In Business, As In Life, There’s A Big Difference Between Having A Sense Of Humor And Not Taking Anything Seriously

I used to employ a young copy editor, MB, who was bright and talented and doomed to failure in the corporate world. This was clear to me from the very first moment I met him. We had just been introduced when he said something like “So I guess you’re the guy who’s supposed to turn us into mini-Menckens.” It was a “joke.” He said it with a smile. But with that smile he conveyed the attitude that nothing I was going to do, nor anything he was going to do either, was ever going to be all that serious.

In his eyes, we were clearly both small players in a cosmic show of someone else’s design. So why knock ourselves out? Why not just kick back and have a good time? MB was a good guy. I liked him right away. But I knew he would fail, because he was unable to take his work (or anything else) seriously. His philosophical “insight” about the world made it impossible for him to pretend that work really mattered. He would do what he was paid for — and do a pretty good job of it — but he wasn’t willing to try harder, and he wasn’t even willing to pretend he would.

I shared MB’s general appreciation of some of the more artificial aspects of doing business. But I understood that his inability to stop treating the work we were doing as a big joke was not good for our business — and that, eventually, would be bad for him. I forgave and tolerated MB for at least a year longer than I should have.

Finally, something happened and he was gone. I think he quit. I kept in touch with him for several years thereafter. He had floated from one job to another, either being fired or quitting after a little while, always laughing, always disgruntled. I wonder how MB is doing today. I’d like to think that things worked out for him. I doubt it. He had so much talent, such a strong spirit. It’s a shame.

In “Upward Nobility,” Owen Edwards regrets that humor has no place in the workforce, because, in his opinion, “true humor is at least mildly subversive. It is based on the compelling theory that more harm is done in this world by the serious than by the silly.” He cites this example: Things are not going particularly well at the company.

With the collapse of the junk-bond market and an unsure economic outlook, a string of deals have come unglued. The senior vice president in charge of panic and retribution has called a meeting. The atmosphere is thick with dread. . . . The VP rises, scowling. “‘I’m sick of asking you people how things are going and having you tell me everything is going ‘swimmingly, just swimmingly,’ when in fact the business is headed down the tubes.

Why you feel you need to say how freaking swimmingly things are going, instead of reporting the extent of the disaster while there’s still time for me to do something about it, I can’t figure out. Deals are collapsing every day, and all I hear is ‘swimmingly.’ From now on, I want the truth.”

At this point, his face flushed, the irate honcho turns to you and demands to know how the Cuddly Software merger is going. You lean forward earnestly and say, “Swimmingly, Chief, just swimmingly.” Unfortunately, according to Edwards, there is no way “one’s puckish wit can be brought into play without damage to the future of the career one holds so dear.” He believes — as many do — that you can be very good at what you do without taking it seriously. I don’t agree.

In fact, I can’t think of a single activity — not basketball, not cooking, not parenting, and certainly not business — for which it could be true. Like Edwards, I do believe serious people do more damage than silly people. But I haven’t been able to do anything well unless and until I cared about it. Nor have I ever observed anyone else doing so.

Being serious about something doesn’t mean being pompous or boring or dull. It doesn’t mean you can’t see the bigger picture. And it doesn’t mean you can’t have a sense of humor about it. But what seriousness does require is respect. And this is where I think Edwards misses the point. Humor is the guest who always brings someone along with him.

Sometimes, it is kindness — but more often, it is meanness. And that’s why, ultimately, it doesn’t work. Because meanness diminishes. Mean humor sometimes demeans its object (but only when it is merited, and even then only slightly). But it always diminishes its subject: the joker himself. When you use sarcasm (or any kind of deprecatory humor) at work, you prove to the world that you don’t care much about your job and that you care even less about yourself and your career.

This impression, however balanced by the “fun” you provoke, is gradually and inevitably offset by your actions. A person who doesn’t love his job will never do it very well, because he doesn’t want to. He wants to show his superiors and fellow workers that he’s capable, but, at the same time, he makes it very clear that he will never take what is and make it better.

Edwards suggests that the only safe course for the humorist is to “use humor so sparingly that when people speak of your ‘rare wit’ they mean it literally.” I say, challenge yourself to be funny without being mean. It’s much more of an accomplishment and will make you much more of an accomplished person.