Goliath. Like most of his books, this one takes things that we blandly believe to be true and asks questions, tells stories, and cites research to suggest that they ain’t necessarily so. In Blink, for example, Gladwell challenged the idea that sound decisions come only after long reflection, that following an impulse is always a bad idea; his Outliers is one of several recent books that punch holes in our belief in the solitary genius, the I-did-it-my-way exaltation of individualistic accomplishment.

David and Goliath argues that it wasn’t such a big upset when the shepherd boy stoned the slow-moving giant — he made what appeared to be a disadvantage into his ace-in-the-hole, by not playing the game the way the Philistine Tallboy arrogantly assumed it would be. In a chapter that spotlights the unusual proportion of noted entrepreneurs who suffer from dyslexia, Gladwell cites an advantage they have: used to being outcast, at failing repeatedly, they are not only inured to difficulty but they may also be less afraid to be disagreeable. At which point, Gladwell quotes a beloved old chestnut from George Bernard Shaw, and I get to my point!

Contrarian, egalitarian, smarty-pants.

Contrarian, egalitarian, smarty-pants.

Here, Shaw exposes people-pleasers (like me, in some socially strait-jacketed circumstances) and their conformism, their pleasantness-above-all soothery. It also reminds me of another reason I love coaching basketball — and, at my rare bravest, writing — because there I am unafraid, indeed eager, to point out weaknesses and urge something like excellence. I am confident and (sometimes overly) sure of the need for truth-telling and an insistence on always doing better. Here is G.B. Shaw’s logical argument for what is generally seen as irrational behaviour and simple bad manners:

“The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man.”

George Bernard Shaw (1856-1950) was an Irish critic, playwright, activist and gadfly who was one of the great wits of the 20th century. He is the only person ever to win both the Nobel Prize for Literature (1925) and an Oscar (for Pygmalion, 1938). He refused, however, knighthood by the British crown. He appears to have been unafraid of being disagreeable, or of undertaking the impossible. I fondly imagine he would have approved of my sidewalk efforts to improve the habits of Chinese drivers.

Comments (3)

  1. Karl King

    I’ll have to make a trip to the library to find some Shaw. Any recommendations? The contrarians in my life tend to be of the musical variety: Herbie Hancock, Rage Against the Machine, Bob Dylan, and any Japanese punk band from the last 25 years (culture clash!) but I love writers who bend the rules of convention, too.

    • Pygmalion is the obvious one, the most famous and riffed-on one. Mrs. Warren’s Profession was quite shocking in its time, and still sticks needles in pretension and superiority. Trying to think of what I’ve actually seen — not enough (!), and none recently.Saint Joan was a milestone, too.

    • I fall victim, unfortunately, to the old sin — my best high school English teacher, aeons ago, called it “the evil of Bartlett’s” (Familiar Quotations) — of knowing stuff second-hand as a quote packrat, and too often not to have read in depth (or even shallowly) the original sources. Shaw, for too many, is a pithy phrase-maker with a cool beard. When was the last time I read him? So, good ahead, Mr. King, outdo me! See if I care! (I do, but it doesn’t stop me from wishing you well in diving into Shaw; pretty talky stuff, sometimes, but wow, such elevated talk.)

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