When Surrounded by Assholes…Be Curious

Sometimes it really seems like we are surrounded by assholes. Like the world is conspiring against us. Like traffic is moving even slower than usual. Like the check-out clerk is actually trying to bruise your bananas. Like no one knows how to make a good Manhattan anymore.

“I knew it! I’m surrounded by assholes!” — Dark Helmet, Spaceballs, 1987

I succumb to this line of thinking all the time. Especially when I’m hungry. Or thirsty. Or in a hurry. Or frankly in any state aside from feeling absolutely perfect, which is never, so I guess I’m always susceptible to it.

But I try not to be. Because the highest versions of ourselves — the one we hope people speak about at our funeral, or anytime we’re not around — sees beyond our own immediate needs and has patience and compassion for a world full of people thinking they are surrounded by assholes too.

Because the truth is, if you really think about it and pay attention, everyone has a reason to think they are surrounded by assholes most of the time. And at least a part of that time…you’re the asshole they are putting up with.

  • The husband driving his pregnant wife to the hospital thinks you’re the asshole for laying on the horn as he tries to merge into your lane.
  • The check-out clerk making $8/hr thinks you’re the asshole for giving her attitude about mindlessly putting your bananas at the bottom of the grocery bag when she’s more concerned about picking her kid up from daycare in time before taking the 45 minute bus ride home.
  • The bartender thinks your an asshole for giving him lip about that Manhattan because he’s actually a waiter filling in for his friend the bartender who got in a major car accident on the way to work.

In short, none of us have any idea what is going on for other people. What battles they are fighting. What hurdles they’ve overcome. What wounds they are still nursing. What losses they are still mourning.

And while we don’t ever have to accept abuse from others, even bitchy behavior gives us an opportunity to stop and think, “How much pain must you be in to treat me this way?” Because actually being an asshole is NO ONE’S default setting. It’s an indication of pain.

Easier said than done, I know. But important to keep top of mind nonetheless. Because if we all lost our sense of compassion, if we stop assuming those who are failing us are actually doing the best they can with what they have in the moment, then we really have lost our humanity.

So, let’s agree to something…

The next time we (myself included!) feel that we are truly surrounded by assholes, let’s make every effort to choose curiosity and compassion over judgement and privilege.

Not only will we treat each other better; we will also feel better ourselves. Laughing off frustration feels like a triumph every time you do it. So, let’s triumph. Let’s be Champions of Curiosity and Compassion.

And let’s not be assholes.


If you liked this story (even a little), please click the little heart below. It will help other people read it, and it will mean a lot to me. Think of it as making up for being an asshole on the way to work today. :)

Edward Sullivan is the founder and head coach at LeadWell.co — a boutique coaching and training organization. With offices in San Francisco and New York, LeadWell helps leaders and their teams optimize their performance and overcome obstacles to growth. He can be reached at edward@leadwell.co.