I often write about emotions. In fact, at the heart of my work and this blog, is the effort to illuminate emotional life and provide a space for conversation about feelings. While many articles focus on specific emotions like, anger, envy, jealously and resentment – and fear, especially fear – it’s as important to round out the range of human emotions by looking at feelings like wonder, awe and joy. In this post, we explore the often ignored, but powerful, feelings of humility.
In a competitive “Look at ME,” “What’s in it for ME” world where self-branding skills are sought and prized, the word humility isn’t commonly googled.
The term “humility” comes from the Latin word humilitas, a noun related to the adjective humilis, which can be translated as “humble,” but also as “grounded,” “from the earth,” or “low.” Because of the root derivation of the word, humility has often been considered submissive and meek.
In every religious tradition, Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, Taoism and Hindu humility is among the highest virtues. In the Book of Proverbs, “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.” (Proverbs 3:34)
In Buddhism, humility is a path for release from the sufferings of the mind. According to the Mahayana teachings of Buddhism, the teaching of shunyata (Emptiness) human beings and things have no intrinsic existence in themselves. Their existence and “value” comes in being only in relative relation to other phenomena.
The ancient Greeks often wrote about the importance of humility. In Homer’s Iliad, the willful and arrogant Achilles took little notice of his comrades slaughtered at the hands of the Trojans. Obsessed with himself till the end, Achilles is killed by Prince Paris, the son of the Trojan king, whose arrows are divinely guided. Achilles is felled as much by his own hubris, as the arrow that strikes his famous heel.
Everyone’s heard the term “eat crow,” the more palatable version of the 19th century American version of that phrase being “eat your words.” In the UK, it’s known as eating humble pie.
We “eat our words” when we’ve been wrong about what we’ve said and we acknowledge it in some form “publicly.” The act of “taking back” our words is usually the result of the lack of humility which led to the statement in the first place. Humility, it seems, also provides perspective and patience and refines judgment, among its other qualities.
What are the qualities of humility? Honesty. Quiet Confidence. Thoughtfulness. Calmness. Respect. To be humble, I need self-knowledge and the ability to honestly perceive my limitations. I need to be able to be comfortable with what I know – and don’t know. Socrates once said, “All I know is that I know nothing.”
The Zen Buddhist concept of “beginners mind” is a good analogy to help us think about the characteristics needed to support developing greater humility. Zen teacher Shunryo Suzuki states that, “In the beginners’ mind there are many possibilities, in the expert’s mind there are few.”
The beginner’s mind (always fresh, open and curious) embodies other qualities and emotions that complement those with humility – enthusiasm, optimism and generosity of thought and spirit.
Living with Humility in World of Hubris
Our ancient Greek friends thought of hubris as an excess of ambition and pride. In Carl Jung’s world, hubris was the dark side of healthy self-esteem and pride. In a world of individualism on steroids, hubris seems normal. Qualities like loyalty, modesty, discipline and humility, seem dated and oddly self-effacing in today’s world of constant self-promotion and self-aggrandizement.
Opining on some London Olympics winners, Jeff Jacoby of the Boston Globe wrote, “Once upon a time it was considered low-class for athletes to be so smug and self-adoring. Winners of championships and gold medals were expected to be gracious, to show a little modesty-to enjoy the acclaim their splendid achievements had earned without becoming boastful jerks in the process.”
Jacoby points out that following his wins in the men’s 100 and 200 meter races, sprinter Usain Bolt claimed,” “I’m now a legend and “I’m also the greatest athlete to live.” Jacoby also quotes Team USA basketball player Kobe Bryant’s comments on his post game performance saying he was “the best post player on this team, period,” and that there was nothing he could learn from his teammates.
In his article, “Where’s the Humility?” Jacoby points out that in “some quarters this flood of self-worship is applauded as healthy and honest.” He quotes sportswriter Jason Gay of the Wall St Journal who offers a strikingly different perspective on Bolt’s self-admiration, “The most satisfying art of Bolt – even more than his brilliant runs – is how much he demolishes the myth that the world wants humble athletes.”
How Much Humility Do We Want in Ourselves – and in our Cultures?
So – how much humility do we want in our athletes, students, teachers, doctors, lawyers and leaders? What is the line between healthy self-esteem and arrogance?
Studies show that humble people are not just nice to be around but are more likely to help others in need. Until recently, mostly ignored by science, the biological motivation and sociological implications of humility are being examined. Dr. Jordan LaBouff, Ph.D has conducted research at Baylor University. He defines humility as “an inner quality that seems to be composed of an accurate view of the self (knowing and respecting strengths and weaknesses) intellectual openness and relatively low focus on the self.”
According to writer Linda Wasmer Andrews, people with humility may also be more likely to regard their own health more carefully. “Individuals low in health humility may realize that most people find it challenging to quit smoking or lost a lot of weight, but they think it will be easy for them because of their superior willpower. When a health problem strikes, it may be more of a blow to the egos of people with low health humility. They’re stunned to discover that they’re vulnerable to health challenges like everyone else – something their humbler peers knew all along.”
What about our leaders? Dave Balter, CEO of BzzAgent, admits his ego nearly derailed his deal with Tesco to buy his fourth start-up. Referring to his new, more humble mindset, Balter admits, “I’m a CEO who used to be totally ego-driven (there, I said it). This ego gave me the confidence to be a great leader, but also nearly destroyed BzzAgent, the word of mouth pioneer I created. Had I not dramatically adjusted my leadership style, in all likelihood my partners and I wouldn’t have found our way to a successful exit. I believe – due an inflated market, easy cash and entrepreneur glorification – that there are thousands of companies destined to fail if their leaders, who may feel like business today, don’t immediately turn their hubris into humility. I learned the hard way that a CEO isn’t God.”
So it seems that what the world needs now is what transformed CEO Dave Balter calls the “humility imperative.” Maybe it is time to ditch the belief that humility is some quaint relic of a bygone era. Let’s begin to imagine that cultivating humility will bring us unimagined benefits that will serve our personal growth, support our peers and contribute to making the world a better place to live.
A wiser Dave Balter sums it up best, “The humility imperative is simple: If you’re an ego-fueled leader, find humility today, before it’s too late. Instead, choose to recognize your place in the universe is no more important than anyone else’s. Know you can learn from every single interaction—no matter the person’s credentials.”