The Three Bears: Arrogance, Timidity, and Honesty

February 13th, 2006 by Steve Pavlina

Arrogance (too hot)

Pride goes before destruction, a haughty spirit before a fall.  – Proverbs 16:18

Arrogance is overbearing pride that attempts to juxtapose others as inferior to yourself.  Although this quality is considered honorable among Klingons, it tends to annoy human beings.

Arrogance makes genuine socialization difficult because it paints others into a competitive position.  By treating others as inferior to yourself, you invite them to respond to your opening move with a reactive countermove.  Most likely they’ll either react submissively or challenge your authority with an aggressive stance of their own.  Arrogance treats socialization as a competition rather than a cooperative endeavor.  It reduces us to baser animal-like behavior instead of more conscious human behavior.

Timidity (too cold)

To be modest in speaking truth is hypocrisy.  – Kahlil Gibran

In the sense I’m using it here, timidity is a sense of self-denial to the point of being false.  I’m stretching the definition a bit, so think of this as excessive self-effacement or overly submissive modesty.

As opposed to arrogance which creates an overinflated self-imagine, timidity yields an underinflated one.  While genuine modesty and humility are typically seen as admirable qualities, when taken to the extreme, they have just as much potential to inhibit intelligent socialization as arrogance.  By painting others as superior to you, once again you compel them to react to your opening move with a countermove, which could involve taking advantage of your submissiveness with an attempt at dominance, or it may involve them becoming even more submissive in an attempt to prop up your apparently weak self-esteem.  On the other hand, excessive timidity could even be viewed as a form of arrogance, such as if Leonardo da Vinci were to describe the Mona Lisa as, “just a side project I whipped up over the weekend.”

Honesty (just right)

Where is there dignity unless there is honesty?  – Cicero

Honesty occupies a thin line between arrogance and timidity, and in my experience honesty is indeed the best policy.  The form of honesty I’m referring to here is the kind that really matters.  Don’t confuse it with the socially polite custom of excuse-making to turn down an insignificant invitation.

No matter how carefully you choose your words, it’s virtually guaranteed you’ll fall on one side of perfect honesty or the other.  Do your best anyway.  People will not always react the way you’d like, but that’s largely out of your control.  Take responsibility for your own words, and do your best to speak the truth.  Neither be so arrogant as to think you have complete control over others’ reactions nor so timid as to think you have none.  People will react in accordance with their own biases, which may not agree with yours.  That is not a failing in your communication; it is merely a part of human existence that must be accepted.

A breakthrough in my own social growth occurred when I learned the importance of balancing the two sides of human communication.  I learned to assume 100% responsibility for my own words while allowing others to retain 100% responsibilty for their response.  Being responsible means being truthful, regardless of the receiver.  I find that this not only serves me well, but it also serves the best interests of those with whom I communicate.

Honesty serves your own self interest because it keeps your understanding of reality from becoming too corrupted by inaccuracy.  Arrogance and timidity are both lies which introduce errors into your self-image.  It is like feeding a computer inaccurate data.  The software may still function, but it will produce erroneous output.  Hence the expression, “Garbage in, garbage out.”  Arrogance and timidity both produce garbage input, making it impossible for you to produce intelligent output.  The practical result is that you become stuck, and your growth rate slows to a crawl.  Inaccurate feedback can have extremely negative personal and professional consequences.  It can serve to turn an otherwise capable person into a suicidal wreck, or it can place a criminal in charge of a Fortune 500 company.

If you want to accelerate your rate of personal growth, work on becoming as honest as possible, both with yourself and others.  The more honest you become, the more accurate will be your model of reality.  And this will dramatically improve the success rate of your decisions and actions.  Overconfidence and underconfidence are equally problematic, so strive for accuracy instead.

Honesty also serves others well because it reflects their own nature back to them.  An honest person functions like a good mirror.  Imagine a real mirror such as you might find in your bathroom.  If your hair is messy, your mirror will reflect it.  As you brush your hair, the mirror gives you immediate and accurate feedback on your progress, allowing you to make subtle corrections to your strokes and thereby achieve the desired result of a well-groomed head.  But what if your mirror produces an inaccurate reflection?  It would take you much longer to brush your hair, and you might not achieve the desired outcome at all.  Consequently, you’d frequently suffer bad hair days.  Your relationship to personal growth is no different.  With too much inaccurate feedback (both from yourself and others), you’ll suffer the equivalent of a bad hair day, meaning that even though you may take a lot of strokes, your efforts will largely be wasted.

My wife is possibly the most honest person I’ve ever met.  Her ability to reflect back to me who I really am has served my own growth immeasurably.  If I’m not living up to my potential, she gives me a gentle kick in my complacency (I call it whining).  If I’m becoming too overconfident, she takes me down a notch.  If she were to err on the side of feeding my arrogance or timidity, it would compound my errors instead of correcting them.

Simply be honest, and let others react as they will

Consider the statement, “I am eligible to join Mensa.”  Some people will react to this statement neutrally (“Okay”) or positively (“Congratulations”), but others will respond negatively (“Oh, you think you’re better than me, do you?”), claiming that it’s arrogant or boastful to say such a thing.  The reality, however, is that this is simply a statement of fact.  Mensa is open to anyone who takes a qualfied I.Q. test and scores in the top 2%.  I’ve taken multiple qualified tests and scored in the top 1% each time, so according to their criteria I’m eligible to join.  So even though I’m merely stating a fact, people will react to it differently based on their own pre-existing biases.

Now consider the statement, “I have a permanent visual impairment.”  If believed, this statement may evoke a neutral reaction (“Okay”) or possibly one of sympathy or pity (“I’m sorry to hear that.”).  Others may poke fun at it (“That explains why you’re so clumsy.”).  But once again this is merely a statement of fact.  I was born colorblind, and at present I’m unaware of any real cure (there are tinted contact lenses that can help a little, but they don’t correct the underlying condition).  My visual world consists of a subset of colors that people with normal vision take for granted.  On a computer monitor, bright green (RGB 0, 255, 0) and yellow (RGB 255, 255, 0) look identical to me.  Even when placed side by side, I cannot see the border between them.  My two-year old son, however, can name these colors with ease.  (For those who are curious about it, see my previous post on colorblindness, which includes a link to some images that will show you how I see the world.)

A simple statement of fact such as in the above examples will often receive different responses from different people.  You may say something that you perceive as completely neutral, yet the other person may offer a reaction that seems to pin your statement at a seemingly random point along the arrogance-honesty-timidity spectrum.

Even when you strive to be honest and your intentions are honorable, you will not always get a reaction that seems appropriate.  Others will often react as if you’re being either arrogant or timid.  But in such cases their reaction is usually more about them than it is about you.  Stay the middle course and focus on being as honest as possible while allowing others to retain full ownership of their reactions.  Free yourself from the fear of an undesirable response, and simply accept whatever response you get.  Truthfulness, both with yourself and others, is the best way to honor the noble spirit of human communication.


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