I had drinks last night with a clever political correspondent from a particular world-renowned magazine. As happens, drinks turned to dinner, small talk turned to deep conversation, and before I knew it, my desperately needed early to bed plan was forsaken for a very (erm…) enlightening conversation about the correlation between arrogance and ability.
It all began when comparing notes on mutual acquaintances in the political world. Person A was described as “arrogant for no reason.” Person B was described as “more pompous than Person A but far more capable.” Person C was “smart and accomplished, but not nearly as egotistical as Person A or B.” etc. etc. etc. Being the analytical geeks that we are (falling under the slightly more arrogant category the person I was with would never call himself a geek, but I know one when I see one…:-)) we started wandering about the relationship between arrogance and ability. Are extremely capable people generally more or less egotistical? How many people are arrogant with no skill set to support their mentality? Is it better to be capable and orotund or less capable and modest? And the essential question of where exactly does the equilibrium lie?
Before I knew it, we had constructed a scatter plot on the restaurant table. The drinks menu was the Y axis (arrogance), the food menu was the X axis (ability), and the points were little pieces of ripped napkin with various names. We both agreed that the optimal point (marked by the pepper shaker) was about (10, 4), at the highest level of ability and slightly less than half of the total amount of arrogance. After all, without confidence to assert one’s skills, talents would be wasted. But too much arrogance has the danger of overshadowing great aptitude.
What were actually interesting about this extremely petty (and somewhat inappropriate) exercise were the conclusions demonstrated by the graph. Surprisingly, after all the people were plotted, there was no clear correlation between arrogance and ability (no line going in an upward or downward position). For those of you who slept through statistics class this means that having great skill and ability has no reflection on how arrogant you are and being arrogant does not automatically mean you are skilled or able.
So, what exactly does this mean? I realised that while it is hard to control where you fall on the ability spectrum (Yes, one can work hard, but many more uncontrollable factors such as natural intelligence and personal strengths and weaknesses play into the mix), one’s level of arrogance is a matter of choice. And considering the fact that having an above-normal level of arrogance has no bearing on your professional performance, I have no idea why anyone has to be self-important. Pompousness is certainly not fun or sexy, and now we know that it certainly does not lead you anywhere with your job.
Unfortunately, our little graph demonstrated that there is an influx of special advisors, columnists, broadcasters, and communication specialists fall in the more arrogant, less skilled plane. But, there were a few little dots that fell very close to the equilibrium: the national editor who takes the time to talk to an aspiring journalist, the cabinet member who encouraged an inexperienced political activist to come work for him, and the witty, smart, and extremely lovely advisor with whom everyone in Westminster wants to have a pint. And not surprisingly, it was these people that we both had the most respect for and the most confidence in for the future. So yes, it was worth it to lose sleep, to learn that it is possible to be a genuinely enjoyable person and a dominant force in the political world. Now, how do we get all the little dots in the top right corner of the graph (most arrogant but very skilled) to heed this lesson…?