When does pride become arrogance?

Let others cheer your EMS accomplishments instead of a boastful T-shirt or hoodie


Growing up in the California bay area, it was only natural to be a 49ers fan. In fact, I don’t know if I ever considered it a choice. My family was stocked with diehard fans of the red and gold. It helped that the team spent much of my junior high and high school years collecting five Super Bowl rings. In my youthful perspective, the men of Candlestick Park were amazing and none appeared more super-human than Jerry Rice.

While Rice’s accomplishments have become the stuff of football history, the thing that impressed me the most about his Hall of Fame career had nothing to do with the touchdowns or the gravity defying catches. For me, as an impressionable teenager, I was most amazed by what he did after the play.

Unlike most of his contemporaries, both then and now, when Jerry Rice scored a touchdown he would casually jog to the back of the end zone, set the ball on the ground and jog back to the sidelines. No dancing. No jumping into the crowd. Not so much as a fist pump. Jerry Rice not only performed like he was super-human, when he was done, he walked away with the casualness of a businessman catching a city bus. And I was in awe.

The trouble with T-shirts

Today while surfing Facebook, my old football hero came to mind at the strangest of moments. There in my news stream I saw an ad for a fire service sweatshirt … again. I’ve seen this same ad no less than a half dozen times now.

The ad shows a hoodie with an elaborate circular emblem across the back. The banner boldly announces “I Save Lives”. Beneath that the outer ring explains that EMTs belong to a dying breed. Inside the emblem is another proclamation that less than 2 percent of people can live up to the demanding skill set of the modern firefighter/EMT.

All together there is a whole lot of public service bravado packed into this single piece of clothing. The comment stream below the advertisement is divided between the 'I-must-have-this' crowd and the 'not-in-this-lifetime' crowd.

I think you know which side I fall on.

Each time I see the ad now, I sigh. And I long for Jerry Rice. I long for men and women of quiet professionalism who do their jobs and move on. I long for individuals who let others cheer for the accomplishments.

Perhaps it would be easier to dismiss if this was a one-off kind of thing. But it seems like I see these public service T-shirts and slogans everywhere and they’re only getting worse proclaiming ‘I fight what you fear;’ ‘Be safe or I get to see you naked;’ ‘Risking ours saving yours.’ All of them beg the question: When does pride become arrogance?

We didn’t invent bravery, heroism or service

It might help to remember that we didn’t invent this whole idea of public service or personal sacrifice. Our grandfathers stormed beaches in distant countries while hell rained down upon them, and our grandmothers took to the factories to rivet together war planes.

They marched in the streets for human rights and kicked down the doors of burning buildings with sooty faces and wood handled axes. They build cities of iron and steel that scraped the sky with only a keen sense of balance and the willingness to swallow their fear.

When they were done, they packed up and went home. They wore a quite sense of accomplishment and the pride of knowing that they had done their jobs well, for themselves and for us. None of them asked for a T-shirt. If you had made one, they would have smiled and put it away in a drawer.

When I think of the accomplishments of the generations that have gone before, I am sometimes forced to wonder if we have it within us to create a future that is worthy of our past.

In defense of pride

None of this is to say that there is anything wrong with pride. Pride in a job well done is natural. It’s also healthy. I don’t want to rob anyone of their pride. We should be proud of what we do. But I wonder if it wouldn’t serve us to recapture some of the quiet, humble pride of our fathers and grandfathers.

When I walk by the T-shirt vendors and scroll through my Facebook stream I wonder if we couldn’t all use a bit more Jerry Rice. Jerry seemed like he knew something about greatness that many of us seem to be missing. In fact, he knew several things.

He knew that performance when it counted was an expectation of his job. He knew that after his meticulous preparation, tireless practice and constant training, success wasn’t an unknown. It was his expectation. Jerry would have been surprised if he didn’t score the touchdown. And lastly, I think he knew that cheering and applause are best left to others.

Autobiographies aside, we can’t write our own histories. The story of who we are is best left for others to tell. We can’t make ourselves greater by telling others about our own greatness any more than we can make our jokes funnier by laughing at our own punchlines. It’s tempting to try, but it just never works.

Knowing the difference

We can be proud without being prideful. We can be confident without being arrogant. It isn’t as hard to differentiate one from the other as you might think. Pride and confidence lead us toward pro-social, healthy behaviors like a willingness to work hard, a desire to improve by to advancing our knowledge and skill and an internal sense of accomplishment.

Prideful arrogance displays itself as dominance and aggression, and it is not born from our sense of accomplishment but our fear of failure. It feeds on our insecurities. When we feel drawn to proclaim that we are somehow elite or to shout, ‘I fight what you fear!’ we are announcing to the world our own insecurity. This is no longer genuine pride, it is hubristic pride. In all acts of arrogance there is a seed of selfish insecurity.

The difference between pride and arrogance is a matter of degree. It isn’t a light switch that is either on or off. In all of our behaviors we manage to what degree we are motivated by pride and to what degree we are motivated by insecurity. Do we come from a place of authentic pride or fearful arrogance? And perhaps only we know for sure.

If you aren’t certain of where your motivations begin you may need to experiment. You may want to begin by cleaning out your T-shirt drawer. Practice focusing on building the people around you and less on worrying about your image. And by all means, if you’re fortunate enough to score an EMS touchdown, place the ball gently on the field and jog back to the sidelines. You might be surprised at how good a little humility can feel.

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