Circumnavigation of My Arrogance

Circumnavigation of My Arrogance

I have noticed a disturbing trend in myself in the past few weeks: I’ve been losing patience and I’ve been kind of a jerk to my friends and coworkers.

What’s new is that I’ve been under a bit more project load than usual. This is fantastic because I have been wanting to sink my teeth into something nice and meaty for some time. However, I’ve found some bad old habits resurfacing from the white-hotness of the old 2001 Internet Bubble. I have been arrogant and self-serving under the mistaken belief that I was just being proactive and responsible. I’m lucky that the people that I work with are understanding and strong enough to stand up to me, so I can see what I’ve been doing wrong. I just feel awful about it, though.

ARROGANCE

First, the positive: my default mental stance is to believe that everyone has a knack. That is, everyone has some kind of incredible potential that, if we can but unlock it, will result in an explosion of empowering happiness.

When I am in the position that I can help someone come into that potential, that makes me feel incredibly happy. This is a mission that I’ve recently accepted as being one of my primary life goals. Because of this, I am a patient and nurturing teacher, free with my knowledge and my time. I can trace this tendency back to when I was trying to learn the BASIC programming language in the 7th grade, and this older kid named Donald Dimitrios took the time to show me the ropes. He put up with my blank-eyed questions and endless confusion when it came to understanding PEEKS, POKES, and the mysterious FOR-NEXT loop. This generosity of knowledge was particularly notable because in junior high school, there is such stratification between grade levels that even TALKING to a 7th grader was grounds for ruthless taunting. He didn’t give a crap though, and as a result I had a positive introduction to computing that not only helped set the course of my career, but imprinted me with the values that lay the foundation for a strong community of practitioners. I am forever grateful.

That said, you might find it surprising that this patient gratefulness dries right up when I am working with someone who is already an equal. The reserve of patience and understanding gets put away for the next student, because I’m excited to gird on the armor and the sword. I’m not exactly Leeroy Jenkins when it comes to group projects, but I must admit there is a certain LET’S GO OUT AND KICK ASS! YEAH!!!!! vibe. I want to drink the blood from conquered skulls of bad interactive media, reveling in the lamentations of the corporate tools who inflicted such point-and-click monkeyware upon the world in the first place! Ok, I am exaggerating a little here, but I really do feel that it’s a moral imperative that must be followed through.

I believe that this is arrogance masquerading as the belief that quality and skill are most important for a professional project. That’s not to say that quality and skill are not the point; it is the basis of business trust after all. What is arrogant is my belief that valuing quality and skill entitles me to say and do whatever I think. I never fully calculated the human cost in terms of lingering hurt feelings, lowered morale, and confusion. I think for the first time, I am ready to concede that this cost is unacceptable when it is exacted for my own standards. It is only worthwhile when everyone benefits for their own reasons, and they want to be in the room.

WHAT’S OLD IS NEW AGAIN

The last time I experienced this form of personal hubris was in 2001. I believed I knew exactly what should be done, how it could be done, and was incredibly blunt about it. The net result was that I drove away a lot of good people, and it took four years to rebuild both myself and real relationships with people. I learned that I did have this dichotomy of expectation between my mentoring and collaboration modes. My solution? Go freelance…obviously, I had trouble working with others in a company context, so maybe the freedom to put up or shut up on process was my destiny. Problem solved! This path resulted in the start of this blog and the freedom to build many new relationships with people. I have never been happier or more excited in my life by the possibilities before me.

There’s just one problem: I really do want to work with people. So for the past year, I’ve been slowly building up to the point where I can start working with people more closely.

What’s different now is that I’m aware that it’s much easier to attract similar people than it is to find them, if you are brave enough to put the vibe out there. One reason that I write so broadly on my blog is that I like eclectic people; I figure that if someone is intrigued by the types of topics I write about, they are probably more likely to be someone I’d like to work with. If they like the way I write, that is an even closer potential match! I think this is a good example of finding your niche; it’s more important, particularly at first, to find a few people who deeply connect and enrich you than thousands who you superficially encounter but form no bond whatsoever. The reason I think this is important is that when we’re getting started, we all need additional sources of energy to push through our fears, uncertainties, and doubts. Having even one person who really believes in you can make all the difference.

I’ve also thought that maybe it was the style of collaboration or scheming that was the crucial relationship element, which is just a special case of attracting similar people. People that have similar values and interests are more likely to have a harmonious relationship. In general I’ve found it to be true…for establishing friendships. Extending this principle to a working relationship has so far eluded me. My weird arrogance regarding competency and process rears its ugly head, and drives away the people I want to work with.

DIAGNOSIS

I hurt a few people today who are important to me, which is why I’m trying to work through this and fix it because I apparently did not achieve closure before. I think there are probably others out there who have gone through—or ARE going through—a similar cycle. Here’s a few warning signs, based on feelings that I’ve had before:

  • You believe that people around you just aren’t willing to understand the value of what you’re doing.

  • You believe that you are doing more than you are supposed to with regard to your job or role.

