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The dangers of always being right

Ruth Haag • Aug 20, 2013 at 3:00 PM

We all know someone who believes that they know everything. You know the type, you mention that you are starting on a new hobby and even though they have never done the hobby, they tell you how to do it. I had an employee like this once. He was so confident that he knew everything about everything, that he just assumed if he didn’t know about something, then no one else did either. Just after he was hired I found him explaining to another employee how to run our direct-push coring sampler. I finally had to interrupt him and explain that the employee he was instructing had built the sampler himself!

There is not much we can do about these people. There are some other people who start out humble enough, but then something changes in their life, and they too begin to believe that they know everything. This happens to people who either become famous, get promoted to an impressive-sounding job, or run for political office.

It is hard to keep your humility when everyone is treating you as if you are important. The actor Michael J. Fox said that, once he became famous, he found that everyone said “Yes” to him all of the time. He said this didn’t happen before he was famous and he found it disturbing, because he knew that sometimes he should hear “No.” While the fame didn’t go to his head, he did have problems knowing if ideas that he was proposing were good or bad.

Once a person becomes “important” for whatever reason, others start to treat them as if they know everything, as if they are able to make sage decisions and as if they are always right. Keeping one’s perspective and humility in this sort of a situation appears to be pretty hard.

People who feel that they know everything and people who achieve some sort of fame, causing them to believe that they suddenly know everything, have a real problem. The danger of thinking that you know everything is that you stop listening to people, you stop researching topics and you stop learning. When you stop learning, you stop growing. When you don’t understand a topic and act on it anyway, you make mistakes.

Maintaining humility when everyone is fawning

1. The cycle of humility. It helps to maintain humility, if you have gone through a cycle of being unimportant, then important, and then unimportant. Through this cycle you get a clear picture of who are your friends, and who is being nice to you just because of your position.

2. Listen. To maintain humility, you need to listen to everyone and ask questions. I have found that everyone, and I mean everyone, has something: Some thought, some idea, some experience that I can learn from if I only listen. I learned about compassion and not being judgmental from a 4-year-old boy in a nursery school for children with developmental disabilities.

3. Someone knows more than you do. When you listen to others you will always find someone who knows more than you, or excels where you do not, which will continue your work of maintaining humility. When my husband Bob was a sophomore in college he was taking a computer programming class in IBM assembler language. This is really basic computer language, close to 1s and 0s. Bob was really struggling with the class. He would work on his program and then go off to the computer center to run it. It would fail to run and he would work on the program again. The process went on week after week with each new assignment. Finally he had his last program of the semester running. Bob noted to me that Eric, who lived in the co-op room next to Bob’s, was also in his programming class and had spent the last week playing his guitar. We stopped by Eric’s room and Bob asked him if he had started his program. “Yes,” Eric said, “I am nearly ready to write it down.” With that Eric put down his guitar, went to the computer center and returned within the hour. Bob asked him how it went and Eric said the program had run perfectly. Apparently Eric could program with assembler language in his head, while he played the guitar!

4. Keep your sense of humor. It is always good to be able to laugh at yourself once in a while. When we purchased our buildings in Sandusky in 2002, the Sandusky Register decided to do a story on us and the buildings. The buildings had been mostly abandoned for 15 years and we were in the process of rehabilitating them. A Register reporter came and interviewed us. A photographer took my picture. I was pretty pleased with the whole thing until our daughter pointed out that the picture of me was from the back as I was on a ladder, yet the “Haag Environmental Company” words on my sweatshirt were showing, thus I had my sweatshirt on backwards. We still laugh about my big front page picture!

Maintain humility and learn, or decide that you know everything and stop learning; which is better?

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