Chapter 8 


A proud man is always looking down on things and people; and, of course, as long as you are looking down, you cannot see something that is above you.


At eighteen, a rather triumphant Benjamin Franklin returned to visit Boston, the city he’d run away from seven months before. Full of pride and self-satisfaction, he had a new suit, a watch, and a pocketful of coins that he spread out and showed to everyone he ran into—including his older brother, whom he particularly hoped to impress. All posturing by a boy who was not much more than an employee in a print shop in Philadelphia.

   In a meeting with Cotton Mather, one of the town’s most respected figures, and a former adversary, Franklin quickly illustrated just how ridiculously inflated his young ego had become. Chatting with Mather as they walked down a hallway, Mather suddenly admonished him, “Stoop! Stoop!” Too caught up in his performance, Franklin walked right into a low ceiling beam. Mather’s response was perfect: “Let this be a caution to you not always to hold your head so high,” he said wryly. “Stoop, young man, stoop—as you go through this world—and you’ll miss many hard thumps.”

   Christians believe that pride is a sin because it is a lie—it convinces people that they are better than they are, that they are better than God made them. Pride leads to arrogance and then away from humility and connection with their fellow man.

   You don’t have to be Christian to see the wisdom in this. You need only to care about your career to understand that pride—even in real accomplishments—is a distraction and a deluder.

  “Whom the gods wish to destroy,” Cyril Connolly famously said, “they first call promising.” Twenty-five hundred years before that, the elegiac poet Theognis wrote to his friend, “The first thing, Kurnos, which gods bestow on one they would annihilate, is pride.” Yet we pick up this mantle on purpose!

   Pride blunts the very instrument we need to own in order to succeed: our mind. Our ability to learn, to adapt, to be flexible, to build relationships, all of this is dulled by pride. Most dangerously, this tends to happen either early in life or in the process—when we’re flushed with beginner’s conceit. Only later do you realize that that bump on the head was the least of what was risked.

   Pride takes a minor accomplishment and makes it feel like a major one. It smiles at our cleverness and genius, as though what we’ve exhibited was merely a hint of what ought to come. From the start, it drives a wedge between the possessor and reality, subtly and not so subtly changing her perceptions of what something is and what it isn’t. It is these strong opinions, only loosely secured by fact or accomplishment, that send us careering toward delusion or worse.

   Pride and ego say:

  • I am an entrepreneur because I struck out on my own.
  • I am going to win because I am currently in the lead.
  • I am a writer because I published something.
  • I am rich because I made some money.
  • I am special because I was chosen.
  • I am important because I think I should be.

   At one time or another, we all indulge this sort of gratifying label making. Yet every culture seems to produce words of caution against it. Don’t count your chickens before they hatch. Don’t cook the sauce before catching the fish. The way to cook a rabbit is first to catch a rabbit. Game slaughtered by words cannot be skinned. Punching above your weight is how you get injured. Pride goeth before the fall.

   Let’s call that attitude what it is: fraud. If you’re doing the work and putting in the time, you won’t need to cheat, you won’t need to overcompensate.

   Pride is a masterful encroacher. John D. Rockefeller, as a young man, practiced a nightly conversation with himself. “Because you have got a start,” he’d say aloud or write in his diary, “you think you are quite a merchant; look out or you will lose your head—go steady.”

   Early in his career, he’d had some success. He’d gotten a good job. He was saving money. He had a few investments. Considering his father had been a drunken swindler, this was no small feat. Rockefeller was on the right track. Understandably, a sort of self-satisfaction with his accomplishments—and the trajectory he was heading in—began to seep in. In a moment of frustration, he once shouted at a bank officer who refused to lend him money, “Some day I’ll be the richest man in the world!”

   Let’s count Rockefeller as maybe the only man in the world to say that and then go on to become the richest man in the world. But for every one of him, there are a dozen more delusional assholes who said the exact same thing and genuinely believed it, and then came nowhere close—in part because their pride worked against them, and made other people hate them too.

   All of this was why Rockefeller knew he needed to rein himself in and to privately manage his ego. Night after night he asked himself, “Are you going to be a fool? Are you going to let this money puff you up?” (However small it was.) “Keep your eyes open,” he admonished himself. “Don’t lose your balance.”

   As he later reflected, “I had a horror of the danger of arrogance. What a pitiful thing it is when a man lets a little temporary success spoil him, warp his judgment, and he forgets what he is!” It creates a sort of myopic, onanistic obsession that warps perspective, reality, truth, and the world around us. The childlike little prince in Saint-Exupéry’s famous story makes the same observation, lamenting that “vain men never hear anything but praise.” That’s exactly why we can’t afford to have it as a translator.

   Receive feedback, maintain hunger, and chart a proper course in life. Pride dulls these senses. Or in other cases, it tunes up other negative parts of ourselves: sensitivity, a persecution complex, the ability to make everything about us.

   As the famous conqueror and warrior Genghis Khan groomed his sons and generals to succeed him later in life, he repeatedly warned them, “If you can’t swallow your pride, you can’t lead.” He told them that pride would be harder to subdue than a wild lion. He liked the analogy of a mountain. He would say, “Even the tallest mountains have animals that, when they stand on it, are higher than the mountain.”

   We tend to be on guard against negativity, against the people who are discouraging us from pursuing our callings or doubting the visions we have for ourselves. This is certainly an obstacle to beware of, though dealing with it is rather simple. What we cultivate less is how to protect ourselves against the validation and gratification that will quickly come our way if we show promise. What we don’t protect ourselves against are people and things that make us feel good—or rather, too good. We must prepare for pride and kill it early—or it will kill what we aspire to. We must be on guard against that wild self-confidence and self-obsession. “The first product of self-knowledge is humility,” Flannery O’Connor once said. This is how we fight the ego, by really knowing ourselves.

   The question to ask, when you feel pride, then, is this: What am I missing right now that a more humble person might see? What am I avoiding, or running from, with my bluster, franticness, and embellishments? It is far better to ask and answer these questions now, with the stakes still low, than it will be later.

   It’s worth saying: just because you are quiet doesn’t mean that you are without pride. Privately thinking you’re better than others is still pride. It’s still dangerous. “That on which you so pride yourself will be your ruin,” Montaigne had inscribed on the beam of his ceiling. It’s a quote from the playwright Menander, and it ends with “you who think yourself to be someone.”

   We are still striving, and it is the strivers who should be our peers—not the proud and the accomplished. Without this understanding, pride takes our self-conception and puts it at odds with the reality of our station, which is that we still have so far to go, that there is still so much to be done.

   After hitting his head and hearing from Mather, Franklin spent a lifetime battling against his pride, because he wanted to do much and understood that pride would made it much harder. Which is why, despite what would be dizzying accomplishments in any era—wealth, fame, power—Franklin never had to experience most of the “misfortunes brought upon people by their carrying their heads too high.”

   At the end, this isn’t about deferring pride because you don’t deserve it yet. It isn’t “Don’t boast about what hasn’t happened yet.” It is more directly “Don’t boast.” There’s nothing in it for you.





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