Saturday, February 18, 2012

The Difference between Pride and Arrogance

Portrait of Louis XIV around 1670
Louis le Grand

There are certain words that have a hard time shedding off their negative connotations. For example, the word “stubborn” or its equivalent “pig-headed” are generally not positive traits, yet they can easily turn into “steadfastness” or “personal integrity” if you look at the other side of the coin.

Certain words distinguish themselves by degrees, such as ambitious which has mainly positive connotations until it reaches its extreme point in terms of being overly ambitious. In Spanish, “ambicioso” is mainly a negative trait denoting a money-driven person who will stop short of almost nothing. What about the words “pride” and “arrogance”? How are they similar, what are their connotations, and in what ways are they negative?

We can easily classify “arrogance” as a negative trait. Arrogant people are condescending and believe themselves to be superior, whether in looks, knowledge, wisdom, or all of the above. It is also often part of an illusion – or rather delusion – about one's own characteristics; they are overblown and distort the positive traits one may have. 

Yet all this time, the main aim of the arrogant person is to overshadow others. In fact, it seems that arrogant people are always claiming that they are superior and in order to feel that way, they have the need for -- and often take delight in -- putting everyone else down. An acute or even obsessive sense of comparison is a marked by-product of the arrogant person.

Where does pride fit in? We can be proud of our own accomplishments, our country or friends and family. If you act and do well on a task or in a given situation, be it a job well done or good grades in a course, you have reason to be proud. The main direction of pride is toward within in contrast to arrogance which has a more outward focus.

But it can become a little tricky. When you are proud of your country are you not ipso facto comparing yourself to other countries and claiming to be superior? Is this really based on your own achievements? Are you not deluding yourself with pride in non-existent abilities? In other words, can you fully identify yourself with the given traits of your country? And how congruent are they with reality?

Pride can enter a dangerous terrain where it mixes with wishful thinking -- if not delusion -- and hence it may find itself in the unwanted neighborhood of arrogance. Pride then needs to be checked so that it does not turn into arrogance. There is nothing wrong with taking credit for your efforts and accomplishments. In fact, we do so quite rarely and not enough. The proverbial “tap on the shoulder” for a task well done can boost one's confidence and does no one harm in the process.

You can be proud and also realistic about a situation. I did well, but I could have done better. At the same time, doubts play a steady part in a humble person's outlook. And again, being proud of your efforts does not mean that you are better than others. It is not a judgement on a global quality. It simply means that you may be better at a given task or job. For example, it does not necessarily follow that being an excellent hockey player will also make you a great father (though it is possible). We must be careful not to mix our apples and oranges.

But can you be proud of who you are? That is a question that baffles me. Are you who you are based on your own choices? Can you fully take credit for your personality, for instance? In other words, can you take credit for something that may be out of your control, such as genes? To a certain extent you may have control over your looks. You can also make active use of your talents. But are you not essentially born with these traits?

In recent times, pride has been used to express confidence in one's different sexual orientation. After a long time of being oppressed and having to hide one's orientation, more and more people are “coming out” in the open and are affirming with confidence who they are. Unfortunately, we are still a million miles away from equality and full acceptance.

Yet regardless of your orientation, is this something you can be “proud” of, namely a conscious and deliberate action or accomplishment? To me, it seems rather a linguistic play on words but not a real effect. In this case, I would replace pride with courage. It is living out your own desires and being who you are without hiding an important part of your own nature, your self.

The pride one may feel is, in my opinion, about this type of courage, about standing up for who one is despite the consequences and strong opposition of mainstream society. It seems to me a contradiction to say that you are proud of who you are, your traits and qualities, whereas it seems easier to accept the fact that you are proud of what you have done with your life, your actions and accomplishments. But if you believe that nurture overruns nature, then you could be proud for both options.

In short, there is really nothing wrong with being proud. In some cases, it may lead to stubborn behavior, yet in others it can be about human rights and the right for dignity. You can be proud of your accomplishments and to an extent of your country, as long as you are realistic about it. At the same time, you must be careful and aware that pride does not turn into arrogance. In some cases, the line between the two may be paper-thin.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Suckcess, Wu Wei or Why the right Attitude goes a long Way

Black-and-white still of Bob Dylan holding "Suckcess" sign in a back alley
D.A. Pennebaker's film "Don't Look Back"
What is success? How is it measured? Is it related to having a fat bank account? Fame? Power? True love? Unlimited Sex? A Family? All of the above?

