Once upon a time, swagger was considered a negative. Think of the phrase, “swaggering bully.” Now, however, swagger has become a quality that many view as a major positive, and try to adopt for themselves.
Swagger-philia has proliferated across numerous industries and fields. No longer just the province of entertainers and professional athletes, now even software developers call themselves “rock stars” and swagger about, accompanied by “hustlers” who brag loudly about being “ballers.”
Is this a good thing? A bad thing? My gut says bad, but it’s worth a closer examination.
First, we have to define swagger. Is it simply confidence? I think swagger requires confidence, but it’s certainly possible to be “quietly confident” without swaggering about. If you’re not sure what I’m talking about, consider two of Denzel Washington’s iconic roles. In “Training Day,” Washington’s character *is* a swaggering bully (albeit a mesmerizing, charismatic one). In “The Equalizer,” Washington plays a stone-cold badass who humbly works at a home improvement store.
Confidence isn’t swagger.
Okay, so perhaps we should take a look at swagger from a different angle. What does it feel like to have swagger? I think the key here is that swagger is like an addictive drug. When you swagger about, you feel cool, badass, superior, invincible, bulletproof…you name it. It feels great. But why? I would argue that it’s because swagger is both completely self-centered and detached from reality. Swagger gives you permission to focus on self-aggrandizement, and to ignore reality. Joe Namath guaranteed a victory in Superbowl III; the reason we revere his boast is that his team actually delivered. 99% of such guarantees go unredeemed.
So if swagger makes you feel good, focus on yourself, and ignore reality, it’s essentially the cocaine of attitude. A lot of fun until you crash.
And make no mistake, swagger usually leads to a crash. Even Michael Jordan crashed when he returned to the NBA with the Washington Wizards. Manic activity and ignoring the evidence might feel good in the short run, but it generally leads to feeling bad in the long run.
The amazing thing is that those with true swagger can crash time after time and never concede one iota to reality. The NBA’s Nick Young had the swagger to nickname himself “Swaggy P,” and amazingly, even made it stick. Despite being, objectively, a below average player (in his best season, he didn’t even hit 45% of his shots), his propensity to take and make (a low percentage of) circus shots continues to win him fans. This despite many of those same shot attempts ending up on YouTube, like his failed attempt at a 360 degree layup which sailed directly into the stands. Of course, Nick is also a multi-millionaire who is in a romantic relationship with multi-millionaire, sex symbol, and #1 recording artist Iggy Azalea, so perhaps he is the one having the last laugh.
But for every Swaggy P, there are a million playground loudmouths, writing verbal checks their game can’t cash. And that’s the problem.
Swagger is so outlandish and mesmerizing (remember Denzel in “Training Day”) and feels so good (just ask any former SNL star/cocaine addict) that many people flock to its practitioners and imitate them. But the lucky few swaggerers who can actually back it up are like the lucky few athletes or entertainers who hit it big. Yes, the outliers have an amazing outcome, but the median outcome looks an awful lot like failure.
Swagger doesn’t age well; even the swaggering playboy eventually runs out of young women witn daddy issues and low self-esteem. Would you rather be Hugh Hefner or Nelson Mandela? (If you answered Hef, you should be ashamed of youself.)
Building quiet confidence based on the evidence and your experience with reality doesn’t feel like doing blow, and doesn’t sound good on a reality TV soundbite, but for the vast majority of people, it’s a better path to a happy, productive life than the swaggerer’s way.