“One day, you could be just like me,” my college professor boasted to the class, standing proudly with his chest puffed up and chin in the air.
“However, more than half of you don’t have what it takes to survive this class and will not make it to the end of the semester. The rest of you have a hell of a struggle if you want to get there. Good luck.”
However abrupt, this highly esteemed, successful professor was a syndicated freelance writer for varying media outlets all over the country. So, I should look up to him… right?
I was determined to be top of the class and win him over. However, there was one problem: he was a total jerk. He displayed a total lack of respect and character when speaking to students and would call attention to anyone caught daydreaming or unprepared and humiliate them in front of the rest of the class.
After a few backbreaking weeks of nonstop criticism, degradation, and watching my fellow colleagues drop like flies, I determined that, not only did I not want to be like him, I would also never allow myself to work with anyone with such a repulsive demeanor, no matter how reputable.
By the end of the semester, I lost all respect for his professional expertise, but also for him as a human being.
Everyone has met a so-called “brilliant jerk” at one point or another. This painfully accurate term became popular in 2009 when Netflix CEO Reed Hastings was reflecting on this character’s inevitable invasion in the workplace.
Whether it’s that merciless “genius” college professor with a 75 percent dropout rate, the elitist politician with a stubborn attitude and the strongest opinion in the room, or the cocky neighbor who’s always talking about their exceptional achievements, they exist everywhere, and it’s just a fact of life that the rest of us have to put up with them.
So, what do they all have in common? An overwhelmingly huge ego that festers from within and manifests itself through vanity and self-righteousness. Everyone has one.
The little voice in your head that has a major impact on decisions and formulated opinions, and can a substantial impact on the rest of your personality traits.
The ability to see and reflect on personal success and achievement is a direct connection with the ego. In Latin, the word ego means “I,” and interestingly enough, it becomes quite apparent that when an individual starts every sentence with “I,” they struggle with balancing their ego. Extremely intelligent people tend to have heightened self-awareness, which allows them to connect with the ego more deeply than the average person.
It is the idea that the brilliant jerk is entangled in the ego’s web of blind ambition and ruthless motivation. This connection can be dangerous in the sense that, without the proper balance between ego and inner self, the ego can infiltrate and affect other parts of personality, such as aggression and hostility.
It has no moral compass and its sole motivation is self inflation and satisfaction of internal desires, such as success and power. Those things feel good, and the ego knows it.
The term “brilliant jerk” has direct correlations with the term “egomaniac.” This type of person has allowed the ego free range over decisions and actions without balancing it with a moral compass.
The moral compass allows for selflessness, compassion, and humanity that many egomaniacs may find cumbersome or unnecessary. Their motivation comes from self-driven success and achievement. Selflessness is put on the sidelines because the ego has all the power and no one can get in the way of reaching that final outcome.
Of course, these kinds of people are still human and experience insecurities; however, their coping mechanisms vary drastically from everyone else. Their ego will beat them up mentally and emotionally, mutating those feelings into a direct, outward expression of vanity and tenacity.
It is total blind ambition: the idea than nothing will stand in the way –– not the people they love, or even themselves. The feeling of defeat and failure is insufferable. Like an addict, the egomaniac will do anything in its power to get the fix and avoid the unbearable withdrawal.
The real point to understand here is that, although we may want to instantly hate these types of people, they have an addiction to achievement that can never be satisfied. They are stuck in a vicious cycle, always looking for the next challenge to overcome, and all the success in the world cannot satiate that craving.
The brilliant jerk’s natural environment is anything involving competition –– particularly in the workplace. Competition fuels aggression and a cutthroat attitude and that is a combustible fuel for the ego.
The brilliant jerk is never wrong, which doesn’t leave any room for losing. However high the stakes, they will take that challenge every time. Second place just won’t do, and the fight to the top is so steep that turning back or giving even an inch of leeway would be seen as a failure to the ego.
It’s also important to remember who is really the victim here. It’s lonely at the top, where all you’re left with is your own thoughts and opinions and that voice in your head that won’t stop screeching, “This still isn’t good enough!”
Brilliant jerks are their own worst critics, never satisfied with their most recent achievement.
