The Toxicity of Arrogance

Last night Amy and I saw Closed Circuit. We both walked out of there completely bummed out. It was a good movie, but the arrogance of some government agencies (in this case British MI-5) was overwhelmingly real and upsetting. We went to bed when we got home and I tossed and turned for awhile, thinking about nasty government shit. I had a crazy dream that seemed to go on forever about being tangled up in some kind of spy related thing with old college buddies and woke up with it completely unresolved.

It was very early when I got up so I sat down at my computer to start cranking on the last bit of Startup Boards since I’m submitting the final draft on Monday night. But I made a mistake – in an effort to procrastinate a little I read the newspaper headlines, my feeds, Techmeme River, and HackerNews headlines.

And then I was completely bummed out. There were the predictable articles that reinforced the incredible arrogance of government. But there were also a bunch of articles, including some that were first person posts, making strong statements about specific things, defending positions, and arguing points that were one sided and didn’t make much sense to me. While everyone is entitled to their opinion, there was a common thread. The first person accounts were almost all incredibly arrogant.

I felt myself getting angry. Several of the articles directly undermined broad initiatives that I care about. Ironically, several of the writers actually appear to support the same position I do. But their delivery was horrible. And arrogant.

I spent a little time on my book and then Amy woke up. I took her out to Snooze for breakfast and as we were walking over I described a few of the things that were bothering me to her. I had a two hour advantage on her since she had just woken up and her first response was “What? What’s got you so riled up?” We kept going and just talking to her calmed me down. And she helped me think through what I was reacting to.

It is arrogance. And bias. Which just makes me crazy – it’s 50 years since Martin Luther King Jr’s I Have A Dream speech, and bias – both conscious and unconscious – is alive and well. Everywhere. I’ve been spending a lot of time over the past two years exploring, understanding, and explaining unconscious bias. It’s at the heart of one of the key issues that we are trying to address at NCWIT. But conscious bias is maybe more offensive and grotesque. And it’s even worse when coated with arrogance.

I don’t expect to solve anything with this post – I’m just venting. And I don’t feel like calling anyone out – I’m not really interested in provoking a fight and giving arrogance more of a voice. Arrogance and hubris is an ancient problem – our Greek friends knew it well. The power, and value, of humility was reinforced to me again this morning. I respect humility so much more than I like arrogance.

  • There’s a lot of it, seemingly everywhere.

    ack’ing that the offending stuff didn’t come from your immed circle, that’s what you can impact w/ your own conduct – the best advice I have is to be the person you want others to be. Assuming the ‘good’ repels the ‘bad’, eventually, at least your immediate circle will be a better place.

    And that’s a pretty good start.

    • Well said John. I try hard not to let any arrogance or bias creep in to my inner circle. I’m sure I fail at it, but I try hard.

      • From my perspective (I’ve only known you since 2006, but we’ve obv had lots of interactions), you’re doing pretty well w/ that.

  • Seems to me that increased arrogance might be a defensive reaction to the diminished acceptance of power/authority structures. People and institutions get defensive when no one is willing to acknowledge those structures. Everyone tries to establish/confirm authority in the face of audiences who don’t like that. No referee… no shared frame of reference. Just a thought…

    • Definitely true, but I’m seeing the opposite even more forcefully. Government is a good example of this. Government has become massively more powerful over the past decade and at this point there are many people inside government who believe they can do no wrong, that the laws don’t apply to them, and that they are doing the right thing for “the people” even if “the people” don’t want them to.

      Now – this isn’t new. Last night after the movie Amy and I were joking about the Boston Tea Party and the American Revolution. We then moved onto the Protestant Reformation.

      I expect the government stuff at this point. But I’m just super bummed when I see other people rise from obscurity into significant positions of influence and power, and then just go completely off the rails with arrogance. Barf.

      • The impression that government is getting more powerful (historically speaking) might a result of increasing transparency (another factor for increased defensiveness, btw).

        When you think about it, arrogance is most often a sign of weakness. Which, paradoxically, might mean that increased arrogance all around… is a symptom of diminished institutional and individual powers.