Many will say, in true existentialist fashion, that it depends on the individual and that everyone makes their own choice. But the truth is that success is almost always about what one doesn't have. The poor dream of money, the rich of true love, while the famous envy us and want to be like us, ordinary people with a simple life.

Often success becomes the phantom that we haunt and that in turn haunts us. People can get obsessed over it. The drive for self-improvement or, in its impossible form, the quest for perfection can be applied to pretty much any part of our lives, be it our personal trials and tribulations or those at work. At the latter, it is the sought-after promotion that goes, more often than not, hand-in-hand with a raise. As your money in the bank inflates, so does your pride.

The counter-culture, often deemed the hippie culture, has time and again challenged our notions of success. They did not believe that it could be measured by material worth. Many, in fact, turned their back on traditional life and values, such as career, family, children, house ... and experimented with notions of free love with an airy free spirit, the (almost unbearably) light feeling that deems itself immune against the push and pull of gravity. In most people's eyes, they were the epitome of failure, while they themselves were laughing at the preposterous and self-deluded vanity of the well-dressed business-person.

When it comes to success, people often see it as a form of competition. As a result, people become competitive. If everyone were successful, let us say if everyone were rich in this world, then money would, in fact, lose its value. Success is having that which others do not have. If at work I am surrounded by CEOs, I can hardly claim to be anybody special or to have achieved anything significant. It is the fact that these positions are coveted and desired that gives them value, intrinsic or not.

Moreover, success, being veritable competition, is all about winning. Nobody wants to lose and be left behind. It is, for most of us, not just about participating but we want to have something to show for. Be it a medal or a degree, any kind of recognition will do to make our efforts worth it all. Few people will brag about losing because let's face it, losing is for losers.

In short, we are driven by ambition to reach or attain that which others do not have. That explains why athletes want to break records and why the super rich are never satisfied with the amount of money and power they have. Success, in its most empowering sense, is a drive for progress, yet in its debilitating aspects, it deprives us of happiness and a balanced life. So how can we aim for success without becoming enslaved to it?

Of course, we could continue deconstructing the notion of success and go into leftist discussions of the harms and dangers of capitalism and the pitfalls of a consumer society or a psychological treatise on the ever-present dark side of human nature, where we never reach full happiness until we die. Yet it can be solved in a rather simpler fashion, namely with the all-important trait of attitude.

Attitude on its own, is something you generally do not want to have. Someone with an attitude are those who constantly complain and think they are better and more valuable than the rest. They are usually closed to learning or new experiences. However, there is such a thing as a good attitude and those are the ones who may be easygoing or even modest in their outlook.

I have previously blogged about humility, and I think it should be an important part of everyone's life, regardless of creed or economic status. By humility I do not condone stupidity; it does not mean that you let others trample all over you nor that you ignore issues or look the other way. Likewise, I do not think that turning the other cheek is the best philosophy in this world full of hungry wolves.

By humility, I mean a detached, somewhat Buddhist sense of letting things be and develop in their own fashion, what the I Ching would call Wu Wei, “acting without actions.” It does not mean to stop driving for success, but that you watch yourself and that you do not wear yourself out in the process. Having your foot always on the gas pedal does not mean you will get to your destination safe and sound. It is more about knowing when to push ahead and when to slow down.

I believe that athletes may have an ingrained sense of Wu Wei, especially if they are fully in touch with their bodies. You can push your body to amazing feats, but you have to give it also enough time to recover. We can work hard, and there is absolutely nothing wrong with this, but we need to know when to take a break. The time off will not be time wasted but rather time well spent because you are recharging yourself and will be more likely to succeed at whatever undertaking.

The fact that many believe “time is money” has robbed many an ambitious or greedy person of several hours of sleep. And success may be about winning but it is not about speed. We can be successful in due time, while I leave the variable success open to individual interpretation and meaning-making.

As you gain success and as you keep looking forward, do not forget to look back once in a while and remind yourself of being humble. During the victory triumphs of ancient Rome, the generals usually had a slave whisper in their ear memento mori, “remember you will die.” In a moment of shining glory, we often tend to forget the human predicament that we come out of dust and to dust shall return.