  • You believe that there is a lack of definition and direction in the workplace, with no apparent end in sight.

  • You believe that if you take responsibility for conveying the importance of these issues, matters will improve if people are willing to listen. Through education and persistence, you can effect a change.

There are two responses to this that I’ve tried in the past:

  1. Step up and lead until someone makes you stop: When you don’t have authority to make changes directly granted to you, you can apply personal leadership to the situation. Though it’s not strictly part of your job description, bringing clarity and vision to the people around you is often appreciated if it’s not perceived as a power trip. Being willing to take punches, go the extra mile for your peers, and create recognized excellence within the organization can be the beginning of a new era of solidarity. However, this approach requires a lot of energy with no guarantee of recognition or reward. It can pay off big, or you will burn out in about a year.

  2. Withdraw and cut your losses: Situations in which you do not have the authority to change culture and process are difficult to win overnight. After you assess the amount of effort and luck required to remedy matters, you determine it is too much work. You can stop caring and restrict your role to the smallest unit of responsibility that won’t get you fired. Or, you can leave.

I’ve practiced both responses half a dozen times with various companies. The typical patterns is to lead with “stepping up” and try to last long enough to achieve whatever goal was set before me. Very draining, but rewarding when we pulled off something kick ass. Eventually, though, my energy stores are drained so thoroughly that I become very moody and depressed. I ask myself am I really going to be happy doing this forever and come to the conclusion that it’s time to move on. So I close off things as cleanly as I can, and enter a new phase of my life. The current phase of my life, which is this blogging/design thing, has been sustainable because I’m generally working on shorter projects. With shorter projects, I can work hard to get the thing out, and then count on some downtime to replenish my store of energy. Shorter projects also tend to be very well-defined or limited in some way that makes them much easier to tackle comprehensively. It’s the longer-term projects that require more of a marathoner’s approach to energy management: the pace is necessarily slower, because you need to maintain energy for the entire project track. And it’s these projects that are the ones with the most need for collaboration between peers. I also think it’s these projects that are the most rewarding due to the larger scale of the accomplishment. I need to develop a third option that doesn’t involve total withdrawal or total sacrifice.

IDENTIFYING THAT THIRD OPTION

What I need to confront is my ego and sense of entitlement. I thought I’d dealt with this years ago, but they both live on. I also need to resolve that sense of responsibility that tends to exert itself when I think I can help clarify things. Here are my thoughts on the matter:
  1. I should acknowledge that I’m really good at some things. And that’s as noteworthy as someone having hair because everyone is really good at something. Even exceptional skill, I think, is just a tiny aspect of a person’s place in the universe, no sense in kicking up a fuss about it. Also, embracing one’s talents without feeling embarrassed is a necessary step to performing on the broader world stage; if I really want to do cool stuff on a bigger scale, I need to get comfortable with offering what I can offer.

  2. There’s no need to “awaken” or “educate” people all the time. What’s funny is that I believe that I already believe that expressing ideas in tangible form is most effective in creating positive change; so me merely telling people things and expecting them to follow without some kind of concrete example is just foolish. I’m amazed that I did not see this before.

  3. Forgot job boundaries, assigned responsibilities, and appropriateness of action. Just pitch in and help. It’s the right thing to do. And this is the path through which quality may be attained with much less friction. I’ve just realized that assigning distinct responsibilities to people is a form of zero sum thinking; the implication is that if people don’t do what they are “supposed to do”, the project will go horribly awry. Well…maybe not!

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p>So that’s my amended course of action, and I am hopeful that this means that I’ll finally get the hang of collaborating with people more closely. I don’t think clients will necessarily notice a difference (it’s quality and skill that they’re paying for). However, I think these new guidelines will help me come to a more comfortable work-life balance that includes everyone, not just me. It’s a moral imperative!

13 Comments

  1. cdbragg 13 years ago

    Hey Dave,

    I really dig your stuff and would be happy to work with you on something (but I haven’t even got as far as knowing what it is I can offer, let alone how I might like to use it).

    As always, your personal insights bring so much warmth, vulnerability and honesty to your writing – this is the sort of stuff that is an attractant, I think.

    Keep it up,

    Cameron

  2. Beverly 13 years ago

    Dave- once again you have shown fantastic insight.
    Your ability to step back and observe yourself objectively and honestly is very impressive. I have printed your 3 point third option and posted it next to “When is something worth doing?” on my big board.

    I’m not sure I would be offended by your “arrogance regarding competency and process” because those attributes are actually of good value. I find it becomes very difficult to exercise patience in the presence of sloppy thinking.

    But I also think creative types are more lenient to their co-workers quirks and methods over time, because they will want respect for their own nuances.

    My co-workers think it’s humorous that I can’t think clearly if I’m wearing shoes and have also developed a method for silently alerting me in meetings when I tense up and start to talk in techno-speak. But I have also had to stop being the apologetic geek and start being more reserved in working with clients/co-workers who disrespect the process and contribution.

