Help me learn to swallow my pride
April 18, 2012 7:14 AM   Subscribe

How can I learn to not take others' success/intelligence as an affront to my own?

I was a smart kid. Brighter than most of my peers. And I was raised to believe that made me special. Sure, most kids are raised to think they're special, but I seem to have taken it to heart, because now that I'm a grown-up, I'm very sensitive to other people correcting me or showing themselves to be better-informed than me in areas in which I consider myself reasonably well-informed.

This is exacerbated by the fact that I have bosses and peers that I'd like to have good relationships with, but don't always agree with. When I realize they're right and I'm wrong, it's very difficult for me to process, because my pride is hurt. When I have high confidence that I'm right and that they're wrong or when I feel it's a matter of opinion, I have difficulty, too, in making my case in a personable fashion.

I'm circling what my actual question here is: How might I better train my ego to STFU? I'd really like to become the kind of person who can swallow his pride with ease when a situation calls for it.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (22 answers total) 49 users marked this as a favorite
Meeting someone who knows more than me is the best part of my day. Now I get to become smarter by learning from that person.

Being wrong is almost as good, because not only am I now smarter, I have an intimate knowledge of how a smart person can arrive at the wrong answer and am thus better positioned to correct other smart people in the future.
posted by Etrigan at 7:25 AM on April 18, 2012 [15 favorites]

Fake it until you make it. It's okay if your immediate reaction is to bridle at someone else's success or intelligence. But as soon as you notice that reaction in yourself, push it down and appreciate their success.

You are intelligent, so you know that you need to learn from other people and benefit from their strengths. Just act on that knowledge.
posted by alms at 7:37 AM on April 18, 2012 [2 favorites]

I think a lot of readers of this site will be able to identify with that. Taking the context of work, I would suggest breaking the problem in three:

- Try and avoid I'm-right-and-you're-wrong constructions: instead, when you think someone is wrong, ask a question instead of making a statement. So instead of, 'We can't possibly make more widgets due to the titanium shortage!', ask, 'Will the titanium shortage affect our plan to make more widgets?' Then if you are 'wrong', or missing some other angle, it's more of a conversation than a confrontation and there is no embarrassing climbdown.

- Use data as much as you can to get around opinion-based conversations. If an issue really is a matter of opinion, the most senior person in the room usually wins out, and there's not a lot you can do about that. Many times though you can introduce data and shift away from the opinion battle. Just be careful how you do it - as per the above, instead of saying 'You're wrong because my data say the titanium supply is fine for the next three years!', frame it as, 'I've had a chance to run some analysis, and the titanium supply looks strong. That might allow us to proceed?'

- When you get feedback on something that you could have done better and you think it's incorrect, control the instinct to say 'How you could have such a stupid opinion of my good work!' Instead, ask yourself 'What have I done or not done that this person could have an opinion I believe to be incorrect?' Much of corporate success is based is managing your image in the eyes of others.

And for what it's worth, you probably _are_ intelligent, but no one person can know all things, and successfully operating in a complex environment is about getting to grips with that.
posted by StephenF at 7:41 AM on April 18, 2012 [8 favorites]

I loved this TED Talk on being wrong (I believe it was posted on the blue not too long ago, actually). I'm not great at being wrong either, and that talk really helped me reframe the experience.
posted by Kimberly at 7:43 AM on April 18, 2012 [8 favorites]

While - as you know - it can be really hard to do so, it is actually an enormous relief to throw off the burden of being the most knowledgeable or most "special" in any given situation. Setting that standard for yourself places a great amount of pressure on even the most banal interactions, and you'll always feel you have to one up everyone around you to continually prove your worth. There's always someone plotting to overthrow the king, after all.

If you're able to lift that weight off, I think you'll be shocked at how much easier professional and personal interactions become. Something you can try on your own is reminding yourself as they happen that the goals of each interaction you're engaging in are collaborative at heart - you're not trying to impress your boss, you're trying to work with him/her to solve X problem quickly. You're not trying to make your friend Smacky Meehan think "Wow, anonymous knows more about restaurants than anyone I've ever met in this town", you're trying to pick a great place for lunch that will let you both enjoy your outing to the maximum extent possible.

