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Friday, February 26, 2010

Pride and Humility

How much pride should you take in your work? I think there is nothing wrong with normal human emotions of satisfaction (I got an article accepted in a good journal), or self-confidence (I believe myself able to write a good article). If you read something you wrote some time ago and genuinely feel surprised at how good it is, that is an honest emotion too. Without positive emotions the work gets a lot harder to do.

On the other hand, thoughts like "I've reached a certain point in my career when I should have my articles accepted automatically," or "things I don't know about must not be that important" cross the line into arrogance. It should be easy to distinguish beneficial pride from an ugly sense of entitlement.

With humility, the same distinction applies. Helpful humble thoughts might be: "I would like to do some work in Latin American poetry, but I really have to do a lot of reading first." Or "So and so has a quality in her work that would like to emulate, but I am not at that level yet." Harmful humility takes the form of negative thoughts like "I'll never master this material."

Oddly enough, arrogance sometimes goes together with those destructive negative thoughts. In other words, the same person who might have unhelpful negative thoughts might also have an equally unhelpful cockiness. By the same token, there is no incompatibility between realistic thoughts of pride or confidence and a realistic acknowledgment of one's weaknesses.

The key is being grounded in reality, testing your beliefs about your ability by what you actually are able to accomplish. Entitlement and self-abasement are equally unattractive qualities, leading to the syndrome Fish examines in many of his essays.

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