Initiative V. Entitlement

One of my favorite and least favorite parts of life is getting humbled.

Many years ago, in my twenties, I got a job working at a mental health clinic that specialized in adolescents and their families. I was the youngest and least experienced person on the staff and not yet licensed. The scope of my job involved a limited number of office hours where I would work with families referred to me by the clinical director. That was great as far as it went, but I saw endless opportunities to do more to help kids and make the agency a better place. My boss was relatively passive, and so when I asked for permission to try out some ideas he consented. It never occurred to me to think about how other stakeholders might be invested in the status quo.

Even though it was not part of my job description, I decided to completely redo our internship program and then go out to graduate schools and recruit the best and brightest. Even though it was not part of my job description, I went out to the local high schools and identified highly motivated teachers who were natural counselors and worked with them to identify at-risk kids for early referral. At staff meetings I demanded (respectfully, I thought) a much more intellectually rigorous debate over our policies.

From my perspective, my actions followed the mission statement of the agency and were highly successful. We got amazing interns that everyone loved. The teachers at the high schools sent us great referrals and spoke us up in the community. As an individual contributor, the metrics on my cases were as strong as anyone on the senior staff. Arguably, I was off the charts arrogant, but I saw myself as a person of initiative and integrity working in the collective best interest of the agency and the community. Then a recession came along and as a junior staff person, I was let go. That’s how things work in the public sector.

Sometime in my thirties, I got together with some staffers from the clinic for a little reunion dinner. We were having a good time visiting and reminiscing when one of my old colleagues mused how amazing it was that everyone had thought Jonathan was such an ****!

“Why was that?” I asked

“Come on, Jonathan, you know perfectly well what that was all about,” was the collective response. There was a lot of laughter. Surely, I must have only been pretending that I didn’t know.

“No really. I don’t get it. I worked hard and I accomplished a lot and was supportive of everyone else’s work,” I protested.

They were all so skeptical. How could I not get something that was so obvious to everyone else? Finally someone spoke up: “It was because of your ridiculous sense of entitlement. You thought you could do anything you wanted and it didn’t matter what other people thought.”

I had a breathtaking moment of clarity. I’d always taken pride and comfort in my sense of initiative and been puzzled why I got so much grief and resistance in places where I’d worked. Suddenly, after this was pointed out to me at the dinner, it was obvious. How had I been so blind? How could I not tell the difference between entitlement and initiative? I thought it was a virtue that I didn’t let other peoples opinions get in the way of my convictions.

Carl Jung, the psychoanalyst, had a great way of describing our blind spots. He described his concept of the shadow as “The side of our personality which we do not consciously display in public. If it remains unconscious, the shadow is often projected onto other individuals or groups.” At the clinic, I didn’t think that I had a ridiculous sense of entitlement. I thought the senior staff were the entitled ones. I thought as a new and inexperienced member of the team it was my job to disrupt rather than perpetuate old ideas and customs.

Now I’ve had my share of devastating moments of humility, and this wasn’t one of them. But I bring it up because today I’m more interested in the small humblings that come with some frequency because those are the ones we can use to course correct and make ourselves better people and professionals.

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