Nthing that this is super common. For a lot of former smart kids praised for their achievements growing up, some of this anxiety can be traced back to internalizing the sense that your worth comes from being the smartest person in the room, rather than just being you. That isn't true, but it can be a tough lesson to learn without an objective third party. If you find that you can't make any headway on your own, therapy can be incredibly helpful with untangling this pattern of thinking, and your life will be happier for it.
posted by superfluousm at 7:50 AM on April 18, 2012 [3 favorites]

I am (or, really, was) like you. I think part of the answer is that for most of us, this feeling can wane as you grow older; there's just too much else in life to get worked up over. Being right is not as important as being a good spouse, or providing for your kids, or whatever.

The other thing that occurred to me along the way is that there assuredly is nothing in this world that someone out there is not better at. You are not the fastest. You are not the foremost expert on Mid-East Relations. Someone out there knows more about Dr. Who than you. There are better singers. More successful entrepreneurs. Chess grand masters whose openings will be replayed 100 years from now.

For me, this helps to keep in perspective. I am not an authority on anything, though I may know marginally more than the guy next to me. I'm not going to argue with them; it feels like jostling over which legally blind person has better eyesight.
posted by Admiral Haddock at 8:00 AM on April 18, 2012 [2 favorites]

Always remember this: you're not living up to your potential if you're the smartest guy in the room. Period. Being around a lot of people who are smarter than you is a badge of honor. It's easy, as someone who learns quickly, to sit on your ass and coast along based on your natural gifts. You've done good if you've worked yourself into a place where you're surrounded by intellectual peers. You've done GREAT if there are a lot of people around you that are smarter.
posted by pjaust at 8:06 AM on April 18, 2012 [13 favorites]

One thing I find is really useful is to remember that opinion is its own type of knowledge that often has no "right" or "wrong" answer. Most opinion is nearer to a type of fact. Just a fact you did not know.

Someone isn't "right" for liking a particular tv-show, music style, food, or restaurant more than any other type of tv-show, music style, food, or restaurant. It's merely a fact that they do. Once they inform you of that you have more information. Pride, literally, has nothing to do with that, anymore than you should feel prideful for looking up the molecular weight of carbon when you need to know it.

I like to think of myself as pretty smart, and I used to have a lot of the same feelings that you did about other people's intelligence. For me what helped was really internalizing the following idea: "The smartest person in the world is not smarter than everyone else." By which I mean that no matter how smart a person is, their intelligence is positively dwarfed by the cumulative intelligence of everyone else. It's probably dwarfed by the collective intelligence of even a medium sized group. Our brains just aren't that big, and their too much knowledge in the world.

Finally, looking at my own life, mistakes, and follies helped me. It's also good for dating. True humility in objectively competent people is attractive.
posted by bswinburn at 8:46 AM on April 18, 2012

"there's too much knowledge in the world." See, a mistake to be humble about; they're not hard to find!
posted by bswinburn at 8:47 AM on April 18, 2012

I don't know if you can, unless you're willing to rethink the meaning of smartness in your life. didn't do anything to deserve to be smart, really. Bit of lucky, really, one sperm over another. Why take pride in something over which you had no control? It's happenstance, not accomplishment.

I tend to think your worth as a person is more to do with how you treat other people. It's about kindness, respect, loyalty, and compassion. That's what's worthy in life.

Smarts is secondary --- you have to think about it as a resource you can tap to aid accomplishment, not an accomplishment in itself.

I mean, don't get me wrong, nothing annoys me more than when people treat me like I'm stupid. But I've always felt like being smart --- inasmuch as I may lay claim to that --- is valuable because it gives me an opportunity to do more, be more. But until and unless I avail myself of that opportunity I'm just another knucklehead.
posted by Diablevert at 8:55 AM on April 18, 2012 [2 favorites]

You're probably not smarter than Richard Feynman was. He was sometimes described as the smartest man in the world. What his mother had to say about that was:

"If that's the smartest man in the world, God help us."

