Protagonist rule #14: Don’t take yourself too seriously

Image by G.C. from Pixabay
Image by G.C. from Pixabay

There’s an interesting pattern at universities where a full professor typically is the only one who’s an expert in a particular field. Because of this, over time, professors tend to become quite confident in their expertise. The consequence is that they start to view their research field and themselves as the most important in general as the topic is the most important to them. The consequence of this is that they start to take themselves very or perhaps even too seriously.

We can see the same in industry. Especially as leaders get older, more experienced and higher up in the tree of the organization, they tend to start to believe their own beliefs and assessments too much. Due to the power position, the people around these leaders tend to question decisions less and less as their future may well be influenced by doing so.

A consequence of this normal human behavior is not only that we tend to believe in our own competency in our field of expertise but also that this competency extends to other areas. Especially in the media, we often see senior business leaders and high-profile researchers comment on topics where they have no knowledge advantage over the population at large. Still, we tend to give these people much more credibility than what’s realistic.

The problem is that we, like everyone else, consider ourselves the most important people on the planet. It comes with being human. Self-preservation is the first priority for any living being. The species that didn’t prioritize self-preservation have simply all died out. Consequently, we tend to take ourselves very seriously and, generally, too seriously.

The result is that we easily become stuck in our ways and beliefs. It’s much easier to dismiss others and their viewpoints than to critically reflect, change our perspective and update our beliefs. The problem with that is, of course, that we cease to grow and develop and instead crawl into the center of our comfort zone where, as the saying goes, it’s beautiful, but nothing grows there.

The antidote to all this is a healthy dose of skepticism toward oneself. There are at least three techniques I use to accomplish this: reminding myself of the limits of my knowledge, careful analysis of situations where I was wrong and trying to see the world through the eyes of opponents.

My first tactic is to periodically read, watch or talk to people from completely different fields than my own. It reminds me of how little I know and it serves as a reminder that something that may look simple from the outside actually is orders of magnitude more complex. This is, for me, the joy of working with so many companies in different industries. Each company has its own secrets and learnings about its industry, market and customers that are much more complex, deep and involved than they might look from the outside. My working hypothesis is that any industry and field of expertise is potentially infinitely complex and it’s only constrained by human intelligence. This reminds me of the fact that there’s infinitely more that I don’t know than what I do know.

My second tactic is dealing with situations where I turned out to be wrong. Our kneejerk reaction is to push the insult to our ego away and move on as fast as possible to forget about it. Of course, this is a nice defense strategy, but it doesn’t help us learn, grow and develop. Instead, I try to analyze what led to me having the wrong viewpoint or taking the wrong action. My experience is that this almost always is the consequence of me holding a set of assumptions that, in hindsight, simply was wrong.

The third tactic I deploy is to reflect on the viewpoint of an opponent and try to truly understand where this person might be coming from, what basic set of assumptions the individual uses and which of these might actually be correct. This is critically important as it allows me to critically evaluate the path I’m on and detect fallacies and weaknesses. It helps me reach a position where I can compromise with others and avoid the dehumanization that very often is the first step we’re drawn to take, the tribal beings that we are.

Our basic human nature causes us to take ourselves very seriously. As we grow and become more senior in our roles, this may easily lead to a situation where we take ourselves too seriously and dismiss everything and everyone not aligning with our beliefs. This causes stagnation and a lack of growth and development, which is the true enemy. Instead, remind yourself of all the things you don’t know, analyze situations where you were unquestionably wrong and seek to understand others, especially those opposing you. It forces us to continuously entertain alternative viewpoints. To use a quote by F. Scott Fitzgerald: the test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.

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