brilliant jerks meme

10 April 2015

Brilliant Jerks? Bring ‘Em On! (And Why I Hate The Term “Team Player”)

by Freddy Tran Nager, Founder of Atomic Tango + Guy Who Sees Value In Brilliant Jerks; image credit: internet meme featuring photo by Scott Grummett for Wired Magazine

LinkedIn’s wall is degenerating fast. It used to focus on careers and business discussions. Now it’s becoming Facebook, complete with inspirational quotes. For example, my LinkedIn wall frequently features this popular meme about Neflix CEO Reed Hastings, who has built a mighty empire. As a Netflix customer, I respect a lot of what Hastings has accomplished — but I don’t necessarily think his HR policies work for everyone. Case in point: his abhorrence of so-called “brilliant jerks.”

Now if a “brilliant jerk” is a bully who smells like cat food, harasses others, and doesn’t do his job, I fully agree with giving him the heave-ho. That’s not about “teamwork” — that’s about avoiding lawsuits and improving office hygiene.

If a brilliant jerk is someone who simply questions the answers and rejects the status quo, by all means, he should not only be kept, he should be rewarded.

Keep in mind that the opposite of a brilliant jerk is a mediocre team player, the person who nods in assent to everything. They’re useful for getting tedious jobs done, like filling out TPS reports. They can also be found easily — indeed, corporations are using outsourcing services in India where mediocre team players cost a lot less.

People with ideas and visions are truly rare and valuable. Quote advertising legend David Ogilvy:

“There are very few men of genius in advertising agencies. But we need all we can find. Almost without exception they are disagreeable. Don’t destroy them. They lay golden eggs.”

Adds Wharton Professor Adam Grant, a corporation’s most valuable employees are “disagreeable givers.” His point is paraphrased here by Quartz:

“The agreeable giver may seem like the ideal employee, but Grant says their sunny disposition can make them averse to conflict and too eager to agree. Disagreeable givers, on the other hand, can be a pain in the ass, but valuable to an organization, Grant says. They’re more likely to fight for what they believe in, challenge the status quo, and push the organization to make painful but necessary changes, he says. And because they’re stingy with praise, when it’s offered, it generally can be trusted.”

Teamwork Is Overrated

In a seminal New York Times article from 2012, “The Rise of the New Groupthink,” researcher Susan Cain wrote about introverts and their need for solitude and quiet time. Not all smart people function well in teams. They just want to be given an assignment and left alone to get the job done:

“Research strongly suggests that people are more creative when they enjoy privacy and freedom from interruption. And the most spectacularly creative people in many fields are often introverted, according to studies by the psychologists Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and Gregory Feist. They’re extroverted enough to exchange and advance ideas, but see themselves as independent and individualistic. They’re not joiners by nature.”

Guess what happens when you force these creative introverts into continuous teamwork — particularly with mediocre yes-men? Some withdraw even further. Others become (you guessed it) brilliant jerks. I see it when I assign students to work in teams. Some of the smartest minds don’t play that way.

Consider Apple (which Cain also cites): neither Steve Jobs nor Steve Wozniak was a team player. Jobs was a domineering extrovert. Wozniak was an eccentric introvert. Both could be classified as “brilliant jerks.” I guess Hastings would have fired both of them.

“Brilliant jerks” often become entrepreneurs because they can finally try things their way without being forced into teamwork. I can think of one such entrepreneur who Cain doesn’t mention in her article. Listen to him explain why he quit officer training school in the Marines:

“I found myself questioning how we packed our backpacks and how we made our beds… My questioning wasn’t particularly encouraged, and I realized I might be better off in the Peace Corps.”

His name? Reed Hastings.

The Full Netflix Value Statement

Note that, with Netflix, Hastings has simply built a better vending machine. Whenever Netflix needs anything creative — whether it’s an original series or a fix for their recommendation engine — Hastings has to look outside his company. What type of people does he think creates all those Hollywood movies and TV shows?