In other words, learn to get over yourself. Being "smart" in the sense you think of it here is not that big of a deal in the overall scheme of life, and goes along very easily with being extremely dumb in other other ways.

What you want to get is that when this is coming up for you, what's going on is that you are being self-obsessed and pre-occupied with "How do I look?" and "Where do I stand?" rather than say "What is the solution?" or "How can I best help the group?" That is probably not how you'd choose to be if you stepped back and made a choice.

Now understand that thinking that way and being somewhat self-obsessed is a natural human foible. So, yes you're going to catch yourself sometimes being a little irked that there should even exist someone like Dick Feynman who is (probably) in a different league to you. As it's a natural foible, it's ok to give yourself a break, laugh at yourself for that, and then get back to how you want to be, say: focused on contributing the best you can.

Also if you have been a jerk to people about such stuff, it might be a good idea to apologize and let people know that's not how you want to be in future. Maybe even tell them that because you very much want to change, it'd be ok and even appreciated for them to point out the behavior to you if they notice you doing it.

Expect that initially you'll be catching yourself more often after the fact than not doing it in the first place. But taking the time to catch yourself, and maybe if appropriate to apologize or make amends will be a part of the transition.

Also probably good to remind yourself from time to time of the impact this has on your and other people's lives. Even when you succeed at showing off how smart you are, you're going around in life making other people feel inferior and annoyed, alienating them and putting distance in your relationships. And I'd bet that is not just with your colleagues, but your family and friends and lovers too.

"Being smart" is not a problem. "Being constantly obsessed with proving how smart I am" is.

Another aspect of this is that if you're obsessed with whether you're the smartest one around that is quite likely a sign of insecurity. Insecurity about your smarts, insecurity about whether people get your abilities, and insecurity about whether there is anything else of worth about you other than your smarts.

Relax on all counts. If you need to, tell other people about your insecurities, and they'll probably say: "Gee, so that's why you act that way! No you don't have to worry about that, everyone knows you're really great." (And, reminder: these other people probably include your family and friends, who've probably had a bellyful of your proving how you're smarter than them anytime you get the chance.)

Finally, realize you're not that special in having this issue, lots of smart people do. In fact many people have some version of it about whatever they've decided is their central, defining, most valued (by themselves) characteristic. Thinking that it's special, down to your childhood etc is "more of the same". If you have a need to feel special, even having a special "issue" satisfies the need, and that becomes a reason why you unconsciously won't want to let go of the issue.
posted by philipy at 8:58 AM on April 18, 2012 [4 favorites]

Check it out, this chimp is also smarter than you:

Can you do that as well as a chimp? Nope? But I'm going to presume there's something else you can do better than a chimp. Intelligence is a many-faceted thing.

Most people will be better than you at some things, worse at others. The presence of one does not negate the other.

Also, you shouldn't equate more intelligent and "better-informed." Someone who grew up in England is going to be better informed about the country than someone who stayed there for two weeks vacation, no matter their intelligence.
posted by RobotHero at 9:20 AM on April 18, 2012

Realize that while you might be a hell of a lot smarter than whoever's in the room about SOME things-- no matter what, they WILL be smarter about other things than you. Whether it's taxes, fixing a carburetor, or the history of the Crimean War-- on some subjects you will never be the most informed person in the room. Even the six year old you're having lunch with will be better informed than you about something, even if it's simply playground politics or the Pokemon world. There is no such thing as the smartest person in the room, in my opinion-- there is just who is the most informed on certain subjects.

Also being informed? Not the same as being experienced. Knowledge and wisdom-- two very different things.

Once you stop seeing intelligence less like blanket, and more like a patchwork quilt, you can feel good about knowing a lot about, say, international relations-- but recognize you know nothing about, say, chemistry or cooking or human relationships. And that's okay, it's great even-- it means you, like every single person on earth-- has room for growth and learning. Something we can all bond over.

