I tend to be wound a little tight. While I’ve always known this, one day, some years back, I walked into my best buddy’s office and the following exchange took place:
“Do you think I’m a little high strung?” I asked.
After joining his hands together and then pointing both index fingers at me like a gun, he leaned back in his chair, put on a half grin, and replied, “You, my friend, are a nerve sticking out of a torso.”
His comment was undeniably true. I’ve always said that, if worrying were an Olympic sport, I’d be Michael Phelps. I don’t particularly like this trait in myself and have, periodically, attempted to change my behavior. For example, there was the time I entered a meeting at work and announced “I’ve decided to be laid back.” A co-worker responded with something along the lines of, “There’s so many things wrong with that statement, I don’t know where to begin. The act of declaring yourself laid back, by definition, means you’re not laid back.”
That statement can easily be modified and applied to the concept of being humble – once you think you are, you aren’t. I certainly don’t want to be known as smug, arrogant, prideful, or a “full of himself” person. But, if I’m honest, I’m, at times, all of those things, even if I don’t let people see those characteristics on a regular basis. Looking back over my fifty-nine plus years, I can honestly say that most of my anger and/or frustration can be linked to my ego, either comparing myself to others, wondering why I can’t have what he/she has, or contemplating why this or that aspect of someone else’s life seems so much better than mine. For the record, I’m not happy admitting any of this. I’m just being honest about things.
The internet is loaded with definitions of humility and characteristics indicative of a humble person. There are also a million quotes. The most prevalent one is “Humility is not thinking less of yourself but thinking of yourself less.” I’ve seen it attributed to both C.S. Lewis and Rick Warren. I tried, for a while, to consciously follow that advice. The problem is, you can be caring and compassionate towards others and still be proud about it. For example, I’d think something like, “hey, it’s a good thing I’m doing this for him/her” or “it’s nice that folks know what I’m doing for that organization.” Not much humility there.
Then there’s the whole “live a humble lifestyle” thing. As an example, instead of acquiring a super fancy car, a person buys something a little less expensive. Say a Camry versus a Lexus. There are two problems with that. First, the way cars are now, there’s not really much of a difference, except maybe you have a heated steering wheel on one and little less suspension support on the other. Secondly, if your motivation for doing something is to appear humble, well, you’re not being humble.
I can also be guilty of what I call “back door bragging.” One way to do this is to say something like “little Rebecca is so busy with all her gifted classes; I feel bad she has no time for herself.” So, while you’re empathetic towards Rebecca, you’ve let me know she’s gifted. While I’ve never used that particular sentence, I’ve managed to sneak some boasting into what I consider innocuous statements. This, I’m pretty sure, is the antithesis of humility.
A few minutes ago, I wondered what it would be like to be evaluated on whether my thoughts and actions are humble. So, I went to a few websites and picked five of the more common characteristics of a humble person. Then, I did a self-assessment. I graded myself using a scale of 1 – 5, with 5 being the highest score. Here are the results:
A humble person:
- Is Teachable – With me, this is true for some things. For instance, I’m very open to learning and improving my writing and social media efforts. I’ll take any advice on how to catch more fish. However, there are certain things I’m absolutely firm about. Three examples: my views on how to succeed in the world, my opinion (which is really a fact) that The Godfather is the greatest movie ever made, and my belief that the stat geeks are ruining baseball. Grade: 3
- Doesn’t Care Who Gets the Credit – I’m very good at using words that communicate this feeling and, honestly, I’m usually okay with where things land. However, sometimes I get tired of not being acknowledged and my ego wants the world to know what I did. This is especially true if I think the person getting the credit really didn’t do much of anything and I deserve more acclaim, which, it goes without saying, is the height of arrogance. Grade: 2
- Quick to Forgive – Well, this depends on the person or situation. I can be very open to forgiveness and moving forward if things involve a family member or very close friend. The resentment just doesn’t seem worth it. However, for others, I can hold a grudge for a ridiculously long time. For instance, I was mad at one individual for thirty years because he benched me during a softball game when I was in my late twenties. (Really. I wish I was kidding.) Also, I flatly refused to buy gas at Texaco after they declined to issue me a credit card in 1983. I realize neither one of these admissions shrouds me in glory. But, by confessing them, I being humble, right? Isn’t that how it works? Grade: 3
- Treats Others with Respect – I think I do okay with this one. I am a firm believer in “live and let live” and fully acknowledge that I have enough problems, quirks, and shortcomings without worrying too much about yours. Grade: I think I deserve a 5, but am going to give myself a 4 to show that I’m a modest guy.
- Grateful – I am thankful for my life, marriage, children, friends, and all the cool stuff I’ve gotten to do. However, even with that, I sometimes compare myself to others and wish for more. A shameful example: I’m sometimes dissatisfied that I don’t have a house on the water. I’d love to saunter to my dock and fish every day. Grade:1. Technically, I think I should be further up the scale, but anyone who’s had the life I’ve had and still allows a single moment of ingratitude doesn’t deserve a higher score.
As I finished the above exercise, I realized something. Monitoring your progress or grading yourself on being humble is fraught with inherent conflicts. It’s just a big fat circular reference. Also, humility’s not something you can demonstrate. The act alone of trying to put it on display is one of personal aggrandizement.
There is, however, an approach you can use. Anyone who’s ever been involved in a twelve-step program understands the concepts of improving one step at a time, forgiving yourself for failure, and accepting incremental progress. Why can’t we do that with humility? I mean, it’s truly an inside job, something that’s all in your thoughts and motivations. No one knows if you’re succeeding but yourself and, because we’re all imperfect, we’ll sometimes fail. So, if you have a weak moment driven by ego, recognize it, make some amends if necessary, and get to work doing things better the next time. The key is getting up and trying again. Heck, if my life is any indication, there’ll be plenty of opportunities for improvement.
I’ll leave you with two of my favorite quotes on the subject:
“What the world needs is more geniuses with humility, there are so few of us left.” – Oscar Levant
“In 1969 I published a small book on humility; it was a pioneering work which has not, to my knowledge, been superseded.” – Francis Pakenham