A Hit in the Vanity

“Pride goeth before the fall.”

Over the weekend, I read the first section of Ray Dalio’s original “Principles” document (summarized here and available as a book here), and finally finished C.J. Chivers’s shattering book The Fighters. Dalio talks about being relentlessly honest about weaknesses and finding ways to get around them. In two especially memorable formulations, he says that “Pain + Reflection = Progress” and “problems are opportunities that are screaming at you.” And Chivers, at the end of his book, recounts one wounded Navy corpsman saying to another that each got “hit in [his] vanity:” both suffered grievous injury to parts of their bodies that were previously points of pride.

I’ve had an opportunity screaming at me for a little while now, and I wouldn’t listen until it finally hit me in the vanity. Specifically, in order to make sure I finally took the hint, it made clear to me that I would have to choose between two ideas of professionalism I usually hold equally dearly: competence and mission completion. I like to be good at my job, and I hate to quit. On this one, I needed to finally face up to the idea that I needed to make a careful choice between non-competence and not quitting.

If you’re the star running back, it makes sense to keep saying “give me the ball.” But not if you’re the left tackle. Everyone appreciates what you do, but no one expects you to demand the ball play after play until you turn yourself into a running back. That’s silly, and borderline selfish. But that doesn’t stop most of us from doing it from time to time. And most of the time, we don’t even realize we’re doing it — until we take a hit in the vanity that we can’t ignore.

Pride comes. Man falls. The key, as every guru has known forever, is not the probability of falling but the quality of choosing to get back up.