walking on custard

Can Niceness Change the World?

21 Jun 2022

Estimated reading time: 10 minutes

Like seemingly everyone I know, I watched Ted Lasso last year. It’s an Apple TV series about an American football coach being appointed as a manager in real football—or soccer, as it’s also called.

But this isn’t a typical sports show. I’ve seen the premise of Ted described as simply “what if a man was nice”. Without spoiling anything, Ted faces (almost) every situation with a powerful aura of wholesomeness which somehow wins over even his most hostile enemies, grinding away their resistance with sheer pleasantness. In a world where television protagonists mostly solve situations by punching bad guys, I found it refreshing to see problems fixed with hard-hitting emotional conversations and delicious homemade biscuits.

Between episodes, I’ve found myself wondering why this feels so rare. After all, in real life we meet a lot more nice people than superheroes or mob bosses. Yet, to a small, cynical part of me, somebody solving their problems through kindness is harder to believe than most fiction. Is it possible, in the real world, to choose kindness, gentleness, and niceness…and to be rewarded for it in the end?

To find out, I turned to Andy Mort. A true multipotentialite, Andy juggles music, podcasting, writing, coaching and leadership of The Haven community. He created The Haven for highly sensitive people—who he calls “gentle rebels”—to encourage each other to be the best version of themselves. If anybody understands the power of niceness in a hostile world, Andy would.

Naturally, I begin by asking if he has seen Ted Lasso.

His eyes light up. “I love it!” We exchange the wide grins of two people excited by the chance to rave about something they enjoy. After we quote our favourite bits at each other, I explain again that I wanted to talk to him because he reminds me of Ted. I appreciate that this is a weird thing to say, and that I can’t justify it beyond a shared vibe of kindness, but he seems to take it as a compliment.

“Do you think Ted Lasso’s style of niceness would work in the real world?”

Andy nods. “What I love most is that his niceness infuses out into the culture of the club. Once he has planted the seed, he becomes unnecessary. The culture continues without him. It’s a long term win for gentleness.”

That’s an interesting thought. Niceness replicates itself, just like in those cheesy “pay it forward” books from the early 2000s. But I can’t help feeling a little cynical. “Is that how it actually works? Does being nice create more niceness? Don’t people just take advantage of nice people?”

Andy pauses. “The people we might think of as ‘nice’—Jesus, Gandhi, Martin Luther King—often seemed to lose in the short-term. Often being killed. But it’s impossible to argue that their ideas didn’t have a big impact on a longer timescale. I think that violence, the ultimate lack of niceness, eventually fails. Even if you win a war, you probably did something that will lead to a reaction during the peace afterwards. So being ‘not nice’ is self-defeating in a way that niceness isn’t.”

I find this answer extremely comforting. “It’s interesting you brought up those world-changing movements, when so much of your work is about day-to-day life.”

“Do you see your Gentle Rebels as being in the tradition of those famous historical rebels?”

Andy gives a slow nod. “Yeah! I think so.” He laughs at the dawning realization that he’s effectively just compared himself to Jesus. “But for me it’s about the juxtaposition of gentle and rebel. It’s not a vocal rebellion against others, just a positive choice to live the way that feels right. Being gentle IS the rebellion, in some ways.”

I wonder how this idea came about. “Did you just wake up one day and decide to lead a gentle rebellion? How did this all start?”

“It wasn’t deliberate. It just emerged. I had this blog about my music, and I also wrote about myself and my personal development. And I noticed that people were really engaged with that stuff. And the people who liked it were naturally quiet ones with a particular spirit about them; not taking the mainstream view of the world. I came to think of them as gentle rebels: people who want to make a living doing what they love, using their values—which aren’t necessarily the ‘default’ ones.”

“What are society’s default values?”

“Money. Success. The usual things people think they want. But all the Gentle Rebels shared a desire to make the world a bit more tolerable.”

I nod. This sounds like world-changing niceness to me, if on a smaller scale than MLK and Gandhi. But can it work? “Isn’t there a reason gentleness and rebellion aren’t generally found together? If your whole brand is founded on niceness, won’t somebody try to take advantage?”

Andy nods. “I know someone with a similar ethos to me who got served with a cease-and-desist over some supposed trademark infringement. I wondered what I’d do if someone came for me similarly. Or if I should be setting up my own legal protection and gunning for my competitors. 

“But I decided I don’t want to play that game. It might mean there are times when I am prey in a world of predators, but I practice non-attachment to that stuff—as painful as that can be. I genuinely want the world to be gentler. I don’t want to peddle one message and live a different one. I have to live in line with my values. So, I aim to opt out of that system of competition.”

I pull a face. I know what he means, and I kind of agree—there’s constant pressure to hustle and fight, and it is possible to resist that pressure and simply be nicer. But we both know you can’t just opt out of the system entirely.

I open my mouth to prod further, but he’s already anticipated my question. “If you see yourself as predator or prey, or as a victim or perpetrator, then… It’s like with narcissists: however you engage with them, they get what they want. The only solution is not to engage. And I feel like this whole system of predators and prey is a system of thought that only exists because we believe in them. If we didn’t believe in them, they wouldn’t exist.”

I’m amused by the idea that lawyers, like fairies, would cease to exist if we collectively stopped believing in them. But I get what he means: believing yourself to be vulnerable is sometimes part of what makes you vulnerable. Still, it seems like there’s a flaw in simply opting out.

“Your competitors still believe in the system, so they could use that to come for you. Right?”