        Being a historical optimist, I might be trying to see the good in the apparently bad… 🙂

        • Interesting – and well said. I believe we are at the transition point between hierarchies and networks. For example, government is a hierarchy; startups and startup communities are networks. Arrogance is linked in my mind to hierarchies since networks ultimately route around it. However, I’m noticing some “super nodes” in networks showing incredible arrogance, which is confusing to me since it diminishes their influence and power. And, I’m seeing equally incredible arrogance buried within hierarchies, at levels that are not visible to the mainstream, and completely disheartening.

          So – it’s really complicated. Your historical optimism definitely rubs off on me – I feel like this stuff always finds its balance over time. “It’s happened before, it’ll happen again” said the cylon.

          • I have often expressed myself arrogantly without even realizing it (invariably regretting it afterwards)… and I think this is a common weakness to people who have lived under an authoritarian government or have experienced powerlessness in some other way. When displayed by other people, this type of (mostly intellectual) arrogance doesn’t bother me so much and even can be refreshing in a society obsessed with political correctness – Nassim Taleb comes to mind.

          • This is something I’ve never contemplated. I’ll think more about it. That said, all of the arrogance that caused me to vent this morning was from Americans, mostly privileged and successful white males.

          • That would be the arrogance I can’t stand – the one rooted in privilege… seems so inexplicable/inexcusable.

            Hmmm… here is a symmetry – unfair/undeserved disadvantage and unfair/undeserved advantage (privilege) both being a root cause for (compensatory/defensive) arrogance.

            There might be such a thing as a “fairness” after all… judging from our reactions to the lack of it.

          • Brad, I’d love to see a follow up post on this:

            “I believe we are at the transition point between hierarchies and networks.”

            The difference between the two and the personality types each encourages or permits is a really interesting key insight and. It has implications for governments, company organizations, even family and friend groups. I did a quick search and saw this post alluding to some of this:


            I know you’ve talked about this in Startup Communities (which is on my list). But I’m particularly interested in how it should factor into how we organize our businesses and maybe even how we approach/interact with users.

            p.s. love the BSG and Smashing Pumpkins references. Keep em coming.

          • Yup – I’ll write more about networks this fall.

  • Judy

    For the life of me Brad, I do not understand the abundance of arrogance I see all around me. Just last night, I was witness to an individual whose abuse of privilege was astonishing and quite frankly sickening. I am the type of person who wants to believe there is a reason for everything. But these days, there are so many things I cannot explain or wrap my head around. So I’ll just continue to do what I can to make life a little better for those in my sphere.

    • There is a lot of wisdom in just doing what you can do in your sphere. As a kid, my dad said “focus on the 2% you can impact.” I’ve always taken that to heart.

      • My dad has repeated a similar mantra to me. However, in the startup world it seems that everything is ‘go big or go home’. When people, including myself, say they want to have an impact, it can be difficult to balance real impact with reach. Said differently, how do you view having a deep and personal impact on a ‘small’ circle versus having a shallow and broad impact on the masses?

        • Judy

          I’m a career PR person, and thus am familiar with having an impact on the masses, as you say. I am hopeful that my choices and actions, seen by a few but felt by many, will have a ripple effect. Naturally, the rings furthest from the center will feel the impact differently. I’ve finally come to terms with not being able to control everything.

  • John Fein

    Contrary to what many seem to believe, I’ve always felt arrogance is a sign of weakness/insecurity and humility a sign of strength/confidence. I think a common and big mistake is to confuse humility with being meek.

    • I strongly agree with you. The most powerful people I know are extremely humble. And they are most definitely not meek.

    • Same here…

    • Strong agreement here, as well. A potential issue is that people with arrogance cast the soft-spoken as being indecisive, and therefore weak. When in reality, they are merely taking all perspectives into consideration.

  • jusben1369

    Was the title inspired by System of a Down? (Sorry if that’s incredibly opaque)

    • Nope – do they have a song by that name, or one that relates to it?

