Talent is God-given, be humble. Fame is man-given, be thankful. Conceit is self-given, be careful.
This saying is often attributed to the famous college basketball coach John Wooden. I love the quote. But I have a different way of talking about conceit in my speeches. If you think you’re indispensable, I tell my audiences, stick your finger in a bowl of water and watch the hole it leaves when you pull it out.
Throughout my career, I have observed what happens when heads swell and egos exceed capacity. The “me-first” attitude is met with “not-you-again” resistance, and suddenly you stop being effective. Ego stops you from getting things done and getting people to work with you. That's why I firmly believe that ego and success are not compatible.
There are plenty of examples of what I mean. Sara Blakely of Spanx cold-called retailers to pitch her then-unheard-of shaping panty hose. Shouldn't a CEO be too proud to do that? She wasn't—and now she's reportedly worth a billion dollars. Gary Vaynerchuk answered every email from customers of the Wine Library. "Do you know how much fun it is to answer the 68,000th email asking me what wine goes with fish?" he told Inc. "It ... [the rest is unprintable, but you get the idea, and you can watch Vaynerchuk here, if you must.]" But Vaynerchuk understood that his customers were the ones who would make his succeed or fail, not him.
There is no shame in taking pride in achievements or position. But nobody gets to the top alone. It’s only lonely at the top if you forget all the people you met along the way and fail to acknowledge their contributions to your success.
Then there’s the story about the self-important chief executive officer who arrived at the hotel ballroom where his company's annual meeting was being held, only to be stopped at the door by a burly uniformed guard.
"Just wait here," said the guard, "until I check the list."
"But," sputtered the CEO, "don't you know who I am?"
"No, sir," said the guard, "but I will go and find out and let you know." I can tell you right now who the fellow is – a person whose universe is very small, because it has no room for others.
“A person completely wrapped up in himself makes a small package,” wrote Harry Emerson Fosdick, an American clergyman. “The great day comes when a man begins to get himself off his hands. He has lived, let us say, in a mind like a room surrounded by mirrors.
“Every way he turned he saw himself. Now, however, some of the mirrors change to windows. He can see through them to objective outlooks that challenge his interests. He begins to get out of himself – no longer the prisoner of self-reflections but a free man in a world where persons, causes, truths, and values exist, worthful for their own sakes. Thus to pass from a mirror-mind to a mind with windows is an essential element in the development of a real personality. Without that experience no one ever achieves a meaningful life.”
Think of it this way: When business is good, who gets the credit? When the chips are down, whom do you blame? Start by looking in Fosdick’s mirror! If you see only yourself, keep looking. Look closely, and see if you don’t recognize people who shaped you as a young child, throughout your education, and at every step in your career. The list of people I see in Fosdick's mirror is very long. I am fortunate that these people cared enough to provide me with a reality check when they saw me getting a little too big for my britches.
Mackay’s Moral: Conceit is a strange disease. It makes everyone sick except the person who’s got it.