Letting Go Of Being Nice

11/14/2011 08:40 am ET | Updated Jan 14, 2012

Four years ago, during a talk I was giving on Katharine Hepburn, to celebrate the publication of my book How to Hepburn, a woman raised her hand and asked, "But I heard Hepburn wasn't a very nice person, especially as she got older." Two years later, at my reading from The Gospel According to Coco Chanel after all the questions about Chanel's greatest contribution to fashion, and whether or not she was really a Nazi spy, someone asked "but, wasn't Chanel sort of a bitch?" I just published the third in my kick ass women trilogy -- How Georgia Became O'Keeffe -- and it's only a matter of time before someone wants to know whether it's true that O'Keeffe's nickname was the A-hole of Abiquiu.

The questions are always asked by women. Even though there are men in the audience, men don't seem to care much whether these legendary 20th century women were still, in the face of their staggering achievements, nice. Men are ahead of the game: they know that being thought of as a "nice guy" is tantamount to being thought of as a pushover, a non-entity. Nice guys, as we all know, finish last.

But we women, generation in, generation out, seem to place a lot of value on being nice. I'm not talking about genuinely positive personality traits like being kind, fair, compassionate, tolerant or generous that we confuse with niceness -- but being amiable and agreeable. I'm sure there's some evolutionary reason for this. Plus, someone has to chair the school auction.

But Hepburn, Chanel and O'Keeffe put no premium on niceness, because going along to get along got in the way of what they wanted to do, of achieving their goals and ambitions. The sugar and spice and everything nice cultural imperative of their time couldn't survive in the face of their basic human desire to make their lives count for something. All three were known for being demanding, direct, driven, and difficult, to which they all basically said, "and your point is?"

Of course, they were prodigies of not being nice; they had no need to wait to their burnished middle-aged to piss people off. But most of us are not prodigies. We say yes when we want to say no, until the day it finally and permanently sinks in that those lyrics we'd crooned into the end of our hairbrush in front of our bedroom mirror were true, we really are just dust in the wind. On that day, what we want becomes more important than what people think, and there goes the neighborhood. It's shocking how quickly being nice, as a priority, slips to the bottom of the list.

Which is as it should be. Being nice, like wearing band t-shirts and throwing week-long birthday celebrations for yourself, is something we out grow. To paraphrase, not to say misinterpret, Carl Jung, being nice only takes you so far. ". . .we cannot live the afternoon of life according to the program of life's morning, for what was great in the morning will be little at evening and what in the morning was true, at evening will have become a lie.

Once, I turned the question back on one of the women who asked me whether Chanel wasn't a bit of a bitch. I asked "why does it matter?" I thought I was clever, deflecting the question this way, that the woman wouldn't know why she was asking it. But she said, "because if she was nice, on top of everything else, then I would feel terrible about how I haven't really done anything with my life. But if she was as selfish and horrible as I've heard, then I can say to myself, 'well, at least I'm nice."