Friendship is an interesting concept. Sometimes when we meet someone new, something tells us, ‘I like this human. We’re going to do things together.’ And so we do.
True friends are our confidants and our barometers. They are our mirrors, the people we bounce our thoughts and ideas off. And while advice from mere acquaintances can be taken with a pinch of salt, real friends who know us well are able to tell us the things we need to hear, even if – perhaps especially if – we don’t want to hear them.
So when some friends I’ve known since my restaurateur days told me one day that they felt I had become arrogant, I decided it was time for me to do some soul searching.
Once I got over the initial sting of the assessment, I came to realise this was a problem of perspective. Their take on who I had become was, I believe, based on a misunderstanding of the differences between confidence and arrogance, and between lack of respect and irreverence. Ultimately, it was a take that I believe was coloured by the memories of HINDsight and the limitations of PLAINsight.
I’ll be the first to admit that I had been spending less time with this particular group of friends. This wasn’t because my feelings or fondness for them had diminished in any way; I was just working my ass off to make the move from food to futurism. I was travelling almost constantly for work, which meant I couldn’t dedicate the same amount of time to my friends – not that I no longer cared for them or felt I was too important for them.
They, however, were viewing our relationship from a place of memory: they remembered back to what our friendship had been like when we spent loads of time at my restaurants, chilling out and living it up. As things changed and they saw me only through the filter of my new work and my online activity, they mistook my persona – which I have learnt to keep as authentic and vulnerable as possible – as false, because that wasn’t the guy they remembered. Their memories, and what they believed they were seeing, sealed my fate in their eyes.
It’s normal for people to drift apart. We all move and grow at different paces, often into different spaces. But there’s a deeper issue at play here, and it relates to the way we perceive other people.
When we feel that somebody isn’t showing us kindness – or, rather, that they are not meeting our expectations of who they should be and how they should behave – our reaction is to label that person as arrogant, greedy, immature or something similarly undesirable. But is there anything more arrogant than expecting someone’s behaviour to conform to what you dictate in your mind?
Think about modern sprint legend Usain Bolt, a nine-time Olympic gold medallist, multiple world record holder and the fastest man ever to grace the Earth. When he first sprinted into the global consciousness, people were divided about his brash persona and showboating before races. As with boxing great Muhammad Ali a generation before, Bolt displayed great confidence in himself and his abilities, and it seems that this attitude was integral to his success.
There are those who would prefer these sporting giants to downplay their talent, and accuse both of arrogance – yet Bolt is now mentioned in the same breath as Roger Federer as one of the gentlemen of modern sport. To me, that self-assurance and swagger equal confidence, not arrogance. Athletes like Usain Bolt hype themselves up psychologically to tap into the persona they need to succeed – to be the version of themselves that can connect the invisible dots to greatness.
In my opinion, the only real difference between arrogance and confidence is kindness.
When people come across as overly sure of themselves and lacking in kindness, we label them as arrogant. When they’re sure of themselves but they show us kindness, we say they’re confident. The question boils down to: are they being kind and, importantly, are we perceiving that kindness?
Sadly, my friends equated my absence with unkindness, and so they labelled me as arrogant. I’ve spent a lot of time in recent years in introspection, getting to know and making peace with my inner self, and I’m confident (not arrogant!) that I’m kinder now than I was. (I am trying to show this to them.)
I’m grateful to my friends for being honest with me about how they felt, but I know the conclusion they came to was more a reflection of the way they were looking at me and their expectations of me than my actual behaviour. I understand the origin of that feeling – which I’ve experienced myself – and I don’t let that type of name-calling get me down.
PROJECTION AND PERCEPTIONS
Once you understand that the difference between confidence and arrogance is the perception of kindness, you can start to cultivate another quality that I think is often misunderstood: irreverence.
Like arrogance, irreverence can leave a bad taste in people’s mouths in part because of the way it’s defined. Google it and you’ll to find an explanation along the lines of ‘showing a lack of respect for people or things that are generally taken seriously’.
The problem with that definition is how we determine the consensus on respect. I don’t believe we have to treat certain ideas or subjects as serious and sombre just because everyone else does. As far as I’m concerned, that’s a recipe for conformity, which inhibits our curiosity and the opportunity to ask bold questions.
Imagine how awful and boring comedy would be if almost everything was too serious to joke about. Or how inhibited our society would be, as it was in the past, if we didn’t have the space to question authority and perceived wisdom.
Most of us learn respect from the people around us. We acknowledge the values, attitudes and achievements that impress our parents and teachers. We are taught to respect authority and the systems that keep the world working in a certain way. And this is fine – to a degree.
But the lines of respect are blurry, and they shift over time as society evolves. A blind respect for stubborn personal biases and ingrained cultural mores – doing things because they’ve always been done that way – is a respect that hinders progress. It stops us from deconstructing our world to find patterns and potential.
I encourage irreverence, because it forces us to look deeper and ask the questions of both ourselves and our businesses that will help us prepare for the future. Many of the most profound ideas and advances in human history would never have happened if we’d had too much respect for the accepted way of doing things, whether it was the invention of the printing press which gave the plebs access to books (shocker!) or modern tech companies defying the accepted dominance of the automobile and hotel industries and even government agencies. If we’re all too busy trying to fit in, we’ll simply allow opportunities to pass us by.
I hope you’ve had a chance to watch Bohemian Rhapsody, the biopic that’s made fans fall in love with Queen all over again. The film brilliantly captures the approach of the band’s enigmatic front man Freddie Mercury – and that approach is 100% irreverent. To reach the heights he achieved, he had to know exactly who he was, and he wasn’t swayed by what people thought of him. That was his power.
IRREVERENCE IS WHAT HAPPENS WHEN YOU KNOW YOURSELF, WHERE YOU’RE GOING AND HOW YOU’RE GETTING THERE – A STATE THAT BECOMES A SUPERPOWER IN ITSELF.
In such a state, you don’t have the energy to waste engaging in the copy-and-paste opinions of others or tearing people down because of the way you perceive them; you’re too busy becoming the best version of yourself and solving problems along the way. You don’t have time to critique others, so you start to project less and inspire more. That’s when you get to find out what kind of magic (more Queen…) you’re ready to bring into the world.
It’s a step away from the judgment and insecurities that prevent us from learning, because in reality we can learn from anyone and everyone if we choose to. Even the Trumps and Kardashians of the world possess talents and traits we can learn from – but we often miss the opportunity, instead projecting our prejudices onto them.
THE BOTTOM LINE
When we project negative ideas onto people and situations, we lose our power and agency and the chance to learn. We choose to see the worst rather than the best. We become susceptible to the ideas and opinions of others rather than creating our own.
When we project positive ideas, we see the opposite effect. Arrogance becomes confidence. Lack of respect becomes irreverence. We attract insight and opportunity, and ultimately FOREsight.
It’s time to focus on yourself, and to cultivate the qualities you’ll need to forge your future, without worrying about the way everyone perceives you.
John Sanei – Keynote Speaker. Author. Futures Strategist. Human Behaviour Specialist. Faculty Singularity U & Duke CE. Associate Partner at CIFS. Techpreneur. From his 3rd book: FOREsight – The Power of Projection.