They hardly have enough time to celebrate success, because their ego is prodding them with a hot poker right back into combat for the next victory. From the outsider’s perspective, it appears that they are uber successful and have it all, but to them, it’s never good enough. It’s the itch that can’t be scratched; that must be a terrible feeling.
Dealing with a brilliant jerk in the workplace can be a tricky situation. These types of people are hard workers with great ideas. They will work Saturdays, put in more time than anyone else, and always respond to emails, no matter the time of day.
They are indisputable contributors of ideas and solutions and can help to keep everyone else motivated, but at the same time snuff out any creativity from everyone else in efforts to preserve their spot at the top.
Remember, their primary incentive is to feed the ego recognition through achievement and the larger group of social networks to which they belong are put on the back burner.
When you encounter a jerk in a position of power in which they have influence, it is imperative to remain professional, yet distant.
Keep personal conversations to a minimum, as the jerk can turn on you at any moment and is not a friend. His ego has all the game plays and he is a pawn, defending the honor of his king.
Always remember, they aren’t bad people, but they just can’t help stepping on anyone that gets in their way. Their opinion matters, and so does yours.
Don’t forget that. Don’t allow them to control the room, especially in meetings. Promote group conversation and spread positive reinforcement to all staff members to boost everyone’s confidence to avoid feelings of inferiority.
Make them a part of the conversation and not the conversation. Too much recognition can inflate their ego, which is clearly the star of the show, and disrupt any existing flow of creativity. Everyone should have a voice and it’s important to maintain a safe, judgement-free space to share ideas without persecution.
Over the years, I have experienced many instances of brilliant jerks, even in my own family. Although they may come from different walks of life and the traits may show themselves in different ways, it doesn’t take long to realize the monster inside that’s running the show.
When interacting with the jerk on a personal level, keep them engaged by allowing the topic of conversation to remain self-centered. With all the successes and achievements they have had, there has to be sufficient time reserved for bragging and boasting, otherwise they are left with empty feelings.
They thrive on their own achievements and only feel fulfilled when boasting about their most recent triumph.
Having direct contact, especially if they are a part of family or close circle, can be dangerous territory. I try to take the humble approach and tread lightly, but remain firm. I do not allow my own ego to engage and trick me into thinking my opinion is the only one that matters, but at the same time preserve some dignity by deflecting verbal aggression or abuse.
Perhaps the most damaging encounter between two people is when both egos are shouting so loud, everything else is voided out. Your own ego might tell you that taking the passive stance is a cop out, but consider the alternative: two hours of nonstop debate about some frivolous topic in which feelings are hurt, and even names are called.
Everyone has an ego; it is a part of being humans, but how we balance that ego is what makes some people brilliant jerks. Always be mindful of that little voice in your head and what it’s telling you. Striving for achievements and the recognition that goes with it is not a bad thing, however it’s how it manifests itself in the decisions we make that could be damaging to others and and relationships. Morphing into the brilliant jerk is just a few selfish, greedy decisions away.
Preserving relationships is top priority and I’ll take that cop out every time.
Thinking of brilliant jerks as addicts is the best analogy in trying to rationalize their behavior.
It allows space for compassion and understanding when considering their uncomfortable state of mind. Mood swings, temper tantrums, restlessness and uneasiness are sure signs a jerk may exude when experiencing the unbearable crush of unrealistic expectation and overachievement.
This tactic is helpful in reminding us that they are the true victims. Imagine living every day feeling unfulfilled and personally challenged to single handedly change the world and everyone in it. We need people like this to carry that unbearable weight that the average Joe would rather avoid.
As human beings, our primary job in life is to practice tolerance, patience and acceptance, and what better way to do that than consistent, judgement-free interactions with the brilliant jerks that surround us.
Don’t let the ego get the best of you and always remain balanced in confidence and humility because no one wants to be the brilliant jerk.
Photo credit: evdoha
Ashley was born and raised in the heart of Detroit, Michigan. With economic and political blight a part of daily life, she learned incredibly valuable lessons of perseverance, tolerance, and street smarts. Always seeking the next adventure, she’s addicted to the feeling of being a “fish out of water” and exploring new, foreign parts of the world. Her passion for writing comes from the ability to share the magic of those experiences with her readers who may never get the opportunity to swim to the other side of the fish bowl.