You Don’t Have to Be Likeable

Success comes down to one thing — being good at what you do.

Photo by Oliver Sjöström on Unsplash

People don’t like me at first. I’m cold. Distant. Standoffish. So I’ve been told. And I don’t smile much. In grad school they used to call me the ice queen. Resident bitch. Not that I tried. A weird blend of life and genetics made me that way. It’s my default state.

When you look mean, people don’t fuck with you. Not even the big, loud ones.

But I understand. I’ve developed a social skill set that’s more suitable for a post-apocalyptic video game than corporate America.

Every so often, I wish we’d have some kind of world-altering disaster. A singularity. Maybe zombies. Sharknado.

Something tells me I could really thrive in that kind of environment. And I could finally rock my biker jacket without looking like a poser.

I’m just saying. I could do very well in a Cormac McCarthy novel.

Maybe you’re like me. Not shy. But not all that outgoing. You don’t mind having conversations, but the word “networking” makes you throw up in your mouth a little. Ugh. I just did.

There’s good news. You don’t need charm. Self-branding. Or marketing. They don’t hurt. But they don’t make your career.

You’ll read a lot of bull shit about self-promotion, especially if you’re a creative type. Your content matters a lot more. With solid content, other people will do your promotion. Because you’re providing actual value.

Sure, you have to dress nice and wash your hair. Duh. One aspiring writer I know would go months without grooming.

Didn’t even trim his finger nails. Just ew.

Yeah, your career won’t go anywhere if people can’t even stand touching you in order to shake your hand.

Beyond that, it doesn’t matter much. The brand of your outfit. The number of jokes you tell. The gleam of your smile as light shines off your perfect, blindingly white teeth. Nope, doesn’t matter.

You can walk into a room dressed in the best clothes money can buy. Your hair can look amazing. You could have Jenner sister do your makeup and teach you how to smirk. If you don’t know your shit, people will find out in five minutes. So here’s what you can focus on instead.

You can be knowledgeable

Knowing your field or profession matters a lot. Maybe you know this already. If you do, then don’t worry about becoming likeable. I mean, don’t be an ass on purpose. But you don’t have to charm snakes.

Some people can coast on their laugh, or their looks. Pity them. It catches up eventually.

Imagine the imposter syndrome they must feel. It’s bad enough for people like us, who know what the hell we’re doing.

You don’t have to flash your knowledge around like a fake I.D. Real knowledge just comes out. People who network well aren’t trying. They just show up and talk about things they’re interested in.

Think of it this way. You’re not here to network. There’s free wine and pita chips. You like both of these things. It’s rude to eat the snacks and bolt. So just focus on not being rude. Everything else falls into place. Takes care of itself. Happens on its own. I couldn’t decide on the turn of phrase. So I gave you all three. Enjoy.

You can be skillful

Knowledge and skills go hand in hand. If you can write code, then you probably don’t worry about people liking you anyway. You probably don’t have to worry about much at all.

You don’t even have worry about love for much longer. You’re designing the perfect robot boyfriend or girlfriend. In some ways, I envy you. Can I stay at your place for a while? It already sounds like fun.

Maybe you can’t code. But you have other skills. Like me, you at least know how to use spreadsheets and build websites. You’re good at math, economics, or you write really well.

Or you play a musical instrument. Or you’re a talented artist. Focus on your skills. They beat the biggest smile any day.

It’s almost not fair to expect musicians and artists to be likeable. They have to spend so much time in isolation. Practicing. Honing their talents. Nobody seriously expects the world’s greatest cellist to also throw great parties. I’m sure Yo-Yo Ma is kind. Maybe he’s funny. We can assume he’s no fool when it comes to marketing and promotion. But mainly he’s the world’s greatest cellist. That’s why we’ve heard of him.

A famous playwright came to my university a few years ago. How famous? Multiple Pulitzer prizes. After his reading, he went out to dinner with a coterie of us grad students and self-important professors.

We got along great. But everyone else thought he was an ass. He made fun of people to their faces. Called bullshit on shallow questions. Interrupted people who tried to kiss his ass.

Everyone else was trying to make themselves likeable to him. He knew, and wasn’t having it. So he swiveled to me. And we talked about music. The Beat Generation. Teaching Shakespeare to high schoolers. When he was done eating, he stood up and told me goodbye. His parting advice: “You should ditch this crowd. I hope they’re not your friends.”

After I stopped laughing, I noticed that everyone was glaring at me. And so began my journey toward being unlikeable. There’s just one question. Where the hell did I learn the word coterie? I don’t know…

You can be reliable

The most charming professor at my old university was the least reliable. Talking to him for five minutes made you feel fantastic. I mean, when he actually showed up to his appointments.

Which was hardly ever.

This guy was a free spirit. A gifted novelist. Probably the most inspiring reader I’d ever seen who hadn’t won a Pulitzer prize.

Sometimes he complained about why his career wasn’t taking off like it should. Sure, he’d published multiple books. Made full professor. Won awards. Achieved financial security.

He had one banging salary.

But he aspired to be a department chair. Or a dean. Maybe director of an MFA program? Here’s the thing about those jobs. They require you to actually do unsexy, unglamorous stuff. Boring stuff.

You have to schedule meetings and then show up to them. You can’t agree to chair a panel and then forget about it.

And you definitely can’t agree to fund an art project and then change your mind, because you’d rather spend the grant money on something else. Oh, and you have to remember people’s names.

This professor wondered why he didn’t receive more invitations to give keynote speeches at conferences. Nobody had the nerve to explain that people were constantly worried he wouldn’t show up.

You can be humble

This one’s easy, even for ice queens like me. You might think highly of yourself. But you don’t have to talk about it all the time.

Refrain from bragging about yourself. That’s half the battle. Maybe you’ve met someone at a conference who immediately started describing themselves as a professional this or that. A published this or that. An award-winning this or that. Gimme a break.

That’s not even close to likeable. Pulling a move like that undoes anything else you might accomplish in a conversation. You can’t win someone over just to show them how great you are.

If someone pays you a compliment, say thanks and then attribute your success to someone or something else. Most of the time, that’s true anyway.

Acknowledge people who help you achieve things. Nobody ever achieves anything alone. Movie stars wouldn’t be shit without their fans. Politicians depend on votes. And donations. And lobbyists. Wow, that got jaded fast. But you see what I’m getting at here.

Essentially, don’t hog all the credit or the spotlight. Give other people compliments for a job well done. Do enough of that, and people might even start to mistake you for likeable.

These actions don’t come naturally to some. I’ve had to practice, and after a couple of years they’ve become habits.

The irony of likeability

So, I’ve said you don’t have to be likable. Except wait a minute. I think I just described how to be likeable. Albeit in a quieter way.

People can like you for the quality of your work, humility, reliability, skill, and knowledge. That gives you substance.

And substance beats likeability hands down. You don’t need a bunch of great stories or rousing speeches. Those mean nothing. They accomplish squat. And if that’s all someone can give you, they’re worthless.

Now it’s time to cover my ass a little. Don’t act like a jerk. Knowledge or skill doesn’t give anyone license to piss people off on purpose. Being unlikeable doesn’t automatically imply genius.

My takeaway: If you don’t naturally fall into the category of “people person,” or “fun,” it’s okay. Be genuine. Follow through on your promises. Do quality work. Help people. That counts for enough.