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Page last updated at 16:20 GMT, Friday, 16 May 2008 17:20 UK

No, I'm the greatest

Muhammad Ali

By Lucy Kellaway

Boasting used to be a very un-British trait - but in a world of work where it's hard to measure one employee against another, it's increasingly important, says Lucy Kellaway.

I've got an IQ of 170, so I might have to bite my tongue not to over-awe people with my intelligence.

Actually I don't have an IQ of 170, I am just repeating the words of Simon Smith, a man who puts up satellite dishes for a living and is one of the contestants who has recently been fired from the television show The Apprentice. Whatever his true talents might be, he undoubtedly proved a genius at one thing - at boasting. The other candidates in this strangely addictive reality show are all champion boasters too.

The Apprentices: Variously giving between 100% and 150%
Every gap in the conversation is filled by one or other of them slipping in a great, fat boast. What is striking about this is not that the boasting is particularly extreme, but that it's becoming perfectly normal. Britain is no longer a nation of shopkeepers selling cornflakes and chocolate digestives. Instead, we're a nation of individualists selling ourselves.

When I was a child, we were taught never to boast. For a start it was bad manners. If you went around saying I got 97% in my algebra test, you made the dunderhead who only got 23% feel even more wretched than he was feeling already. To boast was to let your achievements get out of proportion, and it clashed with that very English idea that everything had to be effortless. Trying was fine - so long as no one caught you at it.

I remember a family friend who used to visit our house. My parents would tell us how clever he was and marvel at the way he wore his intelligence so lightly. The great thing about him wasn't that he was brilliant, but that he hid it so well that no one would have ever suspected that there was anything special about him at all.

I didn't question this attitude until I went to university and took up with an American boyfriend. He looked a bit like Oscar Wilde - which pleased me. Yet what pleased me less was the way he used to tell me that his doctorate thesis on the economy of communist China was an important piece of work. It wasn't that I doubted that it was good. I was just mortified that he felt the need to tell me. Looking back I suspect he wasn't a particularly boastful person. He was just American, and so his mother had never told him that he must hide his light under a bushel at all times.

Cripes, I'm good

A quarter of a century later, I wouldn't have batted an eyelid. We are all boasters now. Even Boris Johnson has made the transition. His victory as Mayor of London surprised lots of people who thought he wouldn't be able to make the leap from clown to statesman. But it surprised me for another reason: that he made the bigger leap from duffer to boaster. Old Boris was the epitome of English self-deprecation. He delighted in telling stories like how he bust his flies on stage at school and had them publicly repaired by the headmaster's wife. Cripes, aren't I a shambolic twit, was the message. New Boris has a different message: cripes, I am the greatest, I can deliver, I am your man.

Lucy Kellaway
The self-esteem movement has a lot to answer for by dictating that unless we learn to love ourselves we won't be able to love others - where is the proof

The need to boast is part of the human condition, or in my view part of the male one at least. It has proved jolly useful over the past few thousand years in seeing off one's rivals in power and in love. The heroes of early literature did so much boasting that they make the candidates on the Apprentice look modest. Homer had Zeus bragging that he was so strong he could pull up all the other gods, sun and moon, earth and sea, from a golden chain fastened to the sky.

A thousand years later a little more humility had set in. Beowolf, though a champion boaster of his time, was less extravagant than Zeus. He contented himself with saying he had the strength of 30 men and could swim against sea monsters and kill nine of them with his sword, without breaking his stroke. It was only once polite society was invented that boasting went out of fashion. The upper orders were born into money and success and so had no use for it. And the lower orders, by needing to boast, were simply displaying their inferior roots. Christianity gave boasting the thumbs down too. Humility - one of the seven virtues - rules out bragging about how many sea monsters you have slain or discussing the vastness of your IQ on national TV.

But now boasting is back with a vengeance and is seen as cool. Pop songs used to be about love of other people, but now they are about love of self: The rapper R Kelly sings "I'm the world's greatest", and Christina Aguilera responds with "I am beautiful, in every single way…"

Bigging up

The self-esteem movement has a lot to answer for by dictating that unless we learn to love ourselves we won't be able to love others, which strikes me as an extraordinary hypothesis. Where is the proof?

