Hubris: A Dangerous Overconfidence

tempImageForSaveWe’ve all experienced two seasons in our careers.

The first, where we’re nailing everything, our judgment is good, our decisions sound, diagnoses accurate, leadership on point.

The second, where you feel doubtful, unsure of your abilities, scared of making mistakes, feeling like you’d rather sink into the background.

Typically, there is a bridge that gets us from the first to the second, one we don’t really talk about, and in many cases even glorify in the fire service.


In ancient Greek context, it literally means “challenging the Gods”.  It is associated with foolish pride and dangerous overconfidence.

In a career that requires you to be confident in your ability to solve complex, dynamic problems with little discretionary time, interpreting massive amounts of information and making critical decisions in real time, hubris is an occupational hazard.

We’ve all been there.  We’ll all be there again.  The tightrope between confidence and arrogance is a difficult one to balance, but we all know what happens when you overstep.  The Greeks called it Nemesis, the downfall of hubristic individuals.  They even assigned a specific Goddess whose only job was enacting this retribution, so important did they find this concept.

Confidence is knowing that you’re good.  Cockiness is thinking that you’re better.

My experience:  there are typically indicators when you’re displaying hubris, and, if you pay attention, you can avert your inevitable ego check and fall from glory.

Are you listening to the ideas and opinions of others, or do you already have the answers?  Are you sure, right off the bat, that you know what type of fire this is, what’s going on with this patient?  Have you lost your ability to be skeptical and critically evaluate without assuming?

Fear not.  If you miss the warning signs, you’ll get smacked in the face, full force, with something you can’t ignore.  A mistake.

Sometimes, it’s what I call a freebie.  A screw-up on my part that doesn’t hurt anybody or cost anything.  Sometimes, we’re not so lucky.

When you get a freebie, take it and run with it.  Own your mistake, no excuses.  Just because the fire went out or the patient didn’t die doesn’t mean you did a good job.  Having a free opportunity to check your hubris is incomparably valuable, get as much learning out of it as you can.  In our industry, it can save a life or a career.

On that note, don’t let others off the hook when they make a cocky mistake, either.

Don’t ever tell people not to feel bad when they screw up.

You’re supposed to feel bad for sloppy work, so you don’t make a habit out of it.

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