The cost of arrogance

I was arrogant throughout my career. It based on a justifiable pride about my own capabilities. But it deprived me of something crucial: an appreciation for the best qualities of other people.

How I became arrogant

I’m going to tell you about me. It’s going to sound like bragging. But it’s all factual.

I was a prodigy. I got straight A’s in college and graduated in three years. I joined the Ph.D. program in mathematics at MIT.

Before I completed the Ph.D., I left MIT and started to work in the private sector. It was clear to me that my mathematical knowledge meant I was better at clarity and reasoning than the people around me. And I was good at writing, which was my job. So I behaved like a hotshot, even though I knew very little about actual business — but I was learning.

I rocketed ahead through multiple startup companies, rising to become VP of a software company in my 30s. And I joined Forrester Research as an analyst.

You need to know that the analyst job encourages arrogance. You figure out stuff that nobody else knows and then predict the future of whole industries. Then you go out on the road and give speeches and tell clients, who are actual senior businesspeople who are running real companies, what to do. And they listen and treat you with respect. Because the press quotes you, you have power — you can move markets with your predictions.

People in business ask analysts for opinions on just about anything. And as a result, analysts must have an (informed) opinion on just about anything. And that feeds the arrogance.

As for the people around you . . . other than the other analysts, you’re always in a power position. Salespeople defer to you. Marketing people defer to you. Product people defer to you. Clients mostly defer to you. You’re the center of every interaction.

In every meeting with clients, you end up doing most of the talking with the most senior person from the client. Everyone else is looking for cues from you.

Not all analysts are arrogant. But those who have an inclination to arrogance find that the job fits them.

At one point in my analyst career, I gave a speech to about 300 people in a Boston technology organization. To introduce me, they chose the CEO of a company where I’d been a VP. He actually said something like “Josh was pretty smart and pretty arrogant for such a young guy, so the job of Forrester analyst is perfect for him.” Everyone laughed. I was furious. But maybe there was something to that.

What changed

When I quit Forrester and went off on my own, I decided to become an expert on effective business writing, which was not something I was known for. So I needed to make a name for myself in a new and crowded field.

My potential clients were not interested in arrogance. They didn’t want me to be superior. They wanted me to listen and help them. I carried some things over — I was extremely clear and blunt in my editorial comments, for example — but now I was working for people who expected me to respect them. So I did.

The dynamic was different. It required a lot more listening, and a lot more empathy. It was not focused on who I was, it was focused on what they needed.

I also needed to do a fair amount of networking, which also requires empathy and listening.

So let me share a little about what is different now.

First of all, I’m not going 120 miles per hour at all times, so I have time to think.

Second, all that listening I have to do means I am actually learning a lot more from other people. And you know, those other people have useful things to share. I am learning all the time. I am not at the top of my field, and that’s okay. I’m making a decent living and enjoying what I do every day.

The appreciation for other people — and I don’t mean other arrogant people, I mean regular people — is what I was missing all those years.

The life of an arrogant person requires constant ego refueling. It’s grueling and the rewards are always fleeting. Whereas the life I have now is fulfilling from day to day. I love writing. I love talking to clients. I love helping those clients to be successful. I like helping people get smarter, but I also like all the ways they help me get smarter.

I’m not threatened by that, because there’s no need to be the smartest guy in the room any more. (Frankly, there’s not a room to be the smartest guy in very much, either.)

Do I regret being arrogant? It’s hard to answer that. I could not imagine being someone different from who I was. I was basically trained by people’s reactions to my talent to be arrogant.

But I regret all those decades of not appreciating what other people had to offer. If I could go back and do a little more learning, and a little less showing off, that might have been worth it.

That’s the true cost of arrogance — the missed opportunity to benefit from the contributions of others.

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  1. I love this, Josh. The best thing, for me, about leaving Forrester has been leaving the environment that fueled my natural tendency toward arrogance and left me in the precarious position of trying to always be right. My new role needed much more humility – and, as you said, I learn much more from people and am so humbled by their strengths, capacity, and compassion. I’m much happier here!

  2. I too was pretty arrogant coming out of grad school.

    I have said for years that there are two benefits to aging. First, you’ve hopefully got money to do the things you like. Second, you’re more self-aware—well, at least some of us.

    I like to think that I’m now both confident and humble, especially when looking at new issues and projects.

  3. As usual, I love your on-point writing.

    I think you are the product of who you were, so who knows who you would have been if you had not been arrogant before?

    Good luck :-).

  4. In the 1970s, when I was in college, we had a dean of students who was the epitome of arrogance. Once, when I was passing the dean’s office, the phone rang. The receptionist picked up, pressed Hold, and yelled, “It’s god himself on Line 2!” She was referring, of course, to the dean.
    One evening, the dean lectured at my dorm as a guest speaker. When he finished, he asked for questions. His request was met by silence. Everyone was afraid.
    “Anything,” he pleaded. “Anything at all.”
    I raised my hand.
    I stood. “When people describe you, they use terms like arrogant, supercilious, and haughty. How would you respond to these characterizations?”
    The room filled with gasps.
    “I would recall,” he replied, “that when I was six, my mother said, ‘You know, a lot of people don’t like you.’ And I replied, ‘Well, they’re wrong.'”

  5. I have had a front row seat and witnessed the evolution you’ve described. Josh 2.0, the lemon scented Josh, is the better person. Blessings be yours.

  6. Takes a lot of humility and personal reflection to post an essay like this one. There are many ways to be intelligent. Recognizing the multiple intelligences of others is the essence of personal growth and self-actualization.

  7. This is sweet, and hit me on a day that I found myself particularly thankful to be working with the folks that I am. Nice!

    @Norman Umberger I believe this is a reference to his working from home, or at least away from fancy offices after eschewing his fancy analyst gig.