Achievement, Fortune, and the Gift of Humility

Stepping up to the free throw line, I set up my shot and knew the second I released the ball that it was an airball. Retrieving the ball quickly, I turned to shoot an easy layup off the backboard and found myself throwing the ball past the square above the basket. Three attempts later, I finally put the ball in the basket. Looking back to the free throw line, I flushed at the display I had just given the twenty-five other men playing this game at a church gathering.

Of course, no one else was as concerned as I was about my performance, especially since the game was about “knocking” the guy in front of you out of the game and I was making it easy. For me, a guy who probably didn’t go a day without shooting a basketball for over 30 years in a game or practice, and then coached it for another dozen years, the experience was quite humbling.

Actually, the experience verged on being humiliating, a place we take ourselves when our performance falls so far short of our expectation as to embarrass us. A few days later, after a nearly ten year hiatus, I found myself in a similar place on a golf course. Thank God I had a patient foursome and we were in a scramble. Apparently, neither my basketball nor my golf skills are like riding a bicycle. What you don’t you use, you lose.

At one point during the golf outing, I made a comment about the experience being humbling. Curiously, my game actually improved after I said it out loud. Sorry, no Happy Gilmore comebacks here – it was only a marginal improvement. However, in humility, my expectations were lowered. I relaxed a bit and accepted things as they were. There was no “man-handling” this situation. All I could do was try to relax and enjoy it as it was.

Humility is defined as a freedom from pride or arrogance. We frequently associate it with a modest disposition. A “humble beginning” suggests a start with minimal expectations for great achievement. “Humble” circumstances imply a simple or basic existence. The humble person does not brag or draw attention.

In today’s society, we may be more familiar with “false humility.” The state of claiming low pride or acting modest when we may actually feel quite superior. We are “humbled” in the receipt of awards, honor, and glory for our great acts of charity and magnanimity. Sometimes, we even claim “humility” in the face of great achievement – a truly difficult place to find true humility.

As a society, we are all about achievement. A recent headline contrasted two competing politicians by describing one as “self-made.” That’s the ultimate, right? The self-made man or woman who achieved wealth, power, or fame by the merits of their own moxy, intelligence, and effort. We love to celebrate the go-getter with the “golden touch” or the ability to “make things happen.”

Achievement in our society is often centered on “keeping score.” We learn early in school that high grades are a good thing and that the team who scores more points wins. Life’s scoreboards progress from there: bank accounts, an address, a title, a headline, votes “won,” an award, an “exit,” our name on a building. In the end, success is clearly identified by the correct quantification, tallied and displayed for affirmation.

None of those versions of success are bad in themselves. Achievement is a reflection of the good stewardship of talents, gifts, and opportunities presented to us throughout our lives. The golfers in my foursome this week were quite good and it was clear they had worked to get there. The person with the title or the one who makes a big donation or the athlete for whom we cheer every Sunday, have all made sacrifices and put in much work to be where they are. In many ways, they’ve earned it.

The problem for all of us in our achievements and our attachments to them, is that we are living on a constantly changing continuum of competence, opportunity, and calamity. There are some things we control and far more that we do not. We can work to master our skills and inclinations but life is happening all around us – sometimes to our benefit and sometimes to our detriment.

The reality is that we are only partially “self made.” We play a big part in our successes and our failures, but not the only part. We can do many things to increase our odds of high achievement but many things will come along to derail our efforts. We can also enjoy our moments in the sun but the weather will soon change. We want to claim responsibility for our “destiny” but it is not ours alone to claim.

In a world where we want so desperately to control our own fate even as it persistently reminds us that we are not in fact in control, humility becomes one of our greatest allies. When we’re riding high, humility helps us remember when things were much more difficult. When we’ve got everything under control, humility reminds us that there are greater forces moving around us that we cannot control. When we feel “bullet proof,” humility reminds us of our own mortality.

Unlike our putting skills, how we study for a test, or our speaking abilities, humility is not really a skill to be developed. Sure, we can work to be modest and self-effacing. We can say the right things when asked, share the credit, and point to a higher power for all of the great things happening in our lives. However, we’re always fighting the thing we cannot ever fully escape: our own pride. There is no arrival to humility, it is a constant battle.

We’re not humbled by recognition, honor, awards, or “achievement.” The more we get, the more we think we’ve got it. The more we think it’s by our hand alone. We’re humbled by loss, imperfection, struggle, incompetence, and the realization that it is NOT all by our own hand. Humility must be given to us, we cannot claim it is our own doing any more than we can claim that we created our intelligence, speed, good looks, or the fact that we were born in the United States. Some of these things we can work to improve, but at their core, they were gifts.

Why is humility important? Humility opens us up to gratitude. Humility frees us from the burden of carrying it all alone. Humility allows us to listen better, learn better, and love better. Humility helps us see the truth of our situation, accept the reality of our circumstances, and open ourselves to the possibility of answers beyond our own limitations. Humility reminds us that we are passing, things are ever-changing, and that it is not all about us.

As we age, everything gets a bit more stiff and inflexible. The patterns of our lives start to become more rigid. We tolerate change far less and begin to avoid the things that are uncomfortable. Some of those things are physical, some are mental, and some are spiritual. Our humility “muscle” can start to become brittle and harden into the pride of needing to be right and to have it our way. We want to avoid the places that push us and sit comfortably in the warm armchair of our own knowing.

This is a dangerous place as it causes us to turn more and more inward, slowly closing us from the joy, peace, and potential of the world around us. Like the stiff fingers that could once make 20 free throws in a row, now shooting airballs, we wake up realizing the touch we once had has slipped away. Stepping into that zone of incompetence humbles us into remembering that the effort must still be exerted, that we cannot take the moment for granted, and that we must be always alert for the hardening of our own pride.

This week, find a few places that might humble you. Put yourself out there just enough to remember its tempering edge. With time, we work harder and harder to avoid places where we might find it, and in so doing, we miss the chance to receive the gift of humility.

Showing 2 comments
  • Chris Kaufman

    So very true Phil! Well done sir!

  • Becky Lomax

    Thank you for the reminder. Well said.

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