A Better Team: Arrogance And Accepting Your Own Strengths

My wife and I went to a 5 Guys burgers for lunch today. She’s a vegetarian, so we don’t go there very often. They do have a grilled cheese which she likes, but you can only get that so many times before you get tired of it. As we were standing in line, she leaned over and asked “what’s the difference between the veggie sandwich, veggie cheese sandwich, and grilled cheese?”. It was a perfectly normal conversation for us – we go some place that both of us have been to, she has no memory of any of the specifics about the place and asks me, and I procede to describe everything about the place in great detail to make sure she can make an informed decision.

Today, though, I didn’t respond with snark or sigh prior to answering. Perhaps I’m finally getting used to her asking… or perhaps I’m finally starting to accept something about myself that I have previously disregarded: I have a better memory than most.

Arrogance

I’ve spent years fighting my own arrogance. I constantly struggle with it. I have to make concious efforts to recognize that every person I come in contact with is more experienced and more intelligent than I am given the right scenario. I’ve made significant progress on this front in the last 10 years, to the point where it pains me to even write a statement about my memory being a strength in comparison to others. I mean, how arrogant must I be to make such a statement? What a ridiculous notion, that of all the people I know, I am some how special or better than they are. It goes against everything I have been taught and have been fighting against, and flies directly in the face of the worldview that I hold.

When I look back at my career and all those that I’ve worked with, I see a trend that disturbs me. I have, on a regular basis, been condescending toward those that I work with because they didn’t remember some mundane detail. When a coworker would ask me something, I would gladly explain it and offer them as much detail and assistance as I could give and they needed. When it came time for them to ask the same question again a week or two later, my responses tended to get more and more snarky and condescending. I simply couldn’t understand why they had to ask the same question again (even if they thought it was a different question). It’s unfortunate but I think it’s the truth in how I have reacted to others who didn’t remember something.

Self-Fulfilling Prophecy

Here’s the problem as I see it now: in my effort to fight my own arrogance and recognize the intelligence of others, I have purposely disregarded anything about myself that stood out as exceptional. I like to think my intentions were good – to balance myself out and be a better person. But it backfired on me… horribly.

When I convinced myself that I wasn’t any better than anyone else, I unconciously reacted in an arrogant manner because I couldn’t understand why others couldn’t remember the detail that I did. After all, “I remember it and I’m not any better than anyone else” – or so I thought to myself. And if that’s true, then “why can’t you remember the code that you wrote a few weeks ago and use it as a template for what you’re doing now?”

Talk about arrogance… here I was trying to fight my own tendencies and in the process I ended up right at the place I was trying to avoid, without knowing it. How could I even remotely stand a chance in a fight against this if I didn’t even recognize that I was stuck right in the middle of it?

Acceptance Of Your Own Strengths

Here’s the reality that hit me today as I was answering my wife’s question about which sandwich she should order: I do have strengths (and weaknesses) in comparison to others. I do have a very strong memory and I am able to explain many details about many things, that others would not (or could not) bother to remember.

Accept your strengths for what they are and understand them. This is not arrogance. It’s only accpetance. The arrogant response when someone is asking you to use your strength is to not understand your own strengths, and to respond in condescention or frustration when another person does not have the same strength as you. However, you can’t assume others don’t have the same strength as you, either. This would lead down the same path. You have to accept your strengths for what they are without making any assumptions about other people.

The appropriate response to the recognition of one’s own strengths, then, is to use those strengths to the benefit of others while helping them play to their strengths.

One Step Of A Long Journey

You have strengths and you must understand and play to those strengths. Accept that others are better than you in some way – more experienced, more intelligent, more adept at working in certain circumstances, etc. Create a more unified whole by encouraging the entire team – yourself included – to play to their strengths but don’t stop there, either. Stretch yourself and others, in order to grow.


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About Derick Bailey

Derick Bailey is an entrepreneur, problem solver (and creator? :P ), software developer, screecaster, writer, blogger, speaker and technology leader in central Texas (north of Austin). He runs SignalLeaf.com - the amazingly awesome podcast audio hosting service that everyone should be using, and WatchMeCode.net where he throws down the JavaScript gauntlets to get you up to speed. He has been a professional software developer since the late 90's, and has been writing code since the late 80's. Find me on twitter: @derickbailey, @mutedsolutions, @backbonejsclass Find me on the web: SignalLeaf, WatchMeCode, Kendo UI blog, MarionetteJS, My Github profile, On Google+.
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  • Kerry

    Good call, good article.  It’s interesting that we tend to think that our strengths somehow make us better than others.  How is that?