Another thing Richard Feynman, genius-man, said: "I was born not knowing and have only had a little time to change that, here and there."
posted by np312 at 9:32 AM on April 18, 2012 [1 favorite]

Do something you know that you'll be exceptionally crap at. I have some fairly well honed analytical skills so i can process a lot of very complex information fairly easily. Sometimes I get extremely irritated when other people can't see what I can see either as quickly or at all. Unsurprisingly this can make me seem like a know it all dick, which doesn't go down too well.

Recently I did a beginner language course and by god did I suck. I mean, seriously sucked. No getting around it, no hiding it, out in the open and in front of everyone, sucked. And I thought I'd be great because how difficult can it be? I would have to be massively delusional to say i did ok. You can tell me a phrase and two seconds later I've literally forgotten it. No idea what it is. Five year olds would be better than me. And everyone was very polite and no one got irate with me for screwing up so much. They were visibly surprised and could see how frustrated I was but they were pleasantly supportive and patient.

Intentionally sucking can highlight very acutely for you how you don't actually know everything. If you can suck so much at something very, very simple and straight forward (with an audience) it will put everything in perspective.

Sure, I would've liked the ground to swallow me up and I don't think I could inflict myself upon another class, but at least now I know I'm really, really rubbish at something. It forces me to confront just how my intelligence is only one of many different types that is ultimately no better or worse than anyone else's.
posted by mleigh at 9:45 AM on April 18, 2012 [4 favorites]

I know where you're coming from. Your sense of self-worth is built on being the one with all the answers. As a result, when you are confronted with the fact that you might be wrong, you feel, deep down, like your self-worth is being assaulted. As a result, you get defensive and emotional instead of staying calm, open and rational.

It's important that you not be upset about feeling what you feel. It's something you've been raised to feel, and it is a feeling that has served you well for most of your life by driving you to learn. When you get shown up by someone who catches you in an error, the sting of humiliation makes you remember that fact, and drives you to learn more and more and more to fend off future errors. That's why you're the educated, skilled person you are today.

But now you're seeing the limitations of this emotional strategy.

You've gotten a lot of good advice, and what I'm going to suggest is a time-consuming and long-term way to work on the problem, which may or may not be what you're looking for right now. It has two facets:

1) Learn to be mindful of that instinctive, emotional, defensive reaction. When you are aware of it, you can acknowledge it, and choose not to act on it. Again, you don't want to judge yourself for what you feel, or try to repress the feeling. But when you become non-judgmentally aware of it, the simple recognition that "Oh, look at that, I'm getting defensive!" can significantly diffuse the feelings of fear and anger, freeing you up to engage productively with the situation.

2) Build up a feeling of self-worth and emotional security that isn't dependent on being the smartest.

Meditation can help with both of these things. The practice of mindfulness meditation trains you to be aware of your thoughts and feelings, both while you are meditating and in everyday life. Meditation can also help you to find a peacefulness, an understanding that the true core of your being is not your delicate ego, it is something that is completely impervious to outside assault—it can survive and be okay no matter what, even if you turn out to be the dumbest person on the planet.

You can find a lot of great resources on starting meditation in past AskMe threads, or feel free to MeMail me.
posted by BrashTech at 9:57 AM on April 18, 2012 [1 favorite]

I've been there.

When you're a kid in school, the smartest kid in school gets an award. Or a medal. Or the highest grades. It's really easy to figure out where you are in the rankings, and there's only one way to measure it. There's only one top prize.

But when you get older, there's no single medal given out for being the world's smartest person. There will always be someone smarter than you. And even if there isn't, nobody will care that you're the smartest person in the world. In fact, more people will want to be friends with the person who isn't the smartest -- who has some flaws. Hanging out with the smartest person in the world can be really intimidating.

There are an infinite number of ways to measure your worth as a person besides intelligence or professional success.
posted by Tin Man at 10:24 AM on April 18, 2012

I feel for you, I've been there.

Not sure if that applies to you, but the way I see it, some smart kids just grow up thinking that is who they are. Smart kids. This is their entire self-concept. I am the smartest kid in the class. Otherwise, I do not know who I am. When someone challenges that, or simply does not recognize my Superior Intellect, it may seem like there is no identity left. And that is scary.

