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Don't Be So Sure Of Yourself

As many of you know, I'm been working on the virtue of humility for a while. After all, no one likes an arrogant person, and an arrogant person makes lots of enemies. On the other hand, we all like humble people and prefer to help a humble person.

Before, I always thought of arrogant people as those who are full of themselves, look down on others, and say mean things about people. Recently, I learned that being too sure of yourself can also appear arrogant. As a person who always emphasizes logic, this can be a problem for me.

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A Cautionary Story

A few months ago, an English teacher asked me to observe his English class and give some feedback. When I observed his class, I noticed many problems. I realized he had not received professional training on teaching English as a second language like I did, and that he must have been making all these mistakes for the past year without even knowing it.

When I gave him constructive criticism, he was quite resistant and argued that my advice might not be applicable to his class. Being a very logic-driven person, I then argued that these points aren't even my advice, these are industry best practices that come from veteran English teachers who have decades of experience, and I learned them from my supervisors during my years working as an English teacher in China. He was still unconvinced and asked me to demonstrate these advice by teaching his class a couple of times.

After I demonstrated two lessons, we chatted again, and he was more convinced than before, but he still doubted whether or not he could do it. However, he was humble in that he tried to make changes and asked me for further guidance. In the next few weeks, he started to understand the industry best practices more, and he improved a lot. His students also gave him great feedback, and he grew more confident in his abilities.

Later, I was talking to a friend, who also happened to be that teacher's brother. We chatted about my experience advising his brother, and he told me, "While it is true that my brother might have a sensitive ego, you cannot neglect the fact that you were a bit arrogant in this matter."

I was kind of surprised and asked him to explain.

He said, "My brother told me that the feeling you gave him was that you are definitely and obviously right, and that what he has been doing is very wrong. Of course, I know that you probably didn't intend to make him feel dumb, but when you sound so sure that you are right, you imply that others are dumb for not agreeing with you."

I said, "OK…So, what am I supposed to do then? Downplay my advice as not being right for sure? But I want him to take the advice seriously and not keep making those mistakes, which is bad for him and his students. Besides, the advice isn't even my advice. It's industry best practices that I learned from veteran teachers. I wasn't trying to make it seem like I'm a know-it-all, I was just trying to teach him basics that any English teacher would learn if we got professional training."

My friend replied, "OK, think about it this way. Are industry best practices fixed in stone? Were the industry best practices 100 years ago the same as today? Do you think they'll be the same 100 years from now? So even if you say this is not your advice, that it's the industry best practices, you still should not be so overly-confident. You can be more humble in presenting the advice by saying, 'This is just the best advice that I have to offer, but it may not be the best. You can consider it if you like.' Besides, a humble person never tries to be above others, but rather tries to help others rise above them. If your intention was truly to help my brother as opposed to 'teaching' him, then you would be more sensitive and soft in your manner of giving advice."

My friend added an analogy, "You know when someone buys a product, and they think it's the best thing in the world? Then they tell you, 'This is the best thing in the world! You gotta buy it too!' How would you feel? We kind of feel like, 'Woah there. Calm down. Back off.' Right? So when we give others advice, we should be humble and not so forceful."

I understood his point and said, "I get it now. Don't be so forceful and overly confident that my advice is definitely great. Otherwise, others might feel like I'm arrogant or pushy. If I truly want the best for others, I would be more considerate and deliver my advice in a softer, humbler way that they could more easily accept. At the very least, their ego wouldn't feel attacked. And if I am truly humble, I wouldn't demand them to follow my advice, because I wouldn't think my advice is the best thing in the world anyway. They know their situation best, so they have the right to choose whether or not my advice is applicable to them."

An Exemplary Story

Aside from that experience, I also met a great role model who demonstrated this exact point of being humble when giving advice. As many of you know, I'm really into Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) because it's simple, mostly free, and convenient to do at home. Recently, I had the honor of meeting the doctor that I first started learning TCM from online. She was delighted to know that I love learning about TCM and that I benefited a lot from practicing her teachings at home.

