Humility and curiosity are rocket fuel for your career

Humility and curiosity are rocket fuel for your career
Courtesy Gratisography

Think about the most frustrating relationships you’ve encountered in your career.

Think about the interactions that caused you the most anxiety, or frustration, or stress.

What was the common thread? What traits did the other person exhibit that caused such friction?

If you’re like me, the answer is arrogance and know-it-all-itude. (Yes, I think I made that word up.)

How to identify the arrogant know-it-all

You know what I mean:

  • It’s the person who critiques your technical work, without respecting that you have deeper subject matter expertise.
  • It’s the person who tells you that “everyone knows” the answer to your clarifying question.
  • It’s the person who’s quick to lecture you about things that “always” or “never” happen, even though neither is true.
  • It’s the person who doesn’t just say “Good job”. They have to follow with a “but…”.

The arrogant know-it-all has a worldview built around conflict. Interactions are zero-sum. In order for the arrogant know-it-all to win, someone else has to lose. That’s the genesis of a lot of the conflict.

The arrogant know-it-all is different from the deluded person who means well. For instance, tonight I was listening to The Wall Street Journal update on the Amazon echo. One person asked another, “So how much longer will this stock market rally last?” 

Any answer other than “I don’t know” is wrong. But of course whoever was asked the question offered up an answer. It was an answer with a lot of caveats and hedges. Because there’s no way to know.

This person, though, wasn’t giving a lecture from a place of arrogance. They were participating in a polite back and forth that was meant to entertain listeners. It’s just unfortunate that the premise of the discussion was fundamentally flawed.

The arrogant know-it-all is looking for every opportunity to assert his or her dominance. Any opening will do. And it gets super old, super quickly.

The empowering response? A healthy dose of humility and curiosity

What’s the worst way to respond to an arrogant know-it-all? In kind. Meet fire with fire. Respond to an obnoxious lecture with an even more obnoxious lecture, making sure to point out as many flaws as possible along the way.

What’s the best way to respond to an arrogant know-it-all? The same way you should respond to everyone, from a place of humility and curiosity.

You don’t want to take it too far though. Too much humility and you’re a doormat. You’re in the background. You’re noise behind the signal. Likewise, too much curiosity and you’re annoying. You lack expertise and conviction. You’re a leach, an information sink.

Like almost everything when it comes to soft skills, you need balance. You need the humility to appreciate that other people have expertise that you don’t. You need the conviction, though, that you have something to contribute as well. Be humble when you can learn. Be strong when you can teach.

You also need the curiosity that comes with knowing you don’t know everything. No matter how much education and experience you have, you still have a lot to learn. Again, you have to calibrate it. You have to know when to express your strongly-held beliefs. Curiosity without conviction is cowardly.

How do you keep from getting railroaded?

It’s easy enough to appreciate the power of humility and curiosity. But how do you stick to your guns, when the arrogant know-it-all is running over everyone? How can you be confident it’s going to work?

Here’s what I’ll say. The arrogant know-it-all thing works in the short-term, and only with the wrong people. It can be discouraging, when it appears that the arrogant know-it-all is winning. But it’s not going to last. A+ people aren’t impressed with the arrogant know-it-all’s shtick.

A+ people want to surround themselves with A+ people. These kinds of people appreciate nuance. They appreciate knowing what you know, and much more importantly, knowing what you don’t know. They appreciate the compounding of success you get with a high-functioning team.

The arrogant know-it-all’s game is toxic. It’s exhausting. It’s a huge turnoff. It does earn some visibility. It might intimidate people into submission. It might erode the ambition of enough people that the arrogant know-it-all wins in the short term, by default.

That’s the challenge, then. To turn the other cheek. To know, deep down, that being a top notch person is by far the most reliable way to get all the places you want to go in your career.

Don’t fall for the bullying tactics. Stay the course. Balance humility with confidence, and curiosity with conviction. Don’t stoop to the level of the most frustrating people around you. You’ll persevere. And the delayed satisfaction will be more than worth the wait.

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