In addition, that quote you see in the meme above is actually a paraphrase of one slide from Netflix’s Culture presentation. (See below.)

People sharing the “brilliant jerks” meme need to read the rest of this presentation. They’ll notice that while Netflix talks a lot about teamwork, it also places “Courage” as one of its top values, including the mandates, “You say what you think even if it is controversial” and “You question actions inconsistent with our values.”

A few slides later, the presentation notes that, “Sustained B-level performance, despite ‘A for effort’, generates a generous severance package.” Netflix wants “stars at every position.”

Netflix also expects “Innovation” from its workers, and abhors a “Process-focus [that] drives more talent out,” resulting in a company that “grinds painfully into irrelevance.”

So there you have it: not a simple aphorism in a meme, but a 126-slide presentation that says what Netflix wants. It’s not a prescription for anyone else (indeed, I can’t see most companies pulling this off, unless they also want to offer Netflix-level salaries and Netflix-level freedoms).

In short, Netflix wants only stars who are passionate and courageous and innovative and always do A-level work while abhorring process and questioning assumptions yet working as a team — otherwise they get fired.

Sounds brilliant. And jerky.

Update 9/5/15: If you still think you’d like to work for Netflix, be sure to listen to this NPR report on Netflix culture, “Hard Work Is Irrelevant”…

Update 11/14/15: One of my colleagues on LinkedIn just wrote in response to the meme, “On my teams, I give the brilliant people license to ‘bother’ others. To tweak the old saw a bit: ‘The less brilliant need to follow or get out of the way.'” That makes sense to me. It also made me wonder how many brilliant people became “jerks” because they were forced to work on teams who were below their speed and standards. I’ve seen perfectly wonderful people lose their cool when forced to collaborate with the “less brilliant.”

Update 2/24/17: In the wake of all the scandals at Uber involving sexual harassment and other illegal behavior, I want to reiterate and underscore that I don’t consider such behavior to be the work of “brilliant jerks.” As I noted above, that’s the behavior of bullies who should absolutely be given the heave-ho. I have zero tolerance for bullying or harassment of any kind.

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Freddy is the Founder & Creative Strategist of Atomic Tango. He also teaches graduate-level marketing communication courses at the University of Southern California (go Trojans!), shoots pool somewhat adequately, and herds cats. Freddy received his BA from Harvard and his MBA from USC.

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Rob Galanakis
10 years ago

Hi Freddy, those Reed Hastings posters got under my skin as well. I was actually going to blog about the same thing but you covered this way more thoroughly than I was going to! Thanks for the read!

10 years ago
Reply to  Rob Galanakis

Thanks, Rob. I hope you’ll still blog about it — and send me a link to your article when you’re done!

Mark Armstrong
10 years ago

Excellent, one of your best. And I’d like to see that Susan Cain quote get much wider dissemination.

Contrasting the misleading, unhelpful poster with the full value statement slideshow was a brilliant closer. Thanks, Freddy, well done!

10 years ago
Reply to  Mark Armstrong

Thanks, Mark. I totally agree with you about the Cain quote. All we ever hear while growing up is “be yourself” and “follow your dreams,” but as soon as we hit the marketplace, companies are force fitting people onto teams.

Yes, some businesses rely on teamwork and thrive on teamwork. But there are business models for everyone, and people who think one size fits all are the ones who are offensive.

Barry Fleming
10 years ago

Thanks for this article Freddy –

I think what we’re seeing is the erosion of this idiot notion of “bifurcation” of ourselves. The @LinkedIn “team player” who happily acquiesces to the prevailing order – out of fear no less. And the dissenting @Facebook critical thinker. We/they could no longer keep the two worlds apart – no matter the marginalization algorithms, filter bubbles, and echo chambers they’ve erected. People will be people. And our world is fast becoming blended, merged, and extremely complicated.

Critical thinking and empathetic courage are not valued in the capitalist, corporate organizations. Pandering to the status quo is.

