I once interviewed a man who’d climbed Mount Everest. It was my first major interview at my first job out of college. The article was scheduled to appear in the lifestyle section of the city’s newspaper—a local-guy-does-good story.
He was soft-spoken and congenial with a smattering of gray in his blond hair. He wore an argyle sweater vest. He held a 9-5 job to support his school-age kids. He was genuinely surprised that I was there to write a piece about him. He didn’t seem the kind of rugged thrill-seeker interested in risking his life. When we sat down on his porch, I got out my new reporter’s notebook and flipped open the cover to the first page. I had not written a single question or note in advance. The arrogance of that moment still astounds me.
I thought that by speaking off the cuff in a conversational tone, I would get more “authentic” answers. So instead of asking this modern-day Magellan thoughtful questions, I asked him how cold it was (-2° F) and if he got altitude sickness (yes). Even worse: this interview took place just after the 1996 Everest blizzard that killed fifteen climbers. Did he know any of these mountaineers? How did he feel about his accomplishment in light of this tragedy? I’ll never know. And even worse: at that time, only about 1,200 people in the world had reached the summit since Edmund Hillary was the first in 1953. I was sitting across from a man who had done something less than .0000002 percent of the population had done.
Steve Almond called this a “problem of entitlement” in a recent article in Poets & Writers magazine. “I mean by this that a significant number of the students I’ve encountered in creative writing programs display a curious arrogance toward published authors, as well as an inflated sense of their own talents and importance.” Did I feel entitled? Probably. It’s a tempting thought when you’re twenty-four and it seems you have the world on a string. I’d bet this applies to many recent graduates regardless of degree.
Entitlement isn’t all bad. Entitlement is what drives change. It is what makes the Rachel Carsons and Elizabeth Cady Stantons and Cesar Chavezes and Martin Luther Kings say, “Enough.” But taken too far, entitlement gets us into trouble. It fools us into believing that someone owes us something because we’re “special.”
Almond believes there’s something else behind the entitlement. People who feel out of their element and overmatched assume a “posture of superiority.” In other words, it’s a defense mechanism. Hindsight being 20/20, I was a bundle of nerves hiding behind a press credential. If I botched the interview, I might never get another chance to write for this newspaper. Then everyone would know that I had no idea what I was doing. Going into the interview so unprepared was an act of self-sabotage.
Entitlement can be a life preserver or an anvil. Many of us have been left holding the anvil thanks to the Internet, which “has allowed us to trumpet our own opinions, to win attention by broadcasting our laziest and cruelest judgments, to grind axes in pubic. It has made us feel, in some perverse sense, that we are entitled to do so.” And the most insidious thing about the anvil kind of entitlement is that it erodes respect. Every time someone posts a snarky review about a writer being overrated or takes pot-shots at someone on Twitter or Facebook, respect and empathy go out the window.
Hiding behind entitlement is disrespectful to all involved. In the end, the gentle mountaineer patiently explained the ins and outs of climbing Mount Everest, answering questions I never thought to ask. Luckily, I recognized it for the life preserver it was.
Have you been on the receiving end of “anvil entitlement?”
Have a great weekend, everyone!