4 min read

Small fish. Big pond.

Life keeps repeating the same lessons, until the lesson is learned.
Small fish. Big pond.
Life keeps repeating the same lessons, until the lesson is learned.

Show Notes

Cognitive dissonance is what happens when your beliefs are challenged by reality. psychologists believe that cognitive dissonance becomes especially acute when beliefs about the self are challenged. When that happens, you encounter intense feelings of discomfort that can play out in disastrous ways. More on that later. In the world of tech, a very common example of cognitive dissonance is what I call big fish, small pond dissonance. This happens when you're the best at something, but only within a given company or team. For instance, you could easily be the best developer at your company. But what happens if you go to work at Fermilab? Do you know how to model a particle accelerator? Where do you even begin?

Now, let's flip the scenario. Imagine that a new person joins your team, and this new person is much better than you at your job. Now, we're not talking about Rain Man here, we're just talking about a person with the same job title, who happens to be much better than you. You thought you were the man, but it turns out you're not. How do you deal with that? Well, there are basically two wrong ways and one right way to deal with cognitive dissonance.

Let's talk about the wrong ways, and then I'll get to the right way. Probably the worst way to deal with cognitive dissonance is to seek comfort in an illusion. Rather than confront the reality that you're not the best developer or designer or QA or whatever. You create a fantasy world where your rival is incompetent. In this fantasy world, you can't acknowledge the superiority of your rival, because that would force you to confront your own inadequacies. This tension plays itself out in toxic ways. In extreme cases, it can turn into rivalries and conflicts. Now in the jungle, this type of dominance/submission ritual would end with you ripping out your rival's throat, or vice versa. But the corporate world insists on a veneer of civility. Alas, you can't just go around ripping out people's throats. So instead, you must protect your fragile psyche by being a dick, or a bully, or both. This coping mechanism is particularly toxic because it prevents your rival from becoming a full contributor to the team, and it deprives you of an opportunity to learn. Pretty lame.

Now there is another more subtle way of coping with cognitive dissonance. Instead of spinning up a self-flattering illusion, you can minimize the importance of whatever it is that is challenging your belief. There are countless ways to do this. Imagine that your rival is more knowledgeable about a given piece of tech. Well then just tell yourself that that tech isn't strategic or important. Imagine that your rival writes higher-quality code faster than you can. No matter. Your rival may be better than you as a coder. But right now, the company needs leaders, not coders. And before you know it, you're a manager. Safely ensconced in a new role, you never have to confront your inadequacies in the old role. Well, life keeps repeating the same lesson until it is learned.

In my case, the lesson I needed to learn was humility. It turns out humility is the antidote to cognitive dissonance. Without humility, you cannot change your beliefs to match the facts and that means you will forever do stupid things to protect your ego. You won't even know that the thing you're doing is stupid. Remember, you're living in a fantasy world where any threat to your ego is negated by the illusion. Now, it may seem like I'm speaking from personal experience, and I'm not proud of it, but I can admit it.

For the first third of my career, I treated professional life as a battle royale. I lacked the ego strength to recognize or even admit my own inadequacies. So professional life turned into an excruciating psychodrama, and I turned into someone I didn't like very much. There is no self-loathing like looking in the mirror and realizing that you're turning into a dick. Anyway, I had to do a lot of tedious self-work before I could deal with my cognitive dissonance in a productive way. And when I say a lot, I mean years, of two steps forward and one step back. Someday I'll write a book about it. But for now, I just want to leave you with a few thoughts about humility.

Humility isn't thinking you're inferior to other people. That's false humility. False humility is how losers let themselves off the hook for not trying. That probably sounds harsh. It is harsh, but that's the red pill baby. If you don't like it, there's always gonna be a blooper waiting for you. True humility is when you could rest on your laurels, but instead, you try to get better. It's why Kobe hired a shooting coach. Does anybody really think Kobe Bryant needs to work on his shooting? Well, Kobe thinks he does, and that's why he's world-class. True humility is why Warren Buffett reads 50 books a year. True humility is why Martin Fowler learns a new programming language every year. These people aren't humble in spite of everything they've accomplished. They accomplish great things because they are humble. The fact is you cannot be world-class without true humility. You just can't. So what about you? Are you ready to be world-class? That's great. When the student is ready, the master appears.

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