10 years ago
Reply to  Barry Fleming

Well put, sir! To play off what you said, the status quo ain’t what it used to be.


[…] I was all prepared to write about how much I hate this quote, but Freddy Nager already did. It is thorough and insightful and explains how out of context this quote is. Thanks to Freddy for […]

10 years ago

I consider myself a brilliant jerk and I don’t wannt to get fired, so I’ll flame this blog.

9 years ago

I agree with your post. A lot of people so not realize that Steve Jobs, Bill Gates and even Mark Zuckerberg were all considered brilliant Jerks at on time. Steve Job called brilliant Jerks, Crazy ones.

Here’s to the crazy ones.
The misfits.
The rebels.
The troublemakers.
The round pegs in the square holes.
The ones who see things differently.
They’re not fond of rules.
And they have no respect for the status quo.
You can quote them, disagree with them, glorify or vilify them.
About the only thing you can’t do is ignore them.
Because they change things.
They push the human race forward.
And while some may see them as the crazy ones,
We see genius.
Because the people who are crazy enough to think
they can change the world,
Are the ones who do.

Think Different.

9 years ago
Reply to  Tim

I know that Apple ad well — a print version is pinned to the wall next to my desk!

8 years ago

Brilliant jerks aren’t people you can hire, they don’t get along well with mediocre coworkers and they don’t work well in teams staffed with mediocre talent.

This is very important in the comparisons: Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg etc, while all being brilliant jerks, are NOT people who even want to be hired by others. They’re the ones who hire the teams tasked with doing the implementation, which is where the non-jerk level of teamwork is needed.

It’s a lot like the difference between employer vs employee.

Charles Crain
Charles Crain
7 years ago

A lot of you seem to be confusing “brilliant jerk” with “brilliant introvert.” Jerks (brilliant or otherwise) actively work to sabotage others, tear down instead of building up, and sap the morale and intensity of others, even other brilliant employees. Having a prickly personality or poor social skills is one thing. Being actively mean and deriving pleasure from belittling others while acting unprofessionally is another. Some people might be able to make brilliant jerks work by confining them to solo or non-leadership positions. More power to them.

7 years ago

This article was, well… brilliant! Unfortunately, not enough people have read it because the “brilliant jerks” myth is alive and well more than ever in San Francisco/Silicon Valley. You can’t even politely criticize ideas anymore on teams, or offer any expertise to younger, less experienced people, because they take offense to the very act of receiving advice and you’ll get a call from HR. Youngsters (sometimes even CEOs and co-founders in their 20s) have a huge problem with being wrong, they don’t like being incorrect even outside their talent domain. In my opinion this is the source of the issue. I’ve worked at 4 big companies over a 10 year span in San Francisco and have seen it change year-after-year, getting more and more sensitive. The very criticism of an idea, or the offering of advice from something you know with certainty to be true has become a crime even when delivered intelligently and with politeness. They don’t want your ideas or your feedback, they just want to “run the show” 24/7, that is more important than improving. There are too many young/idealistic founders (Harvard/Stanford types) with all the VC money and no experience with companies (or life in general), and they WANT yes-men, not idea people, because it feels better and strokes their ego. Most CEOs are wealthy private school kids after all. “Kumbaya” for whatever reason is now becoming more important for companies than acquiring talent. Founders and managers just want agreeable people, not smart people. I think the “brilliant jerks” thing is trickling down from the executive level, and caused by a new wave of inexperienced millennial founders and managers who don’t know how to treat people, and care more about feeling good all the time than fixing things.

Laura C
Laura C
4 years ago

The legal field, and particularly the public-service sector of it, could really benefit from your post. Like entrepreneurs, good lawyers should be able to be courageous and creative, because they must be ethical and they must exercise control over a loving, breathing case; and there exists plenty of inherent mild corruption and policies set in place that are meant to avoid getting in trouble but that only reward mediocrity.