If that's the case? reminding oneself that there are plenty of smarter people in the world may not necessarily help. That's exactly what some of us are afraid of, and we fight back.

What helped me, personally, was trying to see myself as a whole person, not just a walking and talking IQ score. Also, taking a deep breath every time I catch myself getting defensive, and consciously trying to let it go. Who cares, anyway? I still struggle with that but the more I practice, the easier it gets.

Also, spending time alone, without having to impress anyone, helped a lot.
posted by M. at 1:40 PM on April 18, 2012 [1 favorite] didn't do anything to deserve to be smart, really. Bit of lucky, really, one sperm over another. Why take pride in something over which you had no control? It's happenstance, not accomplishment.

I was always a smart kid, and like many, it made me a miserable young adult. At some point I realized something like what Diablevert said; Why do we treat smart people as if they’re better? It’s no different than being born beautiful or athletic. Many bristle at the idea that someone is a better person because of their looks, then give that same status to smarter people. It’s not the skill set you’re born with that’s important, it’s the person you become.

From your description you don’t really want to find the best answer, you want to win the discussion. This is a terrible attitude. You’ll find that people are just leaving you out of things because they don’t want to deal with it.

Being upset because you don’t have the best answer is like being upset that you’re not the best looking person in the room.
posted by bongo_x at 2:45 PM on April 18, 2012 [1 favorite]

Ha. Go to graduate school.
posted by corn_bread at 5:07 PM on April 18, 2012 [2 favorites]

yeah, totally agree with StephenF--the right/ wrong dichotomy isn't necessary, or necessarily the best way to approach life.

i mean, i wish the world and people in it were that easy; i sometimes wish things could be reduced to a point where there is clearly a right and clearly a wrong answer to every question. but things are more complex than that. people and problems are more nuanced. oftentimes there are two very different approaches--two very different solutions--to doing something, right?

oftentimes, when i feel Totally right about something in a situation that i have reduced to a right and a wrong approach, it has to do with a lack of understanding. i just don't get where the other person is coming from. or maybe they just don't get where i am coming from, and seem uninterested in even trying to understand my perspective.

in that situation, it's often helpful to get an outsider's perspective. talk it out with someone else. see if you're suffering from myopia of thought or emotion. recognize that not everyone thinks like you. recognize that there are time you're just going to have to let things go.

it's good that you're owning that pride occasionally gets the best of you. think it happens to all of us every once in a while, and not everyone has the self-awareness or desire to do something about it. it especially sucks when the person with whom you're arguing is being equally stubborn about their position--they will not budge on their approach (recently happened to me).

what helps, i think, is broadening your POV enough to see who else in the room your dispute might be affecting. is the negativity your conflict stirring up making other people stuck in lecture with you super uncomfortable? in an argument, a lot of times there is no right or wrong solution. also, oftentimes, there are innocent bystanders!
posted by chyeahokay at 5:23 PM on April 18, 2012

One word: Curiosity.

At points like this, remind yourself that one of the most important gifts we humans have is the power to invoke our curiosity.

Curiosity melts envy.
posted by softlord at 4:34 PM on April 20, 2012

Read Mindset: The New Psychology of Success by Carol Dweck and it will most likely explain to you why you feel the way you feel and give you tools to feel and act differently. In short, like many bright kids, you were most likely overly praised for your intelligence and developed a "fixed mindset", which among other things makes you want to always have the right answer to everything in order not to feel inferior or like a failure (or worse others thinking that you're stupid). The problem with always having the right answer is that it is learned and pretty quickly you'll only move in the areas where you are sure to be right at the cost of forgoing learning new things (including being happy to be corrected because it teaches you something new). Seriously, read the book, I suspect you will find yourself in it and it will give you just what you need to change.
posted by kitchencrush at 3:10 PM on April 23, 2012 [2 favorites]

« Older What are your go-to recipes for kale chips?   |   How much wood would a woodchuck chuck if a tree... Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.