Boris Johnson
Big-me-up Boris comes out of the shadows
There is, however, a sounder reason for the rehabilitation of boasting. Most of us now work in jobs where the quality of our work is hard to measure and often pretty subjective. If we don't tout our own wares on a fairly regular basis we will be overlooked altogether. Until a couple of decades ago, what used to count were hard graft and seniority. You stepped on to the conveyor belt at the start of your working life, kept your head down and waited for the promotion which would surely come. Only now it doesn't, necessarily. What gets us noticed now is sharp elbows not elbow grease.

Exactly 10 years ago the management guru Tom Peters came up with the idea that each of us is CEO of Me Inc, and that we each have a personal brand to build up and promote. At the time I thought this one of the creepiest ideas I had ever heard. But now, grudgingly, I see he's right. Working life is more competitive, more uncertain and more unpredictable than it used to be. Many people are self-employed or job hopping and even those who stick with the same employer still have to promote themselves endlessly to stand out from the rest.

I'm always amazed at the number of perfectly nice people who send me e-mails telling me how great their new book is, or who forward me messages written by someone else that praise them to the skies. But now, that's not "boasting" or "bragging". Instead a new phrase has been invented: "to big yourself up", which is deemed to be an acceptable, even an admirable thing to do.

Pointless boasting

In some ways, though, I prefer the new brashness. Bigging yourself up leaves little room for false modesty - which is far more tiresome than boasting. The self-deprecating Old Boris never really thought he was a hopeless duffer, and so New Boris is to be preferred for being straighter.

Child reading
'No darling, we'll start Das Kapital tomorrow'
In this brave new bigged-up world, women are struggling a little. A recent piece of research from London Business School shows that by far the biggest difference between men and women at work is their attitude to boasting. If you ask a successful woman why she's good she will mention luck; a man in the same position will blow his own trumpet. This is becoming one of the largest obstacles to the advancement of women in the corporate world. If they could big themselves up a little more, they would do a bit better.

Despite its newfound advantages, boasting still has one major drawback that hasn't really changed since Zeus's time. Boasters are dull company. This seems to be Jane Austen's main objection to them: indeed, her champion boasters are all crashing bores.

In particular Mrs Bennett's boasting in Pride and Prejudice is dismal because it is not about her, but about her children. It is so tempting for parents to go on about how clever and charming and sporty their children are: it doesn't even feel like boasting. But actually it strikes me as boasting of the worst sort, as it serves no useful purpose.

I have an otherwise amusing colleague who likes to tell people how his eight-year-old completes the Guardian crossword and that his 11-year-old is much enjoying Evelyn Waugh's Scoop. He has no idea quite how tedious he sounds.

But no doubt boasting is here to stay and in schools, it's now taught to boys and girls alike. My daughter came home the other day with a form she had to fill in to get a position on the sixth form charity committee. The form invited her to come up with three adjectives that described her and would prove her leadership skills were superior to those of her classmates. Christian humility, evidently, was not what was called for.

I hope school will teach my children to be good boasters - who can boast wholeheartedly when they need to, but otherwise shut up. They should be told to limit their boasting to occasions when they are trying to get onto a committee, get a job or become mayor of London. On these occasions caution must be thrown to the wind and the most extravagant claims made. The rule of thumb is to think of something that describes you at your very best, and then jack it up by at least half.

The Apprentice shows us how to do it. One of the candidates claims he "gives 100%". This is as much as the laws of mathematics permit and more than the law of human nature does. Yet as others claim to be giving 150%, this means that the man who stuck to the limits of what is humanly possible ends up looking like a slacker.

Below is a selection of your comments.

