The Joy of Arrogance

I’m awesome, and arrogant.

I’m awesome, and arrogant, and I know it, and this makes me joyful. I wanted to share that joy with you, and explain why I think arrogance is so important, and humility overrated.

For a start, humility suffers from a Catch-22 condition: if you have it, you can’t know you have it, because if you know you have it you don’t. Only arrogant people believe themselves to be humble (but not all arrogant people, since some of us know we are).

Secondly, we’re all arrogant. Arrogant people are unable to learn, thinking that they already know the answer. This is a natural part of the human condition – it’s called confirmation bias – and we all suffer from it. The world simply has too much data in it to be able to take it all in, so we abstract from what we observe, come to conclusions as a result, form beliefs based on those conclusions, and filter our observations based on our beliefs. This is perfectly normal behaviour.

There are some people who believe that because they are aware of confirmation bias, they don’t suffer from it any more. Dan North calls this bias bias. People who are seeking humility are trying to escape from confirmation bias. It would be a fantastic goal, if it wasn’t essentially impossible. The quest for humility is itself a form of bias bias.

Tobias Mayer wrote in his recent blog post on humility, “Humility allows for quiet, internal reflection; it is a tool for rightsizing oneself, and thus opens up greater possibilities for thoughtful, considerate, and open interaction with others.” And yet, this quality isn’t something that just magically appears out of thin air. The only way to discover that we have opinions which we hold too strongly is to share those opinions, and sharing an opinion that we hold strongly but don’t recognise as being biased by our beliefs… well, we will share it as if it’s a fact, and come across as arrogant. Fact.

If we reflect internally, what changes? Where do the new opinions come from?

They come from other people who are sharing their opinions. If humility listens and arrogance talks, then we need arrogance in order for humility to be of any use whatsoever.

There’s a rather lovely phrase: “Strong opinions, weakly held.” That blog post that I’ve just linked to talks about “Wisdom as the courage to act on your knowledge AND the humility to doubt what you know.” Have you ever tried to doubt what you know? Not just suspect, but actually know? Again, we’re asking for the impossible.

Here’s what I’m going to do. Instead of doubting what I know, I’m going to focus on finding out what you know. I’m going to do that by sharing my strongest beliefs – as I have in this blog, as have all the bloggers on humility. I will ask questions only about those things about which I am uncertain. I will do this because there’s a good chance that I’m right, and because my essential human nature makes it impossible for me to do anything else. If I do ask questions, I will gain certainty, and then I will share my wonderful new knowledge with you, because it will be true and I will be right. If I’m wrong, you will no doubt set me straight, because you believe you’re right too. I probably won’t believe you at first, because I’ll be busy filtering whatever you say to fit my model, so you might have to persist and perhaps remind me that I am human and therefore arrogant. Your duty to me, as a fellow human being, is to be arrogant enough, and forgiving enough of my arrogance, to do that.

Because I’m awesome, and arrogant, and so are you.

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17 Responses to The Joy of Arrogance

  1. Jason Gorman says:

    Of course, when it really matters, you could ask for *evidence*… 😉

  2. Stu Taylor says:

    Thats what i love about you Liz, your modesty.


  3. helen says:

    Hi, Liz. Let me know if you like to see my blog has the link to your blog.

  4. “I’m awesome, and arrogant.”

    I want to scream this from the rooftops. Well put!

  5. José says:

    Once I learned that one can’t become humble, but can act in a humble way.

    Acknowledging your arrogance, you’re acting humbly. Thanks Liz!

    BTW, I think there are levels of arrogance, I know people that have very little arrogance and people that have lots.
    Regarding awesomeness, everyone of us is awesome in some aspect. But not all of us have the courage to show it to the world.

  6. Darren says:

    Humility and arrogance are 2 sides of the same coin and neither are much fun to debate with. Arrogance won’t listen and humility won’t answer back. Neither response is particularly respectful or useful to me.

  7. Tobias Mayer says:

    My own arrogance helps me learn, and helps to shape my ideas, but it doesn’t make me happy. I’ve lived rather too long with it, and it wears thin. I’m exploring other ways to learn, ways that will take me beyond my self-will, my need to be right. Humility is an idea much denigrated due to its use as a tool of oppression, yet I believe it holds great value as a pathway to peace and healthy human interaction—when it comes from within, rather than without.

  8. Tobias Mayer says:

    @Jason Yip — that’s a nice example of the Catch-22 aspect of humility that Liz mentions. But despite Bill Wilson’s inability to retain anonymity his efforts to seek personal humility created something amazing for millions of people— something that likely would not have emerged by any other pathway.

