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How Nice Guys Finish First

Do nice guys actually finish last? I think it depends on the race you’re running. If it’s a sprint, there’s quite a lot of evidence to suggest that yes, they do actually finish last. If you’re not concerned about anyone but yourself, then you’re probably not going to find it hard to manipulate people, cheat, and generally act unethical in order to win.

This strategy works – no doubt about it. If you want to sprint to a short-term goal, you can get there faster by cheating and being an asshole.


However, this theory just doesn’t hold up once you apply it to long-term success. In order to get by as a cheat, as a jerk, you have to rely on being able to manipulate the social conditioning of the people around you. You have to rely on the fact that most people are generally nice and will allow you to take advantage of them once in order to avoid drama and keep the world a nice place to live in.

With a short-term goal, you can take advantage of that situation by using people and discarding them because you won’t need them again. But long-term goals require sustained effort and relationships. They require a level of trust beyond what’s naturally extended to you as a stranger. You have to earn your respect.

The jerk can pick up a lot more dates than the nice guy because we’re socially conditioned to be attracted to dominant personalities. But this is only an initial attraction. If you don’t become the nice guy fairly quickly, your long-term odds of success are pretty limited.

The con-artist on the street corner can make a killing in one day by cornering you, putting a rose in your hand and saying, “Your wife will love it. $10 please,” but he has to find a new street corner every day. Pretty soon, the word’s gotten around before he even makes it to his next spot.


I just read a great book by Chris Brogan & Julien Smith called Trust Agents. The concept is simple but powerful – if you want people to trust you, you have to stand out by treating them extremely well. It takes a long time and you don’t always see immediate results, but the long-term effects are incredible. The nice guy really does finish first – if you’re running the marathon and not the sprint.

I’ve seen it happen plenty of times in my own life. Here are just a few examples:


Next summer, I’m headed to Africa and Europe to climb two of the world’s tallest mountains, but my first stop on the trip is in South Africa to run a marathon on a private game reserve among rhinos, elephants, lions, and gazelles.

It should be quite an awesome experience, but it was a serious financial commitment. (It’s actually not the world’s most expensive. I think that title belongs to the Ice Marathon in Antarctica, but it was certainly expensive for me). The organizers hire travel agents to handle registrations, and there just happened to be two assigned to the US.

When I called the first agent to discuss the race, it became apparent that I’d misunderstood the rules around the event and I’d have to spend more money than I thought in order to take part. That wouldn’t have been a big deal except that the agent I talked to made me feel like an idiot for not understanding how their system worked.

When I offered an alternative, he refused saying there was no way I was capable of arranging my own accommodations. He was bullying me into a sale and I immediately said “thanks” and hung up.

The first thing I did afterward was to see about staging my own marathon in Johannesburg, but the truth is I really wanted to run this one. I decided to give it one last shot with the other agent in California.

I ended up talking to Leroy on the phone for 45 minutes before we even discussed registration. We talked about running, we talked about mountaineering, we compared notes on our websites and talked about online marketing. He even gave me some tips for saving money on future travel.

Then he asked if I wanted to register for his event in South Africa. I immediately said yes.


I live across the street from a giant grocery conglomerate. I do my shopping for kitchen staples there, but I hate every single second I’m in that store. They play lousy music, they’re always understaffed so you can never get help if you need to find something and, surely as a result, the people that do work there are miserable and don’t try to hide it.

One time the self-check out station double charged me for something and the clerk said there was nothing he could do – I’d just have to dispute the charge on my credit card bill. Are you kidding me?

Then I discovered New Seasons – the local, trendy, healthy-lifestyle conscious grocery store. There are a number of others like it in Portland, but there’s something special about New Seasons.

When you walk in, it’s like you’re walking into a giant smile. Happy employees are everywhere, you get asked if you need help finding something every minute and they have experts in different departments to help you pick out the perfect wine, cheese, or whatever.

Here’s the thing about New Seasons, though. Only about 25% of what they offer is different or special. All the rest of the groceries are the same things you can buy at Safeway, only more expensive. Yet, New Seasons has opened two new stores during this last recession and Safeway is struggling to keep what they have open.


When I came to Portland for college, I got really into playing and recording music. I found a shop in town I liked and I bought everything I needed from them. That’s what my parents taught me to do: support local businesses that you can trust and build a relationship.

Well, I spent two or three years trying to build a relationship with this shop, but no matter what I did, it never really materialized. I always felt like a number to them. The salesman I worked with never turned into a friend. He kind of always just felt like a pushy salesman.

Then, one day I needed a cheap guitar strap, and my local shop was all out. I went online and ended up ordering from Sweetwater. I think it cost about $10.

Two months later, I made a big purchase with my local shop – around $2,000. There was a problem with the transaction and I had been “undercharged.” I put that in parentheses because I later realized what really happened was that I’d been misquoted and the owner of the store wanted more money.

I’d been duped, and when I realized it, I asked for my money back. Joel, the owner, refused. His exact words, I remember them to this day, were “I wish I could help, but there’s nothing I can do.”

Just a few days later, Manuel from Sweetwater  called to check in. I had no idea why – I’d forgotten that I ever bought that cheap strap. Well, he just wanted to know how it was working for me and if it was comfortable and to a level of quality that I expected.

Guess who I call when I need equipment now?


Conventional wisdom says that you shouldn’t mix friendship and business, but I think it’s the only way to be successful.

I don’t know about you, but I buy from people I like, even if they’re a little more expensive. They make me feel comfortable and that’s worth a little bit of money to me. I don’t buy from people that seem dishonest. Sometimes they trick me into it anyway, but then I learn and try very hard to avoid them in the future.

Nice guys don’t finish last. They finish first… as long as they run the marathon and not the sprint.

If you operate a business yourself, I’d recommend you spend more time making new friends than making new sales. You might be surprised by the results.

How about you over there? How can you shift your focus to the long-term to finish first? Do assholes really ever win in the end?


Images by: arimoore, OskarN, barriebarrie, wheelzwheeler, jimmyroq