  3. Dave Seah 13 years ago

    cdbragg: Thank you very much, Cameron. I’d like to figure out a way to connect everyone’s strengths to each other, or at least make it easier. Shoot me an email and I’ll add your name to the list of people that are trying to figure out how to make this happen!

    Beverly: I’m glad you liked the 3 point third option, and thanks for sharing your own experiences! I wish I had some more rituals like the shoe thing (I like that one :-)

  4. Randell 13 years ago

    Holy shiznit Dave, you just nailed another one.  It really is hard to get over ourselves sometimes!  Lately I feel like I’m my own biggest obstacle and I think you just confirmed it…crap

  5. Brian 13 years ago

    I often see the exact same two options. I would love to see a viable third option in the middle somewhere. So, I have a question for you.

    How is your third option really different from option #1? If you acknowledge that you have strengths, and decide to apply them where they can do the most good … isn’t that awfully similar to stepping up and leading (maybe with a little added humility)?

    Does the difference come about with the decision to challenge the four beliefs behind the “warning signs” you describe earlier?

    (I’ll second Beverly’s appreciation of your ability to step out of your own skin and try to evaluate yourself objectively. I’m sure that pays off for you as often as you let it.)

  6. Dave Seah 13 years ago

    Randell: Dang, I hope I didn’t bring ya down!

    Brian: Great question! Yes, you’re right, third option isn’t really different from option #1 of doing the leadership thing on the surface. I wasn’t clear on the difference until you asked the question, but I think it’s this: letting go of the sense of entitlement that still lurked. In other words, I have to stop letting it bother me.

    There’s something that Charles Bukowski once said (go about 3:22 minutes in on this video) that rang a chord with me:

      I felt there was nothing out there, so I had to continue because they were so bad, not because I was so good. And I’m still not so good, but they’re still very bad. They’re still room for someone to step in here, you see.

    My #1 option, leadership, was based on this. I had to step in, because they were so bad, not because I was so good, so I would do it. This is false humility. My #3 option is also stepping in, but without the sense of “I am in de-facto command of the group because only I can see it.” Instead of trying to choose what to say and how to say it, I instead choose what tangible, showable thing I can do that does the talking for me. Maybe the distinction we could make is “Command by Assertion of Superior Insight” versus “Command by Demonstration of Effective Execution”.

  7. Brian 13 years ago

    Ah-ha! Now I see the difference, and it makes a lot of sense.
    “A little less conversation, a little more action.” Don’t assert: prove.

  8. Dave Seah 13 years ago

    Brian: Nicely summarized! Add a bit less personal bellyaching about being misunderstood, and more acceptance that it doesn’t matter, and I think that is generally where I’m coming from.

  9. doodah 13 years ago

    I came to your blog a few months ago through Corrie “Productivista” Haffly. I’m not a designer, but I enjoy your blog. Today, I just wanted to say, “good post, and timely.” I’ve recently adopted the “little less conversation, a little more action” approach at my job too. Here’s hopin’!

  10. liquid06 13 years ago

    Hi Dave,
    All of your materials on this site have been of invaluable use to me and I wanted to speak up from my shadowy lurker corner to say that I appreciate and value the things you post here. 

    This entry really describes me very well.  When I find myself in a situation when <ul><li>I feel that the people making decisions don’t know the first thing about the subject on which they are deciding or</li><li>I am having to tutor my superiors in basic computing functions such as attaching files to e-mails, installing system fonts and learning new software</li></ul> I tend to back into a shell of your second response “Withdraw and cut your losses.”  Often on projects I really care about, I will complete my own version of the assignment on my personal time because I enjoy what I do.

    I always thought this was my own oddball behavior because of my homeschooled upbringing.  I have never been good at, nor liked, conversing with coworkers or working on group projects.  Sometimes it was because my groupmates didn’t really include me, they just did it for show (like the one time I tried out public school.) In college I was grouped with people who didn’t really care about the class/assignment, and they were just there because they needed the credits.

    You have pinpointed a major obstacle I face when working in a group, and you’ve worded it in such a personal and understanding fashion with a professional level of observation.  Great post, Dave, thank you so much.

  11. John W. McKenna 13 years ago

    David

    You’ve been tagged for the “Does Most Leadership Suck Challenge”. Check the link for details.

    Take care…

    JWM

  12. Robin 13 years ago

    This may sound silly but have you ever read Dale Carnegie’s “How to win friends and influence people” You can get it on audio book or paperback. It’s a really old book and probably doesn’t have the best title but it really is excellent and deals with the exact problems that you are describing. It has lots of historical examples of people behaving in good and bad ways and the outcomes. I just discovered you blog this week, great info, I’m looking forward to reading more!

  13. Shane 13 years ago

    Hey Dave,

    I have often fought similar battles. I am a passionate individual. I wrote an similar post on the role of humility in business (http://blog.shaneandpeter.com/2007/05/10/humility-in-business/).

    I recently read a book called the Five Dysfunctions of a Team by Patrick M. Lencioni that discuss similar topics.