      • jusben1369

        Yes. A song called “Toxicity” about arrogance and thinking you own the world including an opening line around “Conversion, software version 7.0” A very long shot but I would have *really* enjoyed the tie in had it existed (so had to ask)

  • ClaudiaHallChristian

    I grew up among presidents, judges, senators, and all the people who actually run the government. In closed rooms, in my personal experience, it’s a bunch of people trying to do what they think is right. The insecurity was rampant. The goals are clear – do what’s best for the American people. I personally suffered at the hands of their decisions, so I know the level of excuse and excess it is to say “we did what we thought was right.”

    To me, the error is not including every voice. When we live in small spheres of similar voice, we hear only that we’re doing the right thing. If we allow ourselves to include people who are different from us, we may learn things. For example, in the 1950-1970s children were experimented on for mind control studies. The excuse was “we didn’t know any better; we didn’t know it would affect them for life.” And yet the evidence was available. What’s true is that they didn’t ask.

    So the arrogance is actually in the sense that one set of people can KNOW what’s best for everyone. That seems rampant today from people who are sure that everyone should eat a Paleo diet to the idea that college is a waste or mandatory. How do we ever know what’s best for another person?

    I think if I can rein in my own innate desire to decide what’s best for another, I’m one step closer to a reduction in arrogance. I don’t give a lot of advice now. That’s one of my steps in this direction.

    • I too find myself not giving advice anymore. However, that leads me into a social passivity I don’t like. Every “activism” is a bit (or a lot) arrogant… but without it, how can we be enthusiastic and productive? I don’t know a good answer to that.

      • ClaudiaHallChristian

        Maybe advice when it’s asked for? I know for myself, I learn more in HOW people live their lives than what they say. So maybe we have to be confident that our actions in the world are more important than our words – but like you @sotirov:disqus I dk.

        • Or may be non-targeted advice – like blogging our opinions, for example. Talk/media are actions too… with consequences.

          • ClaudiaHallChristian

            That’s good thinking @sotirov:disqus. I like your distinction there.

  • Max Sperando

    Maybe it’s a lack of social grace or the inability to see beyond their own nose? I’m seeing this pattern a lot these days, mostly from the newer generation, but that’s a completely different debate (parenting and mentoring). Arrogance comes from people who need to prove a point. People need to be better listeners, and when they do say something in a public forum, they should be more responsible and respectful of differing opinion.

  • You got me thinking now that you’ve said you’re not interested in calling anyone out. I curate hundreds of links weekly and reject 95% of them because they aren’t additive to the existing body of knowledge, or maybe they have flaws that I don’t feel comfortable sharing with my readers.

    Actually, a month ago, I called 3 such ones in this post: and I ended it with:

    “Most blogs are incomplete thoughts on a particular issue that the author knows something about, or maybe has a beef to grind. Don’t confuse opinions with actionable advice, and if it’s just an idea, you need to know where to slot that idea, and whether to slot it at all.”

    Some people think that because they know something, they can impose their knowledge (or bias) upon others, and that’s arrogance. Sometimes, it’s naive arrogance and it doesn’t hurt, but sometimes, it’s arrogance that cuts like a knife. I’ve labelled this “The Arrogance of Knowing”, and have been wanting to explore further this central question: Why do some people become more arrogant when they know more, while others become smarter and more pleasant to deal with?

    • Really good post – I remember thinking that when it came out. I totally agree with your punch line.

    • Max Sperando

      To your question “Why do some people become more arrogant when they know more, while others become smarter and more pleasant to deal with?”

      I’ve found that some people who know more become frustrated with people who know less. It’s the typical SNL IT Guy character who is very condescending and snarky when someone asks him a question about computers. I’m guilty of that myself, where I get so fed up with people’s lack of ambition and willingness to learn on their own.

      In other cases, I find myself having an unbeleivable amount of patience with some people who know less because I know that they do have ambition and a willingness to learn, and I am more than happy to assist them.

      • Exactly. I can think of 2 factors that might be responsible for being arrogant when you know more: a) insecurity, and b) character of the person.