I clearly remember my abysmal chemistry teacher, Mr Barton, reading out test results. Amazingly, I had come top of the class and although chuffed to bits, I tried to stay as composed as possible so as not to appear big-headed. Mr Bartons' response, to my eternal embarrassment, was to announce to the class that clearly I must be very full of myself if I reacted with such nonchalance to such a high mark. I'm not sure if this shows what a warped attitude we have to success, or what a really bad teacher Mr Barton was.
Sue, London

"I have an otherwise amusing colleague who likes to tell people how his eight-year-old completes the Guardian crossword and that his 11-year-old is much enjoying Evelyn Waugh's Scoop. He has no idea quite how tedious he sounds." Well, presumably, he does now!
Benjamin Radowski, Salt Lake City, US

"The self-esteem movement has a lot to answer for by dictating that unless we learn to love ourselves we won't be able to love others - where is the proof " Good grief it is everywhere. If you do not love yourself, you look to prop up yourself with the admiration of your friends/colleagues/partner and this becomes a dependent situation as you regard these people increasingly like some sort of essential narcotic. Have you never heard people say: "I need you" or "you complete me" or worse still "I can't live without you". Don't cite the self-esteem movement unless you're prepared to cite Mills & Boon in the same breath. That kind of dependency is evident in every place I ever worked, though I'll be honest, I see it more in women than in men. Rather than develop their own self-esteem (which is hard work, especially if you have no female example of it) a lot of women need to be in relationships. Yes this affects people professionally, I think men deal with it differently to women - much of what people perceive as male self-esteem is just a front, a facade that hides the insecurity.
Jessica, London, UK

Easy to give 150%.
Start off by giving 30% of an effort.
Add 20% for daydreaming.
Chop up 20% of bad maths skills.
Grind in 30% of insecurity.
Top it up with 40% bravado.
Simmer, and voila (simmering always adds 10%).
Ben, Aberdeen

I'm getting really fed up of the "he who shouts loudest wins" attitude in this country. Why should some foul-mouthed complainer get a better deal than me simply because he can shout louder and be more obnoxious to the sales person? I don't mind people asking questions of authority, that's clearly a good thing, and shows some intelligence. What really bugs me is the complete lack of humility that a lot of people show in our society.
Dave, Loggerheads, UK

The hardest part of any job interview is present yourself as someone with confidence who achieves without coming across as an arrogant know-all. The simplest way to achieve that is to acknowledge that you understand what your saying sounds arrogant but you don't mean to be.
TS, Bromley, England

People are never totally honest using the percentage example; "I usually give 80% at the start of a shift but this can drop as low as 65% just before lunch." The scary thing about this example for me is that in a professional capacity I meet few people who could keep up that level of effort and fewer people still who would look at the above and not think the person in question a slacker. Give 100%? Did you say anything during your time that wasn't work related and relevant? Catch yourself wistfully thinking of a coffee? Even the computer you work on rarely gives 100% (its got an idle process and everything). If even the machines aren't giving 100%, why should the people?
Michael, Preston

I find my distaste for boasting a hindrance, but I would never want to become one of those people that tells you how great they are. It just sets you up for a fall. I know my band is excellent, but I refuse to say that to people when telling them about it, if only to stop them saying "this is rubbish" upon first hearing. I much prefer people to be pleasantly surprised. But there's no room in the music business for modesty unfortunately, and this is increasingly true of society as a whole. It's just another symptom of Thatcher's Britain and our continued acceptance of American "culture". Personally, I refuse to play along.
Doug Daniel, Glasgow, Scotland

Bigging yourself up is so alien to me that I have to make a conscious effort to promote myself, even in job interviews. I'm going to one tomorrow, and when I hear myself boasting of what I've done, I'm cringing inside at the distastefulness of it. Trying not to be self-deprecating is like trying not to breathe. Am I normal, or an extreme case of British reserve?
Anon, London>

Excuse me for picking up on a small part of a large article, but has the author actually listened to the songs she is quoting? Ms. Aguilera's song is not boastful, rather about someone trying to assure herself in the midst of criticism.
Ian Harkess, Bristol, UK

R Kelly wasn't boasting, he was singing about Mohamed Ali. The difference with Ali was he thought he was the world's best, went on about being the worlds best... and he actually was. Everybody else thought it as well - he went out and proved himself.
Tom Cartwright, Portsmouth

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