“I don’t think niceness is the same as meekness. It’s not about letting people just have whatever they want.” Andy tells me the story of a coaching client who tried to take advantage. It was nothing major, just someone pushing the limits of his kindness. “It would have been easy to give in, to give them what they wanted. I could have avoided an awkward conversation by simply letting them take advantage. But boundaries are important.

“I can be assertive, but gently. I don’t need to respond in an aggressive spirit. There’s too much aggression in general, so we need gentle approaches everywhere in the world now. Look at social media. It feels good to aggressively tell someone they’re wrong, but it doesn’t change anybody’s mind.”

I ask the obvious question.

“What does change people’s minds?”

“It’s not an easy thing. Niceness and gentleness are made of small, hard conversations. Minds don’t get changed by shouting someone into a corner, but through compassion and grace. Not accepting the things they believe, but accepting them as people. Seeing them as a person, and not just a collection of opinions.”

I pause. “This all sounds like hard work.”

“It is.”

Damn it. I was hoping more niceness might magically solve all of the world’s problems, just like I saw in that lovely TV show about football. I resist the urge to bring up Ted Lasso again. Instead, I find myself continuing to question how this could possibly work on a business level.

“What about marketing? Is it even possible to do that nicely?”

I wonder, “Doesn’t gentle marketing simply disappear amid all the shouting?”

“I think you have to accept that it can just disappear. Over the years, I’ve tried traditional marketing: scarcity, launch formulas, and so on. But I’ve discovered that the way you market attracts the kind of people who buy into that marketing. The energy you use to market affects the product. If you manufacture anxiety, a sense of scarcity, a fear of time running out, then people turn up anxious. No product can satisfy the energy you have created. Worse, you’re creating more anxiety in the pool for the whole world. Instead, all my content is slow and gentle. I market with that energy, and it attracts people who want that. It’s like violence begetting violence. Anxiety begets anxiety.”

I spot a pleasing connection with our earlier conversation: “Just like niceness replicates itself!”

“Is that the plan, then—to replace that global pool of anxiety with something more wholesome?”

“Yes! In fact, I want to replace myself entirely. I mean, I want people to get to a place where they don’t need anything I do. Ideally, we wouldn’t need a separate community specifically for people to recharge. We’d just live in a world that keeps us charged up, so I would be obsolete. And I know making myself obsolete is bad business! But it’s like rocket boosters.”

I am confused.

Thankfully, Andy explains: “Rockets need boosters to get into orbit. But the boosters have to be jettisoned afterwards or they bring the whole thing down. So I see coaching like that—the booster goes away and the rocket is able to orbit. The work to build a world which keeps us recharged will no longer be necessary once that world is created.”

I have a flash of insight.

“Should every business be aiming to make itself obsolete?”

I go on, “Making products which break every year can make more money than simply making a good product that lasts forever. But that doesn’t make it right, right?”

“Absolutely!” Andy nods. “It’s the core issue at the heart of our system. We need to constantly replace everything. And we need everybody to feel perpetually that they’re not enough, that they always need more. I don’t think most people participate in this consciously, but every system encourages dependence by design instead of fixing the problems they’re supposedly solving.”

This sounds true, and feels a lot larger than my question of how we could do marketing in a “nicer” way. Is it possible for mere niceness to solve a problem so huge? At that scale, is niceness even the right word? I grasp for human-sized concepts and land back on Ted Lasso: “Maybe this hole at the heart of our system is why the show is so popular—we have an unfulfilled need for niceness. Most TV show protagonists aren’t people you want in your life, but Ted is a boss who wants everybody around him to become better and to fulfill their dreams.”

“Can reality ever live up to the wholesomeness we see in Ted Lasso?”

“I hope so. There’s one way I think Ted is very like reality: the show lacks a true antagonist. We’re normally trained to look for scapegoats, for enemies, for reasons that everything is like it is. Most media paints the idea that our problems are solved by finding the enemy and defeating them, and we bring that energy to real life. We see someone trend on Twitter and perhaps it feels good to pile on. But this show says that there is no single enemy and that the way to progress is to do hard emotional work. And to be as nice as possible while we do it.”

He’s right about all this, of course. Although, it’s possible to argue that Manchester City FC are (accurately to real life) the villains of Ted Lasso. Well… at least until [spoiler redacted] happens, but I realize that none of these are the kind of antagonists Andy was referring to.

I have just one thing left to ask. “What if goodness isn’t all it’s cracked up to be? Why aim to be nice in the first place?”

“Do you ever wish you were more evil?”

He laughs. “Well…” There’s a long pause. “It comes down to desiring what you could get by embracing the dark side. Sure, I could stomp around and crush my competitors and play the game the way we’re pressured to. But I don’t envy the people who do that, and I don’t want what they get out of it. Ultimately, I believe in making the world a more tolerable, gentler place instead.”

Sounds good to me. 

I’m left hoping Ted ends his next season on an even higher high. And, more importantly, that Andy’s gentle rebellion transforms the world like Ted is transforming his fictional corner of West London.

Andy Mort is a musician, writer, coach and community leader for people who want more play and creativity in their life. Andy’s words have been lightly edited for length and clarity. You can find him at www.andymort.com

This article was originally written for Puttylike

Neil Hughes

Neil Hughes is the author of Walking on Custard & the Meaning of Life, a comical and useful guide to life with anxiety, and The Shop Before Life, a tale about a magical shop which sells human personality traits.

Along with writing more books, he spends his time on standup comedy, speaking about mental health, computer programming, public speaking and everything from music to video games to languages. He struggles to answer the question "so, what do you do?" and is worried that the honest answer is probably "procrastinate."

He would like it if you said hello.

© Neil Hughes 2019 — 2024
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