  9. Mark Knell says:

    You are awesome, no question. But before you advertise your arrogance too much, consider the Dunning-Kruger effect
    ..which explains why some of the most publicly arrogant people are also the least competent, for the simple reason that they are SO incompetent, they are unable to appraise their own skills (or lack thereof).

    An interesting corollary is that, on average, the most empirically competent people are NOT the ones with the highest opinions of themselves: the truly competent are skilled enough to realize how much they don’t know.

    Thus, when I want to get the best ideas in the room, I don’t ask the people who want to tell me their great ideas. The ideas are often not as great as their proponents hoped, and besides, why ask? They’re going to tell me anyway.

    I agree about the joyful aspect of arrogance, though. Being humble is a chore.

    • liz says:

      Mark, absolutely, there are loads of different examples of bias. This only serves to confirm that I’m even more right – arrogance is inevitable.

      Rather than aiming for humility, I prefer to just remember that I’m arrogant, and focus on encouraging other people’s arrogance (and their opinions) to see if anything comes out of the woodwork. I have less focus on staying silent and more focus on getting others to talk (which you can do by talking yourself) and being forgiving of both yourself and others for the times we get it wrong. Which we will, inevitably.

      Saying “remember the Dunning-Kruger effect” as if knowing about it will help to avoid it is, I suspect, yet another example of bias bias.

  10. Pingback: Humility vs. Arrogance « he98anything

  11. yveshanoulle says:

    What you call arrogance, I call ego.
    I’m not sure which of the two is the better name.
    Yet I totally agree.

    Humility is why people say, “it’s nothing”, when I thank them. And after the first annoyance, I get arrogant:
    “I just gave you a compliment and you threw it away. It would be nice if you can accept it….”
    That helps to get people a little bit out of their humility….


  12. Pingback: Fightin’ Words « Form Follows Function

  13. Chris Young says:

    Arrogance and humility can be thought of as opposite ends of a continuum, a continuum representing the balance between the authority with which one speaks on a subject or situation and ones apparent knowledge and experience of it.

    One appears arrogant when ones stated point of view doesn’t match ones apparent knowledge and experience.

    One appears humble when ones point of view, or more likely lack of one, acknowledges ones lack of knowledge and experience.

    I tend to be more interested in hearing people speak with authority on a subject.

    People like Jonathan Meades, the late Robert Hughes, John Seddon and David Snowdon.

    These are people who talk like they mean it and present evidence to substantiate their claims or justify their point of view and, critically, engender debate out of which may emerge new opinions or view points.

    Which is exactly what your post does.

  14. Jim Balter says:

    “Have you ever tried to doubt what you know?”

    Yes; I constantly reexamine my beliefs. (I’m reexamining that one as I type it … it’s probably overstated). I’ve reexamined Descartes’s “I think; therefore I am” and find it unconvincing … something thinks, and therefore is, but what exactly is this “I”? I (as the whole person writing this, as opposed to some inner self) could be wrong, but I don’t think that the self actually exists as we envision it. (This is not a novel view — Daniel Dennett, Susan Blackmore, Thomas Metzinger, and other prominent philosophers of mind, among others, have explored it in depth.)

    “Not just suspect, but actually know? Again, we’re asking for the impossible.”

    No, I think not. “suspect” and “know” are differences in degree, not kind. All beliefs have some level of confidence; a suspicion is a belief with somewhat low confidence and knowledge is a belief is very high confidence, but it’s a mistake to get all the way to 100% (I believe, with high confidence) … there’s at least one thing that each of us believes that we know that is in fact false. Why should it be impossible to doubt each and every one of these things that we think we know? Consider the expert proofreader who has proofread a 2000 page book. For any given page of the book, they can be certain that there is no error, while at the same time being certain that somewhere among the 2000 pages there’s an error.

    We could be brains in vats with signals being fed in that give us a vastly different set of beliefs from reality — at least, I think we could, None of what I’m saying is novel … plenty has been written about these things in the philosophical literature. (See, e.g.,

    I’m extremely arrogant, so my confidence level in my own beliefs is very high … but one of those beliefs is that I’m an extremely bright and intellectually honest guy whose beliefs are warranted because they are evidence-based (my Mensa-proctored IQ score, feedback from associates, and success in solving problems are among my evidence for my intelligence; there are some areas, though, like finance and romantic relationships, where I’m apparently an idiot) and frequently get reexamined … and because I’m that bright and intellectually honest, I know that I may well have overlooked something important. The key is to not tie your self-worth to your beliefs, so that you’re free to examine and change them whenever there’s reason to. Although that can be hard … clearly my sense of self-worth is linked to my (believed) intelligence and intellectual honesty. I think.

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