        You know the old saying (paraphrasing)- Give money or power to a person, and their character will be revealed. Same with knowledge.

        • Great points, In my experience insecurity is the key issue in professional situations, and we all have some. But the definition of arrogance is also not solid for me from reading the comments. I personally and being a teacher for a few years don’t feel not wasting time telling or repeating something to someone if I believe they will not get it is arrogance.

          • I guess it depends if they are open minded about it. Maybe it’s a bit different in a teaching environment where the students are there to learn, but in the startup ecosystem, entrepreneurs are pretty stubborn, and they can’t be herded. They can be mentored at best.

          • Good point though you might be surprised at the post-grad business students these days, first off they are extremely aggressive and many of them are already working on a startup idea or thinking about it. My point is that the definition of arrogance is subjective to a degree depending on who is talking.

      • I suffer from the same exact issue. I’m more than happy to help someone who I KNOW is going to learn, take it in, do something, and improve. But if someone isn’t going to do something about it….I get really annoyed/frustrated that my time is being wasted.

  • I always chalked this up to an inability (our more likely unwillingness) to empathize.

  • If you have the strength to deal with another instance of horrendous government agency overreach – check this out, it’s truly ghastly.

    • I saw the BuckyBall thing yesterday. It’s a grotesque example of government overreach. Given the limited information disclosed, it seems like a classic retaliation dynamic from a government agency, which is really ghastly (what a good word that is!)

      • The idea that they intend to try to pierce the corporate veil is just appalling.

        And it is practically impossible to hold accountable the mandarins who make these decisions. Indeed, some government agencies and officers are literally immune from legal remedy. For example, prosecutors can break the law (e.g. present false testimony, surpress evidence, lie about the circumstances under which evidence is given) resulting in a person being given a lengthy prison term or the death penalty and yet if the facts come to light you cannot sue the prosecutor’s office!

  • Arrogance and bias are indeed symptoms of a life out of balance. More and more I get the feeling that there is no good vs evil in this universe, but balance vs imbalance. Striving to be good has indeed led many off balance, and into dark waters. Ecosystems and life on earth do not seek moral platitudes, but rather raw and nihilistic balance, re: forest fires in your neck of the woods. Anyways, something tells me its time for bed.

    • I dig the balance perspective Jess. My 2 cents are for a lifestyle that’s in or out of flow – positive feedback cycles for work and personal life. I’m a little short on downtime the past year or so, as I’m less inclined to poke around at new things while not working and instead staying away from the console.

  • Arrogance in someone can easily be a perceived characteristic from the observers perspective in a given context. In my current efforts to move laterally into VC domain, I have encountered some incredibly generous individuals who have mentored me and guided me without ever having known me before. I have also come across people who have ignored my existence and probably had a good reason to do so, but my own perception of these individual’s arrogance &/ or humility is purely driven by my own experience in that specific situation.

    As can arrogance in someone demotivate an individual, lack of arrogance despite an expectation from the observer can come across as an overtly patronizing attitude and hence can be equally demoralizing.

    I prefer people to be transparent in their intentions – saves a lot of trouble & time.


    Rekall, rekall, rekall…

  • batnib

    There is lots of great research out of Harvard on implicit bias, including a book called Blind Spot by a Harvard psychologist. And I share your dislike of arrogance, which to me is one of the greatest threats to innovation. For example, he who thinks he’s already full, has little incentive to continue to experiment, to tinker, to try new and different things….and I think arrogance, and complacency go hand in hand actually (complacency is also a threat to innovation, because the complacent don’t have to risk position to pursue something new). But I’d submit that one of the greatest detriments is that of hypocrisy–we’re surrounded by hypocrisy, which is is why it may be harder to solve some of these other values related questions. Anyhow, just some thoughts. Great post.

  • Brian

    I will really feel bad for you when you stop getting pissed about the things you care about. Apathy is the cause of all problems both macro and micro. Thanks for being honest at a weak point (we all have them). Now go roll up your sleeves and do something about it.





  • In my experience (and I am only talking about myself), arrogance is due to a lack of self-awareness.