Smug and Satisfied

[This is Travis Dotson’s “Ground Truths” column that appeared in the 2020 Fall Issue of Two More Chains.]

By Travis Dotson

Smug (adjective): Having or showing an excessive pride in oneself or one’s achievements.

What does this brief descriptor make you think of? The politician you despise? The neighbor’s dog after a visit to your lawn? Your last hunting photo?

Pride is good. We all need to be proud of the work we do and most of us should be proud of the work we do. (A handful of us need to strive for work worthy of pride, but I don’t think those folks are reading this.) Pride is not bad—excessive pride is.

Hmmm, where is that sneaky line demarcating “excessive”? Maybe it’s one of those “you know it when you see it” type deals. The problem is you are not likely to see it in yourself. Others will notice long before you do. Do you have the capacity to pick up on the clues indicating you have crossed the invisible line? Check yourself against the ideal.

What is the “ideal”?

Quiet professional” is a term that gets used in our business. I have literally heard people loudly proclaim to be a “quiet professional”. That is funny. And sad.

I think a true quiet professional is bad ass. Maybe someday I’ll shut up and be good at something. (#goals)

So, can one operate as a quiet professional AND be smug? Well, part of what makes a true quiet professional is humility. Humility and excessive pride cannot occupy the same space. Hence, the answer is NO, one cannot be smug and bad ass. On the “Are You a Quiet Professional?” quiz (which exists only in your heart) smugness is an auto-fail.

It’s in our doctrine:

“Be Humble – Always allow for the possibility of improvement.”Learning in The Wildland Fire Service.

Moving on to our next word.

Satisfied (adjective): Contented; pleased.

What does this word conjure up for you? The aftermath of a breakfast MRE? Your last performance eval? How you feel about your current level of physical fitness or the state of the Union? Likely not.

As a descriptor of us fire junkies, the word “satisfied” is missing an “un” (just like the word “couth”). We want more. More resources, more support, more influence. More challenges, more insight, more growth. More, more, more. Like most things, more is good . . . in moderation. In this context, as it relates to individual and collective performance, satisfied is not an attitude we embrace.

And here we are, the point where I make my point.

Don’t be smug. Don’t be satisfied.

Be grateful. Be humble. Get better.

We are not “a special breed” or uniquely tough or deserving of anything extra—especially not a cape. Falling down the hero hole will halt your growth. We are humans doing hard things together. Together is where the power comes from—mission first.

Just as we must be vigilant at the individual level, we must also be weary of the smug and satisfied trap at the organizational level. Some of us feign individual humility while flaunting shameless bravado in our group identity. Organizational contentment and excessive pride can just as easily poison a team of any size at any level. Do not contribute to this.

I say all of this standing in the rubble of 2020. We have done hard things together. We should be proud—but not smug or satisfied. As we reflect on this past year, we must accept that the next roll is right around the corner. Let’s orient ourselves for growth.

 “To look backward for a while is to refresh the eye, to restore it, and to render it more fit for its prime function of looking forward.” – Margaret Fairless Barber

Eyes Forward, Toolswingers.

One thought on “Smug and Satisfied

  1. “Quiet professional” is a term that gets used in our business. I have literally heard people loudly proclaim to be a “quiet professional”. That is funny. And sad.

    I agree. The wildland fire world apparently thinks they are this. Some places where I have worked, in both HS and helitack world, some of this was evident

    Many of us out here were former military members , AD, Reserve, and Guard. Many of us spent many a night just like wildland firefighters and we subject to many “camp rules” faaaaar more extreme to let them selves be called “quiet professionals.” Many of us had many or more flights in helicopters and servicing helicopters to make sure troops and folks like firefighters get to their locations. The aircraft and helo pilots were often accused of their “attitudes” and were often chastised for their egos, in the past and many of that has been addressed in the very Agencies that espouse their egos in the fire world

    A few years in the BLM desert taught me that some Federal and State employees did not values true expeditionary travels of others and if you didn’t come from some ranch or “knew someone” to be in fire, you were not.

    The true “quiet professionals” are the ones that will cast aside where one is from and truly accept the outsider and their beliefs in teamwork and self work

    I know some helo operators (aircraft mechanics) that were form the 160 Nightstalker world and accepted my own brand of wildland fire and working knowledge and THAT young man went to work for HTS, Erickson, Croman , etc. bravado all his own but was accepting of all the BS Fire Bravado

    He entered that part of the fire world and I can almost bet he was nearly chuckling at the “strack’ Hotshot bravado of teamwork, calf high White Boots without caulks for logging, and maybe, some of the egos.

    Let’s leave the “Quiet Professional” title to those who truly deserve it and let the wildland fire world design their own

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