'Surrounded by Idiots': How Thomas Erikson's self-help book defied rejection to become a bestseller

The book, which teaches people about the four types of human behaviours, has been translated into more than 40 languages and sold three million copies

Swedish author Thomas Erikson had nearly two decades of experience as a communications expert when he decided to write 'Surrounded by Idiots'. Gabriel Liljevall
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Few supported Swedish writer Thomas Erikson's bid to write a self-help book about being a constructive communicator, much less one that had the provocative title Surrounded by Idiots. So, in the end, he had to go it alone.

"I went to a publisher in Sweden after I finished the book in 2012 and they said it was a stupid idea. 'Don't do it, it's a stupid title, people will get angry,' they said," Erikson, who appeared as part of this month's Emirates Airline Festival of Literature line-up, tells The National.

The publisher also detested the cover art, which features four silhouettes in blue, green, yellow and red – symbolising the four types of human behaviours Erikson elaborates in the book – calling the communication expert’s design “ugly".

Fortunately, Erikson says he was “always bad at taking advice” and decided to publish the book himself. “I had no money for PR or marketing,” he says. “So I drove around Sweden with a box of copies in my car, trying to convince stores to buy the book.”

Booksellers were hesitant at first but eventually bought a few copies from Erikson. As those copies swiftly flew off shelves, they contacted the author to purchase more.

“All of a sudden, boom,” Erikson says. Demand for the book skyrocketed and the orders came in piles. It was a triumphant moment for the writer to see a book shunned by publishers on display in every major bookstore in Sweden.

Since then, the book's success has only gained momentum. Surrounded by Idiots was released in English in 2019 and has, at this point, been translated into more than 40 languages, with the Arabic version scheduled to be released this month. The book has, to date, sold close to three million copies.

Thomas Erikson designed the cover of 'Surrounded by Idiots' himself. Thomas Erikson
Thomas Erikson designed the cover of 'Surrounded by Idiots' himself. Thomas Erikson

“I sometimes get asked why the book became a success,” Erikson says. “People have always been interested in relations and communications. We’ve all been in situations where we don’t seem to understand the people around us, or we can’t make ourselves understood.”

Erikson says the book’s title, though initially ridiculed by publishers, played a part in the book’s success. Yet the author wants it to be clear that he isn’t really calling anybody an idiot. Instead, what he is referring to is “that feeling when you leave a meeting feeling that everyone around you is an idiot".

"Everybody has been in meetings where they think ‘everyone in this room is an idiot except for me’. I think that’s a feeling many can relate to.”

The book’s title is meant to allude to that friction in communication that many find themselves experiencing, whether in a work or social setting. “Communication is tricky,” says Erikson, who has worked as a communications specialist for a number of businesses across Europe, holding lectures that taught employees and employers how to be better communicators.

Much of what's in Surrounded by Idiots is what Erikson has been teaching in his workshops for years. His ideas revolve around a colour-coded categorisation of human behaviour. In fact, most of the books he has released since Surrounded by Idiots – including Surrounded by Psychopaths and the upcoming Surrounded by Bad Bosses – are based on that categorisation system.

The colours – red, blue, green and yellow – take into account how introverted or extroverted a person is, whether they are more task-oriented or interested in building and maintaining social relations.

“The red ones are the decisive, competitive type,” Erikson says. “They are demanding, want things to be done as quickly as possible. Then you have yellows, who are more extroverted and relation-oriented, which makes them a bit easier to communicate with. They’re very creative and open-minded."

Salespeople and real estate agents usually have a dash of yellow in them, he adds.

"Then you have the green types, who are more introverted and calm, very caring, very sharing. They like to get along with everybody. They don’t like change. They’re good listeners," he says. "Finally there’s the blue type, very analytical. Accountants, lawyers and engineers. Detail-oriented, task-oriented and usually introverted.”

I'm mostly red and blue. I have some yellow and no green whatsoever. My parents are probably green so I don't know what happened

That’s not to say there are only four types of people. Erikson says a personality is usually made up of more than one colour. In most cases, we have varying degrees of all four colours operating within us.

“We can find ourselves using other colours but generally, when people are showing their true selves, they have one or two colours,” the author says. He describes his personality as made up of three colours. “I’m mostly red and blue. I have some yellow and no green whatsoever. My parents are probably green so I don’t know what happened.”

Erikson is now preparing to take Surrounded by Idiots online with a mobile app as well as a series of digital courses. While the app helps people identify where they and those around them fall in the spectrum of human behaviour, the online courses, which will be launched "any day now", offer a more elaborate version of what's in the book.

"The book was, in a way, a simplification of my lectures," Erikson says. "It was a challenge to pinpoint the most crucial bits and put them in Surrounded by Idiots."

The courses, in contrast, will be more in-depth and interactive. “My basic aim, whether through books or web courses or lectures, is to make people curious,” Erikson says. “To have them interested in the subject [of communication] and motivate them to learn more about themselves and other people.”