know it all

If you read this title and thought, “No; I just always happen to be right,” you need this article.

I used to be one of them. The always-righters. Mostly in grade school. Thankfully I learned in short order that whether you are right or not, nobody cares. Actually, they care to the extent that you keep lording it over them, and if you don’t learn to zip your lip, your know- it-all attitude will garner you a lunch table all to yourself.

But some people never learn this and carry that overconfident swagger right into their marriages, their workplaces, and friendships, if they can find any. They happily correct anyone around them who mispronounces a word, or makes a mistake. They are baffled at how many arguments they have with their spouse. They are even more baffled when they, clearly the smartest person on the staff, get passed up for promotions time and time again.

This needs to stand out, to get full and proper credit, leaves little room for the compassion we ought to feel for others. It’s ugly, it’s arrogant, and it’s unwelcoming. Whenever someone is turned entirely inward, they fall below our radar, and deservedly so. Who wants to spend time with someone who thinks she’s superior?

When little kids are like this, you can chalk it up to immaturity, and teach them how wrong it is to brag or show off. I once told a child it’s wonderful to be gifted, but only if it’s paired with social giftedness, and then explained how vital good manners are to real success.

But what can you do when it’s a grown-up? What can you do if it’s you? And how can you possibly be a good missionary, or a good example of LDS teachings, if you hang onto a trait that goes precisely counter to Christ’s gospel of service and humility?

First, let’s look at what you can do when it’s someone else (always much easier, right?). As most people discover by the time they’re 25 or 30, there’s not much you can do to change another person. But you can watch for moments when they’re magnanimous and make a big deal over it. Show them they’ll get much more admiration for being humble and letting others have some spotlight now and then. If they really are intelligent, they’ll put two and two together. I once pulled a woman aside after a meeting and said, “I noticed you let Megan have the floor on something you probably know all about. That was a classy move. Well done.”

The attention they crave now comes to them for making the wise choice to allow someone else to shine. Their self definition slowly changes to include the traits of compassion and benevolence– attributes new to them, and surprisingly comfortable.

Ironically, as they grow in wisdom, the know-it-alls will discover that nobody really does, least of all them. Einstein compared our knowledge to a circle. Everything inside it is what you know, and everything outside it is what you still don’t know. As you gain information, your circle grows. But–ta-da!-so does its circumference, so now you are aware of an even larger expanse of the unknown.

The more I age, and the more I speak with other people, the more I realize there are trillions of bits of information I will not acquire in this lifetime. In fact, while I feel competent in certain areas, I am more and more convinced that I am terribly lacking in others. Here’s where the gospel guides us to prioritize and to put spiritual growth first, and secular growth second. That vast sea of unknown languages, un-taken college courses, and un-acquired skills are good to tackle as time permits, but not to become an obsession to conquer at the expense of more Godly pursuits. No, I will never read every book in the Library of Congress. No one will. At least not until eternity, and maybe then we’ll have even better works to occupy our suddenly limitless time.  

Okay, what if you’re the guilty know-it-all, and you really want to stop being such an insufferable smarty pants? Here are a few things you can try to reign in your ego and relax:

  1. Pause before speaking. Take and release a big breath. Does this moment really require your expertise and input? Sometimes asking a question does more to help in a meeting or gathering, than barging in with the final answer. Take this habit into Sunday School classes and be the one to ask something, not always to jump in with the answer. After all, that’s what Socrates use to do, and folks say he was a pretty bright guy.
  2. Ask yourself, will your listeners love you for what you’re about to say? I once read that biting one’s tongue is the best marital advice on the planet, and my own marriage improved 100 per cent when I realized I didn’t have to say every thought that popped into my head. If you’re on a tour at the zoo and you know all about hippos, do you really have to answer every question the tour guide asks? Is someone going to greet you at the end of the tour and hand you a report card with a big A-plus on it? Get over yourself and end the verbal blog.
  3. Consider a completely new stance. What will happen if you brag on someone else? I learned this with the Mommy Wars most women experience when their offspring are still in strollers and they encounter other moms who can’t resist bragging about their precocious babies. Instead of jumping into the competition, I agreed with these moms and suddenly they stopped their ad campaign. Why continue to try to impress or convince me when I was clearly in their camp, like a doting aunt who thinks their kids are marvelous? It cost me nothing to be nice, and I gained the feeling of having done a good deed.
  4. Realize that someone else’s win does not automatically mean your loss. We’re far too competitive today-on the soccer field, in school testing, in college admissions. And it has bled over into the way we interact with one another. Everyone else is not your opponent. Build a circle of support, not an island of suspicion.
  5. Learn to apologize. The always-righters would rather stick pins in their eyes, but “I’m sorry” are two words you cannot live happily without. Fess up when you’re wrong and people will admire you more. If someone says, “Well, at least now we know you’re human,” you’ve been faking perfection for far too long.
  6. Discover that when you let someone else shine, or be right, or “win,” it’s not from fear or weakness. It’s a gift given from a position of strength. Remember that petty issues never trump kindness, and make kindness your signature trait. Be known as someone with a caring core, softer edges, a quicker smile.

Maturity is a process; it is not granted upon marriage, motherhood, or reaching a magic number.

  It does not come with showy college degrees, athletic prowess, or finely developed talents. It comes in increments, each time we make a selfless decision. It comes as we take Christ at his word, and determine to love those around us. It distills upon us when we value and respect the freedom of everyone. By letting others have their way, speak their thoughts, and believe what they will, we give a measure of peace back to the world. And we witness a little miracle: peace fills our hearts as well.

Joni Hilton’s latest book, “FUNERAL POTATOES-THE NOVEL” (Covenant Communications) is in LDS bookstores everywhere.

She has written 17 books, three award-winning plays, and is a frequent public speaker and a former TV talk show host. She is also the author of the “As the Ward Turns” series, “The Ten-Cow Wives’ Club,” and “The Power of Prayer.” Hilton is a frequent writer for “Music & The Spoken Word,” many national magazines, and can be reached at her website, She is married to TV personality Bob Hilton, is the mother of four, and currently serves as Relief Society President in her ward in northern California.