Walter Benjamin on the Key Qualities of the Successful Person and How to Master the Art of Asking for What You Want
“And please believe me when I tell you: successful people are never sore losers.”
By Maria Popova
Walter Benjamin may be best known as a literary critic, philosopher, and essayist — with enduring insight on the written word that includes his thirteen rules of writing and his advice on how to write a fat tome — but he was also a pioneer of early German radio. Between 1927 and 1933, thirty-something Benjamin wrote and delivered nearly ninety broadcasts over the nascent medium. (The world’s first radio news program had aired in August of 1920 and commercial entertainment broadcasts followed in 1922.) Those pioneering pieces, at last translated into English and released as Radio Benjamin (public library | IndieBound), were notable for many reasons, but perhaps most of all for upholding the idealism and optimism of any young medium. (Early German radio, for instance, was based on subscriptions and had strict rules against commercially sponsored programming — something wholly heartening and wholly heartbreaking in our era of “native advertising” and other unending violations of the church-state relationship between public-interest journalism and private-interest greed.) Many of Benjamin’s broadcasts were also groundbreaking in being aimed at children, from educational programming to fairy-tale adaptations to original plays. But one of his pieces in particular stands out for its timeless and timely allure.
On February 8, 1931, Benjamin’s broadcast “How Do I Deal with My Boss?” aired on Radio Berlin. A few weeks later, on March 26, it was broadcast again on Radio Frankfurt under the title “A Pay Raise?! Whatever Gave You That Idea!” The piece, which Benjamin wrote in collaboration with his friend Wolf Zucker, offered a semi-satirical but strikingly lucid take on the eternal question of how to ask for a raise — or, rather, how to ask for anything when there is a power dynamic involved between giver and receiver. Benjamin’s advice, at once playful and practical, is not only timeless in answering the money question today with equal wisdom, but also widely resonant far beyond the particular context of employment — at its heart is practical wisdom on the art of asking itself, with immense insight into its delicate balance of dignity and humility.
The piece is structured as a two-person play-parable, where The Speaker reveals to The Skeptic the secret of success through a couple of anecdotes about workplace dynamics. “Are you suggesting that a single, lousy individual has the power, all on his own, to transform his life into a better one? Do you really believe that?” The Skeptic probes the premise incredulously, to which The Speaker responds: “Yes, nearly one hundred percent, absolutely.”
In the first anecdote, we meet a man named Herr Zauderer — for this was 1931, and the workforce was a monolithic swarm of testosterone — who approaches his boss about a raise with remarkably poor timing, after having underdelivered on a project. After a series of questionable attempts at manipulation by Herr Zauderer, the vignette ends with a door slam, which only confirms The Skeptic’s conviction that it’s impossible to ask for a raise with any outcome other than humiliation. But in distilling the moral of the fable, The Speaker sheds light on the essential elements of a successful ask, outlining the seven rules for getting what you’re asking for:
First off, the dumbest thing you can do is to ask for something when the boss already has reason to be miffed. Second, if you notice that the boss is in a bad mood, don’t keep harping on the salary issue. Third, when speaking with the boss, you can’t be perpetually shy, fearful, and submissive. Never be impolite or arrogant. One must maintain one’s dignity. But stay on point and speak your mind. Fourth: Herr Zauderer responded to the criticism from his boss by passing the blame onto a colleague. This is unfair and makes a poor impression. Fifth: Herr Zauderer addresses the question of the pay raise in terms of his needs alone. The boss is interested in his business, not in the private life of his employees. Sixth: a very stupid maneuver: Herr Zauderer threatens to quit when he sees he’s lost the cause. The boss knows, of course, that there is no chance Herr Zauderer can seriously consider walking away. It is most inept of Herr Zauderer to insist on playing the injured party. It never works. And finally, seventh: the word unjust is never appropriate. A boss does not let himself be told to which employee he will give more or less pay. That is his concern. It is inappropriate for Herr Zauderer to speak to him about other employees’ salaries.
We then meet another fellow, Herr Frisch. He is the head of accounting at a wholesale knitwear company and “accomplishes everything he sets out to do.” We follow him as he asks his own boss for a raise, with a very different result, thanks to his arsenal of courage and composure, dignity and determination. The Speaker then examines the secret to Herr Frisch’s success and what universals it might hold for all. He tells The Skeptic:
Every person is an isolated case. Nevertheless, there will always be certain situations in which the same rules apply to everyone.
This second fellow had avoided all the mistakes of the first, The Speaker points out, to which The Skeptic retorts that there surely must be something more to success than merely avoiding mistakes. The Speaker responds:
Something else is necessary… A fundamental attitude, a state of mind… An inner bearing, the basic values [the successful person] displays at work, with the boss, and in his entire life. He is clear, determined, and courageous. He knows what he wants and therefore he can remain both calm and polite at all times. He understands how to attune himself to his opponent’s state of mind without sacrificing his dignity in the slightest.
In a sentiment that Pixar’s co-founder would come to echo decades later in exploring the rewards of fostering a fearless culture in a company, one that also calls to mind Nietzsche on the value of suffering, The Speaker points to the particular value of Herr Frisch’s relationship with failure:
[The successful person] is always prepared. Even in failure, he is composed. He is not easily discouraged. [He] considers his struggles to be a kind of sport, and he approaches them as he would a game. He contends with life’s difficulties in a relaxed and pleasant manner. He keeps a clear head even when things go wrong. And please believe me when I tell you: successful people are never sore losers; they’re the ones who don’t whine and give up after every failure. Indeed, they are the ones who keep their chins up, weather life’s misfortunes, and live to fight another day. Who will be first to fail the test? The timid and the faint of heart. The whiners, the complainers. He who goes to the exam cool and calm is already halfway there. Such people are in great demand today. That is, I believe, the secret of success.
Radio Benjamin is a treasure in its totality. Complement this particular excerpt with Joseph Brodsky’s rules for winning at the game of life, possibly the greatest commencement address ever given, then revisit Thoreau on defining your own success and Picasso on why you should never compromise in your work.
Published October 28, 2014