Talent is God-given, be humble. Fame is man-given, be thankful. Conceit is self-given, be careful.
This anonymous saying is often attributed to legendary college basketball coach John Wooden. And he surely hit the nail on the head.
I have a different way of talking about conceit in my speeches. If you think you're indispensable, I tell my audiences, stick your finger in a bowl of water and watch the hole it leaves when you pull it out.
This lesson was drilled into my head by my parents, who made sure their brash son knew what they thought about conceited people. Perhaps this is where my fondness for aphorisms comes from! I can still hear them saying: “Don't hang your hat higher than you can reach.” “Swallow your pride occasionally, it's non-fattening!” And my dad's stern advice, “It is far better to have other people say how great you are.”
Like many kids, I was known to be a little cocky. But I stopped short of the ego trip of one of my childhood friends, who used to send congratulatory messages to his parents on his birthday.
Throughout my life, I have observed what happens when heads swell and egos exceed capacity. The “me-first” attitude is met with “not you again” resistance. Conceit and success are not compatible. There is no shame is taking pride in achievements or position. But nobody gets to the top alone. It's only lonely at the top if you forget all the people you met along the way and fail to acknowledge their contributions to your success.
My son is a film producer and director in Hollywood, the land of large egos and monumental conceit. He shared a story about a movie actor who had bored the ears off his lunch companion by talking incessantly about his recent movie. Suddenly the actor stopped and said, “But I'm talking all about myself. Let's talk about you. How did you like my latest movie?”
Ouch! Is that the best he could do?
Then there's the story about the self-important chief executive officer who arrived at the hotel ballroom where his company's annual meeting was being held, only to be stopped at the door by a burly uniformed guard.
“Just wait here,” said the guard, “until I check the list.”
“But,” sputtered the CEO, “don't you know who I am?”
“No, sir,” said the guard, “but I will go and find out and let you know.”
I can tell you right now who the fellow is — a person whose universe is very small, because it has no room for others.
“A person completely wrapped up in himself maks a small package,” wrote Harry Emerson Fosdick, an American clergyman. “The great day comes when a man begins to get himself off his hands. He has lived, let us say, in a mind like a room surrounded by mirrors.
“Every way he turned he saw himself. Now, however, some of the mirrors change to windows. He can see through them to objective outlooks that challenge his interests. He begins to get out of himself — no longer the prisoner of self-reflections but a free man in a world where persons, causes, truths, and values exist, worthful for their own sakes. Thus to pass from a mirror-mind to a mind with windows is an essential element in the development of a real personality. Without that experience no one ever achieves a meaningful life.”
Think of it this way: When business is good, who gets the credit? When the chips are down, whom do you blame?
Start by looking in Fosdick's mirror! If you see only yourself, keep looking. Look closely, and see if you don't recognize people who shaped you as a young child, throughout your education, and at every step in your career.
My list is very long. I am fortunate that these people cared enough to provide me with a reality check when they saw me getting a little too big for my britches.
The conceited new rookie was pitching his first big league baseball game. He walked the first five men he faced, and the manager took him out of the game. The rookie slammed his glove on the ground as he walked off and yelled: “Can you believe it? The jerk takes me out just when I have a no-hitter going.” Time to look into the mirror!
Mackay's Moral: Conceit is a strange disease. It makes everyone sick except the person who's got it.