Perspective: Do Nice Guys Really Finish Last?

November 2, 2010 09:27 AM

Feel free to chuckle, but in order to stay at least mildly relevant on modern culture, I read about trends in relationships and (occasionally) dating. And believe it or not, I have uncovered a striking parallel between the farm rental scene and the dating game: the “nice guy syndrome.”

While I still can’t figure out why it seems so darn hard for younger people to get paired up, I gather that large numbers of both genders can’t find a match. One frequent cause cited by young men is that women—foolishly, they assert—forgo nice guys for “bad boys.”

A typical comment from a disgruntled male combatant runs like this: “I have a good job, I’m not overweight or a smoker, I treat women with respect—and I still can’t find anyone.”

Such a lament sounds oddly similar to those in the land rental market: “I have good yields and equipment, I keep my farm neat, I don’t go behind my neighbors’ backs—but I can’t seem to expand.”

It is the format of these statements that is intriguing: a catalog of virtues followed by a description of an outcome the speaker sees as unfair. Farmers who have diligently adhered to local standards of ethical behavior often feel they have been cheated out of their just
deserts when they find themselves being bypassed by landowners.

Therein, I would suggest, lies one problem for both groups: the assumption that right conduct is the determinant for economic and personal reward. This view generates considerable discontent with both the standards of single women and career paths in agriculture.

While lip service is paid to the idea that virtue is its own reward, the buy-in seems pretty low to me. Living a life of ethical conduct should be less about advancement and more about personal fulfillment. The expectation of rewards for simple good behavior, while loudly disavowed, is inherent in both complaints. Indeed, adherence to right conduct is often seen as a sacrifice, rather than as its own lifelong reward.

Perhaps more tellingly, I have seen too many people in our profession devote themselves to being nice guys and stopping at that goal alone. Because edgier behavior such as open acknowledgment of ambition brings social risk, ruling out ambition as unacceptable justifies their passivity, allowing these farmers to avoid risk by narrow compliance.

More than a Good Reputation. Scrupulous attention to accepted practices may have been important in less tumultuous times. But modern agriculture calls for more than just “the way we do things around here.” Global competitors don’t care much about your local reputation of inoffensiveness, which is how many nice guys measure success. What seldom seems to cross nice guys’ minds is that following the rules is now just the minimum requirement for success. Today’s competitors also must innovate ways to mesh their business goals with those they serve.

Successful competitors are not all “bad boys.” Indeed, the most formidable are nice guys with initiative and imagination. Bad actors come and go, but nice guys who have gotten over themselves can build an enduring business plan.

Many of us, however, still nurse the quiet conceit that others will recognize and reward our upright conduct. It could be a long wait. As my father once told me, “When I was 20, I worried what the world thought about me; when I was 40, I decided I didn’t care what the world thought about me; but at 60, I realized the world wasn’t thinking about me at all.”

Nice guys tend to feel entitled. This attitude bleeds through more often than they think, and it can be off-putting. Complaints about how the system is broken don’t inspire confidence in a candidate for a business or romantic partnership.

Landlords and women are not necessarily making stupid choices. They are opting for partners who have more to offer than a sanctimonious report card. Nor do nice guys necessarily finish last. Many of them just finish lower than they think they deserve.

John Phipps is a farmer from Chrisman, Ill. He is the TV host of “U.S. Farm Report.” Contact him at For local station listings, log on to

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Spell Check

11/3/2010 07:09 AM

  By trying to be a nice guy, playing by the rules and not stepping on others toes, my reward has been to be kicked in the teeth by neighbors, government agencies and landlords. I now operate with only the concern that I ensure the survival of my farm and family and not violate my (privately held) values. It's taken awhile, but I'm no longer anyone's "punching bag".


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