A Hubris Epidemic

Everyone today expects me to write about Bill Gates, just as Atlanta sportswriters are expected today to write about John Rocker.

Instead, I went over to the Merriam-Webster dictionary and found a word that ties both these stories (and many others this year) together.

The word is hubris. M-W.com says it dates from just 1884 and is a noun meaning “exaggerated pride or self-confidence.” There’s a lot of it going around.

Hubris got Bill Gates in trouble with the government, and it kept him from settling. Here’s his reaction to the decision. “I think this ruling flies in the face of what consumers experience every day – a high-tech economy that’s lowering prices and bringing out lots of great new products.” Sounds like hubris to me.

Mr. Rocker, meanwhile, says he wants to quit baseball and become a stockbroker. If you can stop laughing for a minute (OK, I’ll wait) you’ll (OK, I’ll wait some more)… Don’t you think there’s some “exaggerated pride or self confidence” in thinking being a stockbroker is easier than, say, throwing a baseball for ten minutes each day?

Mr. Gore and Mr. Bush both seem to think they can get elected while talking over our heads. They do this by creating TV commercials that manipulate our prejudices, oversimplify our problems and dehumanize those who disagree. The sad truth is one of them is right.

Meanwhile, before you puff up your chest, there’s a lot of “exaggerated pride or self-confidence” in this business as well. The idea that you’re undervalued at current prices, that you won’t take a buy-out at market, or that the second or third-round proposals you’ve seen from the venture capitalists are insulting? That’s hubris talking.

Writing in another context, Rabbi Berel Wein recently accused Israelis and their leaders of hubris. I was personally brought up Catholic, but his solution to the problem bears repeating.

“The answer lies (IMHO) in the ability to listen honestly to criticism and comments of others. We can certainly remain proud of ourselves and of our achievements, but we must always be open to hear the humbling words of criticism of others regarding our policies and deportment.”

You keep me humble, in other words, when you put your criticisms of my column politely, and when I accept them with good grace. Keeping your mind open is the best protection against hubris.

How can you use this lesson today? Here’s a little fact that might help. The median household income for the U.S. in 1997 was $37,005.

Being thankful for your good fortune and not taking it for granted is a good way of staying humble, in my opinion. Hubris strikes when your eyes are down on the game in front of you, and when your ears are closed to everything but your own mind. In other words, we’re pretty lucky in this business, and it’s wrong to take that luck for granted. It’s not just our own genius that’s gotten us here.

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