The Benefits of Arrogance

Arrogance should not be encouraged, right?

This past Friday I hung out a bit with Chicago Bears defensive end Julius Peppers. For nearly ten years I’ve watched “The Freak of Nature” dunk over people and track down and flatten athletes like Michael Vick. I’ve even played his character in video games. I know of him through his great plays and subsequent bursts of celebration, but I didn’t know him. Over a few meals together I came to see one of the humblest, grounded men I’d ever met. He asked questions, was fascinated by the world outside of football and was even a bit shy. There was a gentleness and gentle quality to him that stood in contrast to the highlight reels, to the braggadocio of which athletes of his caliber are often known.

The following day, while meditating on this, I watched Alastair “Demolition Man” Overeem, one of the greatest heavyweight fighters of the past decade, stand directly in front of a very dangerous opponent. Nearly 600lbs of muscle between both men; punches and kicks blurred with power. Here were two huge athletes who had spent their entire lives crafting their bodies into lethal weapons. At any moment either man could have brought unconsciousness to the other. Yet there was Alastair smirking at Antonio “Bigfoot” Silva, at the silliness of Silva thinking he actually belonged there. Alastair had absolutely no fear that Silva could hurt him. Ultimate Fighting Championship commentator Joe Rogan could have stayed at home and simply used recorded phrases from his prior calls of Alastair’s fights:

“This guy has absolutely no respect for what his opponent can do.”

“He stands right in front of them without the least bit of concern.”

Nearly every match over the course of years saw the same result. One tough fighter doubled-over from a knee to the solar plexus while the other smiled. One champion limp and face-down on the mat while the other awaited the post-fight interview.

Alastair wasn’t just better physically or technically. He had arrogance on his side. He was juiced with it and it allowed him to focus entirely on what he had to do to prove it. There was no wasted concern over his opponent’s highlight-reel knockouts, no energy misdirected by hesitation. When they’re in the zone, most of the world’s greatest athletes have this aura. Maybe all of them do. Actually, it seems anyone “great” in anything has a bit of this trait.

The arrogance put Alastair in the zone and his moves were more fluid because of it. But this Saturday night Alastair got his ego and then his jaw checked. He landed some knockout-worthy shots and yet his opponent was still there. Round 1 passed and then round 2 and this was wholly different from what he was used to. Out the window went his prediction of the fight ending in one of those rounds. His hulking frame began to lumber and in the final round he tasted what he hadn’t even feared to begin with. Silva landed a bomb that wobbled him and then another and then a few more and just like that the “Demolition Man” found himself crumpled like a wounded deer. Demolished.

Common belief is that success begets arrogance, but in many cases arrogance begets success. We’ve seen this with Michael Phelps and Michael Jordan. With Tiger Woods and Lance Armstrong. With Usain Bolt and Floyd Mayweather. With Muhammad Ali and…Donald Trump.

Arrogance has benefits far outside the realm of athletics. While we strive to avoid the “arrogant bastard” at social gatherings or often bad-mouth those whose confidence overflows into arrogance, the truth is that arrogance can have major benefits. Acutely, it can heighten in-the-moment performance and long-term it can lead one to take incredible pride in one’s work – a pride that can mean fire for training and great results. After all, believing that nobody can touch you means you must continually prove it. The authors of How to Be Arrogant consider arrogance a “solution” and among other tips offer this one:

“As you become more arrogant, you will eventually be forcing yourself to live up to your own hype. Think of it as a forced self-improvement program.”

Then there’s the article titled Personality Traits: Why Arrogance, Intolerance and Selfishness Can Be Good in which the author states:

“Even though this may seem contradictory to what you learned in school and throughout life, it’s true. And you don’t have to turn into a prejudiced bigot to reap the benefits of these so-called ‘negative’ personality traits.”

Arrogance washed over me during my own MMA fights, particularly those I won. The fear I felt a few hours before the fight turned into a feeling of absolutely invincibility. So much so that even I – a person with a low tolerance threshold for arrogant people – became the character trait that often annoys me the most. I reflected more on this and found that some of the best coaching and advice I’d ever received, whether it was prior to job interviews or public presentations, was shaped in such a way to allow whatever confidence I had to bubble over the anxiety and the self-doubt and into the pool of arrogance Even humble Buddhist monks I’ve heard speak seemed to have a sliver of arrogance to them. They were so confident in their lesson and so sure of how they were presenting it that the line between confidence and arrogance could not be found and because of this whatever they said was more powerful and certainly more memorable.

Now I’m not saying we should all go about teaching our kids to be arrogant. But it seems arrogant in its own way to completely dismiss arrogance as a tool that can be used in order to spark better performance. The questions worth asking: When to sip? How to use in moderation?

–Photo: cogocogo/Flickr

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About Cameron Conaway

Cameron Conaway is a former MMA fighter, an award-winning poet and the 2014 Emerging Writer-in-Residence at Penn State Altoona. He is the author of Caged: Memoirs of a Cage-Fighting Poet, Bonemeal: Poems, Until You Make the Shore and Malaria, Poems. Conaway is also on the Editorial Board at Slavery Today. Follow him on Google+ and on Twitter: @CameronConaway.

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