  • Marko

    Indeed, very good article. I had a similar thinking no more than a week (or 2) ago. And I completly agreed with what you say. We must play on our strenghts and try to improve our weaknesses.

  • JakM

    What, you’re a memory genius because you can remember what a cheese sandwich at the restaurant YOU like tastes like, while your vegetarian wife whoo has been dragged to the meatfest can’t tell the difference between the 3 equally bland options she has to had to sample again and again are? 

    Next I’m going to claim I’ve got a better memory that my doctor wife because I can remember every part of Star Wars where they say “I’m getting bad feelings about now”.

  • Anonymous

    Arrogance in the software world is prolific. We are tasked, daily with incredibly complex problems and logic and we, by the nature of our industry, have to become experts in whichever field we encounter.  This results in us knowing a great deal about a lot of different things.  Unsurprisingly this leads some people to take a rather dim view of other people’s intelligence. 

    Most of us come to a sharp realisation that this is NOT the case when someone who SHOULD be much less intelligent than ourselves can do something we simply cannot; or which we struggle with.I can design and develop the most complex of systems with reasonable ease…my wife is incredibly organised.  She would, by her own admission, say I am significantly more intelligent than her but would she let me organise our wedding?  Damn right she wouldn’t.This is teamwork.  When you realise that you are a PART of the process and you NEED to rely on the strengths of others to achieve a common goal you become truly valuable.   Sadly,…I think it’s something that comes with age but kudos to you for outing yourself.

  • Marcus Swope

    Great post, and I agree with what you are saying. I have had the same feelings, however I don’t necessarily think (at least for me) that it is a matter of “having a good memory”, rather it is being taught to think like an engineer or mathematician throughout our formative years. 

    I think it was very telling when you said:”I simply couldn’t understand why they had to ask the same question again (even if they thought it was a different question)”Maybe it IS a completely different question, but most people haven’t been taught that the answer to one question can also be the answer to another. Or at least the answer can help you determine the answer to another. Most people that I know (coworkers, family, friends) are unable to make that jump. So to them, they are asking a completely different question, but to someone who has been trained to think like we have is just confused and we feel like they are asking the exact same question over and over.

    The key, as you said, is patience, and understanding that they bring something to the table that we don’t, and they seem to be pretty patient with us :)

    • http://mutedsolutions.com Derick Bailey

      i’ve noticed the tendency for some of my coworkers to not be able to make that jump from one scenario to another, as well. i had never connected the two like your suggesting, though. it makes sense now that i see you saying it. … will have to think about this some more

  • http://murrayon.net/ Mike Murray

    There was a comment criticizing Derick for his example at the restaurant with his wife. It was an immature, insulting comment, but did make an interesting point that it was a restaurant that Derick likes and his wife doesn’t. How can you expect your wife to remember anything about food at a restaurant she doesn’t even like or frequent that often?

    My response is that sometimes the situation that brings you to a realization may not be the best example of it; it just happened to be the catalyst that sparked the new chain of thought. Derick explicitly mentions the trend he saw happening throughout his career as evidence, not solely the cheese sandwich event.

    I for one appreciate this post very much. When I reflect on times that I’ve teased coworkers or given them a hard time, it seems to frequently be a case of me unconsciously holding them to an unfair set of standards, my own. I mean seriously, how can they not have sufficient attention to detail?! I agree it is not necessarily arrogant to recognize your own strengths, especially if for the single purpose of consciously not expecting the same strength from others. Instead realize their strengths and learn from them in order to improve your own weaknesses. That is how we will form stronger teams of professional software craftsmen.

    Thanks for posting, Derick!

    • http://mutedsolutions.com Derick Bailey

      yeah – the anonymous troll comment was deleted. i’m all for criticism, and i can handle name calling and outrage being thrown in my general direction, if the person is willing to stand up and be recognized for who they are. this person decided to hide behind an anonymous email service with a fake name. that’s not allowed.

      you have a good point about not remembering things you don’t like. like you said, though, the burger joint was only the catalyst for the realization. 

  • JohnV

    I think I have a better memory then my wife also, …. about certain things. She amazes me sometimes with her memory of situations that I recall only when she reminds me. I think we all have strengths and weaknesses, and when they complement each other it makes a better relationship. But most of us are just average, weakness in other areas pull down our strengths. You talk about arrogance, and I think we need to look at the opposite, humility. Some of need more humility, but others are so humble they have a very low self-worth. We ALL need to find that balance point between the extremes. Looking at our selves and doing a self retrospective is important way to find that balance point.

  • http://www.easyate.com/ Viceroy

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