Flush With Pride

When I was in the third grade, I entered the school science fair with a project entitled, “How Steam Engines Work.” I built a trifold display with found plywood and cabinet hinges, affixed several carefully drawn schematics to the display, and — my pièce de résistance — fashioned an aluminum foil turbine that sat atop a tea kettle and hot plate and turned when steam escaped from the kettle spout and pushed up on the crumpled aluminum.

It was a fantastic looking display that should’ve made any third-grader proud.

Except me. While my project looked great as a display, it couldn’t function because I’d neglected to bring an extension cord for the hot plate. It was a profound lesson in the importance of marshaling the right tools for a job.

I’m sure teachers said at least a few nice things about my project — “you should be proud!” — but I couldn’t hear any of it. All I heard was callous jeering from the all-too-far power outlet.

I kicked myself the entire way home, award-less and pride-less.

Sure, there is a dark kind of pride: the kind that has given rise to countless cautionary memes and aphorisms dating back to Aquinas. Destructive pride that crushes empires, strung-out celebrities, and botched criminal enterprises. The selfish pinky-ringed-Gordon-Gecko sort that hordes credit for outrageous accomplishments like the invention of oxygen.

But it needn’t always be so. As a parent, I beam with pride over the most quotidian accomplishments of my kids. In a professional context, I’ve enjoyed the proud camaraderie that forms over hard-fought victories. And, loathe as I am to admit, I myself have felt the seductive charm of pride over my own nominal accomplishments, especially when I remember to bring an extension cord.

Lately, I spend considerable time thinking about how to instill in my two sons a sense of pride and confidence without unleashing two more rapacious heathens into this world. And as it goes with most parenting insecurities, the problem starts with the parent’s own limitations: just as I never learned to throw a curveball, it’s tough for me to teach the skill.

For my part, I’ve always had an uncomfortable relationship with pride. Maybe it’s the catholic upbringing, or an undeveloped sense of gratitude, or the ossified chip on my shoulder — I feel wildly uncomfortable expressing pride in my work and accomplishments. Instead, I cringe over mistakes, missteps, and misunderstandings. I dismiss kudos as superficial politeness, even from my own family; you better believe I will not hesitate to call my own mom’s baby ugly.

To be clear, I’m not proud of my inability to express pride. I think there should be plenty of room for the healthy sort of pride before ever veering into the ecclesiastically sinister variety. And I think it’s especially important for women and people of color to feel and express pride over their own accomplishments so that we remind one another that it’s entirely possible to strive and succeed.

And it’s now important for me as a father to model an appropriate degree of confidence and pride in well-earned accomplishments. So I’ve made a pact to assess myself a little more honestly, both good and bad. After all, there’s still plenty I manage to screw up, and the universe has its own way of tempering one’s ego with hilariously new causes for humility.

I recently shared this post with my LinkedIn network because, yeah, I’m proud:

My wife showed our two boys while we drove to get dinner. The seven-year-old asked his typically rational questions: “what’s a board and what’s a director?” My wife made a valiant attempt to explain corporate governance to a first grader. “This is now one of the things papa will be doing for work cause he has some valuable experience to share.”

At which point the four year old contributed his own incisive observation.

“And papa can fix toilets…cause he has the right tools.”

I don’t know what made me prouder: that it’s finally true or that he noticed.