I asked her for some guidance regarding my mother's health situation. I first reported my thoughts based on what I've learned from her lectures and a TCM textbook that I've been reading, then I asked her for advice. She gave me some advice, but she ended by saying, "These are just some thoughts for you to consider."

I was quite surprised, and I wondered if she thinks I'm really knowledgeable on TCM or something, so she didn't want to be too firm in her advice? I asked her, "You're the obvious expert on this subject, I'm just a newbie, of course I will listen to your advice. Why did you say it's just some thoughts for me to consider?"

She replied, "Oh, that's because compared to the ancient TCM doctors, I am far far behind them. I wouldn't want to sound too confident in my advice, as if it were that great. Moreover, TCM is very deep and complex, so we cannot be so sure of ourselves."

From her response, I reflected deeper on why we shouldn't sound so confident when we give others advice. Indeed, we are far behind the true experts in the world. Moreover, the more we learn about a topic, the more we realize how much we don't know. Thus, a true expert wouldn't sound so confident and sure of themselves, as if they are definitely right.

Further Reflections

As I reflect more on this topic, I have further realizations.

First, the person asking about a problem might not understand their problem clearly. In that case, the advice you give wouldn't be helpful because they didn't even understand their problem to begin with. If you sound too confident, then they might blame you for giving bad advice.

For example, a teacher asked me how to help his students remember grammar rules. If I didn't know any better, I might give some advice for teaching grammar, but the result wouldn't be great because people simply cannot remember grammar rules that fast. Fortunately, I knew better, so I told him, "The important thing is to adjust your expectations towards the students and to be more patient. They need more time and review to remember grammar rules." But when others ask me a question, how can I know for sure that I see the root of their problem? Thus, I can't be so sure of myself when giving advice.

Second, the person listening to your advice might not fully understand your advice. If you sound too cocky when giving the advice, they might not want to ask their points of confusion in fear of seeming dumb for not understanding you the first time. When they follow their misunderstanding of your advice and get bad results, they blame you for giving bad advice.

Third, there really is no one-size-fits-all solution. Just because something worked for me doesn't mean it will work for others. Principles are always true, but methods vary from situation to situation. For example, a principle of teaching is to help students gain confidence. But the method of doing that can vary from teacher to teacher, and there is no one right way to do it.

Fourth, even this "rule" of not being so confident in your speech is not an absolute rule that should be applied to every situation.

I've reflected that it is most important when the trust level is not high yet. In the examples mentioned prior, I wasn't too familiar with that English teacher, so I shouldn't sound so confident when giving him advice. That TCM Doctor isn't too familiar with me or my mother's situation, so she can't be too sure that her advice is suitable. But my friend who told me that I was being arrogant was very firm in his advice because he knows me well, and he knows I trust him. I remember when I first met my mentor and asked for advice, he was very humble and soft when giving advice. Now that he knows me well, he is much more direct and firm when giving me advice.


There's a Chinese saying that goes,

"Arrogance brings harm. Humility brings benefit."

Arrogance is not merely just looking down on others or saying mean things about others. Being too sure of ourselves or being too forceful in our advice can also be a form of arrogance. To prevent this problem, we can remember

  • There are many experts who can give far better advice than us.

  • Everyone's situation is complicated, and I probably don't know the ins and outs of their situation, and they might not either.

  • Just because something worked for me doesn't mean it will work for someone else.

  • The deeper our understanding of something, the more we realize we don't know.

  • If I truly want them to succeed, I would be more encouraging and warm rather than judgmental towards their problems.

In the future, when giving advice to someone with whom the trust level is not high yet, I will say, "These are just some of my thoughts for you to consider. You know your situation best, so you can decide whether or not it's useful for you."


Weekly Wisdom #249


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