All your life, other people will try to take your accomplishments away from you. Don’t you take them away from yourself.
—Michael Crichton, The Lost World
The Nature of HumilityH umility is a very tricky thing. In one sense, it captures the essence of being modest and understated. In another sense, it suggests that we take a low view of our own value. In general, we appreciate humble behavior in others. We respect humility as an opposing position to the offensiveness of hubris. A large part of the traditional American ethos revolves around the notion of being a hard-working, god-fearing group of people who must always exercise humility because who we are and what we have is a gift.
The Danger of Humility
Like so many other positive traits, humility at its extreme becomes a weakness. Why? Because it blinds us to our real value and the impact we have on the world around us. Taken to its far edge, humility restrains our potential as it whispers that your success is a gift and implies that perhaps you did not earn it. This narrative has the effect of convincing us to underestimate what we might accomplish.
Gratitude and Gifts
Wait a minute, shouldn’t we be thankful for our gifts? Isn’t gratitude a critical part of the fabric of the joy in our life? Absolutely! However, this is where being humble can tip insidiously into the danger zone. You see, by embracing our good fortune as a gift, we open the door to the word “deserve.” As soon as “deserve” enters the picture, we create a value measure around what we have done or are doing. If you are experiencing success as a gift, then the only way to deserve it is to be humble and appreciative. You don’t earn a gift. If you aren’t humble, perhaps the gift will be taken away.
The Blind Spot
Obviously, this isn’t a conscious conversation with yourself. You may absolutely believe that you are working hard and earning every bit of your success. However, if you have difficulty balancing the tension between humility and hubris, you begin to fall into the comfort zone of underplaying your strengths. You tend to minimize your success, your impact, and your potential. You begin to doubt your effect. Ultimately, you create a blind spot where you have difficulty seeing how others perceive you and of all the things of which you are capable. This is the ultimate loss because we can miss tremendous possibilities when we are blind to our impact on the people around us.
Embracing the Tension
Granted, hubris may be even more dangerous but the challenge is to find some comfort in the tension between the two. We have to embrace our talents, even if they are gifts, and not view them through the lens of “deserved” but through the lens of “potential for impact.” Seeing ourselves clearly and honestly assessing our potential for impact on those around us sets the stage for magic to happen. We begin to look for ways to deploy our strengths and possibilities present themselves.
The Fine Line
How do we walk the fine line between humility and hubris? There are no easy answers and I think it will always be a challenge. Here are some ideas that might help:
- Accept and embrace the tension between humility and hubris. Our instinct is to retreat from tension. Recognize that it will be there and work to accept it.
- Look at your gifts as tools. If you accept that you have gifts, then you can balance the tension by viewing them and using them as a means to make a difference. If you are charismatic, use that gift to inspire others. If you are analytical, use that gift to help those who struggle with concrete planning. If you have a lot of money, use it in ways that make a difference either through charity or by creating jobs through your ongoing success.
- Use your gifts to their maximum potential. This helps offset the “deserved” challenge. Be honest about your capabilities and look for ways to grow to reach your potential. This will help pull you out of the “too humble” zone while reconciling accomplishment with purpose.
- Ask for feedback. Getting honest feedback on how others view you, where you might have blind spots, and how you might do more with your talents can open up a whole new world of possibility. This also works the other way. If you get feedback that you come across arrogantly in certain situations, there might be a disconnect between your self perception and what you project.
- Self Assessments. There are a number of great tools available to help you think through your gifts and capabilities. These tools make it easier for you to be honest about what you have and consider how you might best apply it.
- Keep the gratitude, lose the doubt. I am a true believer in maintaining an attitude of gratitude. We all have many gifts for which we should be thankful. Be thankful and quit worrying about whether or not you deserve them. If you don’t think you deserve them, then DO something with those gifts that affirms that you were the absolute right person to receive them.
Humility: Strength and Weakness
I still believe that humility can be a strength. It is an endearing trait that fosters goodwill and trust. However, if we let it blind us to our true potential or allow it to convey a sense that we doubt ourselves, it can undermine our leadership and hold us back. Be aware of these dangers and vigilant for the blind spots. There you will find the tension as you walk the path to your greatest impact.