‘It Ain’t Braggin’ if You Can Back It Up’

Hubris is deeply embedded in our culture, especially in social media, which 12-time Daytime Emmy Award-attending actress Moira Rose has called an “amusement park for clinical narcissists” and a “cauldron of self-absorption.” We’re inundated with mean bosses: Gordon “Yes, Chef” Ramsey made a TV career out of it. Even lovable talk-show host Ellen DeGeneres—who actually uses “Be Kind” as a marketing brand—is accused of running a toxic work environment.

Big egos are contagious, especially in sports. Barry Bonds, the home-run-record-holding San Francisco Giant, once told sportscaster Chris Myers, “You pay money to go to baseball games. Well, your ticket doesn’t say autographs. Your ticket doesn’t say that we’re role models. Your ticket just says pay to see the show.” Teammate Jeff Kent, who considered himself closest with Mr. Bonds, has said Barry had a “cocky, arrogant attitude.” Mr. Bonds thought a lot of himself, declaring, “I’m not afraid to be lonely at the top.” All this even though he was getting more than a little help from “the cream” and “the clear”—anabolic steroids.

Was that pride? Ego? Hubris? All of the above.

You know the type. At cocktail parties, they talk your ear off about themselves and if you try to interject with something about yourself—“Just got back from Brazil . . .”—they immediately personalize it and tell you about meeting soccer star Neymar’s agent’s sister at a golf outing where they birdied the 14th hole. The only question they ask is, more or less, “Enough about what I think about me, what do you think about me?” This is when I excuse myself and head to the bar.

The world is overfilled with bloviating, egotistical, one-track, braggadocious, arrogant, chest-pumping, self-important, pretentious know-it-alls. Politicians count these traits as features, not bugs. Wall Street is a hotbed of hubris, à la Tom Wolfe’s “Masters of the Universe”: investment bankers, traders (though a lot fewer of them these days) and, when their returns are good, many venture capitalists, private-equity folks and hedge-funders. All invincible, until they aren’t. Ray Dalio’s Bridgewater Associates, which managed $148 billion in assets, saw its flagship fund lose 18.6% through August this year. Now that’s humbling.

But what if you really are the greatest? Cardinals pitching great “Dizzy” Dean once predicted that he and his brother, Paul (nicknamed “Daffy”), would win 45 games and then famously said, “It ain’t braggin’ if you can back it up.” Fair enough—and to his credit, he only said it once. I don’t want to hear the amazing exploits of the hubris-happy again and again and again. Check your insecurity. By the way, Daffy won 19 games, Dizzy 30.

I prefer “modest until provoked.” I once had dinner with Roger Craig of the San Francisco 49ers: four Pro Bowls, three Super Bowl rings. He couldn’t have been nicer and told stories about training camp and Joe Montana throwing his bicycle up a tree. It wasn’t until I brought it up that Mr. Craig talked about his year with over 1,000 yards rushing and 1,000 receiving—and why he’s shamefully still not in the Hall of Fame. He was refreshingly ego- and hubris-free. Almost self-effacing—modest for someone so accomplished.

Back in 2007 Jim Harbaugh had just been hired to coach Stanford football. Our local school district invited him to join a “Monday Night Football” fundraiser with area dads. Being new, he agreed. Then two days prior, Stanford, a 41-point underdog against the University of Southern California, miraculously won 24-23, in what people around here still call the “greatest upset ever.” Mr. Harbaugh was all over ESPN that Monday. And yet he didn’t cancel the fundraiser.

I knew he had played for Michigan and was drafted by the Chicago Bears, but did a little homework and noted that he played briefly with the Indianapolis Colts. That night, I got up the nerve to go talk to Mr. Harbaugh. I noted that he was the last quarterback for the Colts before Peyton Manning. He looked at me funny and then said loud enough for the entire room to hear, “Oh no, you don’t understand: Those people in Indianapolis owe me. I was so bad my final year there, we only won three games and the Colts got the No. 1 draft pick and Manning—because of me!”

Who does that? Is that modesty, reserve, humbleness? All I know is that a little less hubris and a little more humility go a long way.

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