On Humility

30 Aug 2023. Bob Kaplan

When I hear someone described as humble, it sounds as if the speaker is grateful. Grateful for what? Probably that the humble person is down-to-earth—which is fitting because "humble" comes from the Latin, humus, meaning earth or ground. Humility is grounding.

Grateful too that the humble person typically treats others as equals, listens well, takes feedback well, admits it when they're wrong, can make light of themselves, they're easy to talk to, and trusted.

And perhaps most grateful for what the humble person is not: arrogant, pretentious, egocentric. The humble person doesn't brag, drop names, talk too much about themselves, use "I" constantly, lord it over others, condescend, shut their ears to what others have to say.

Humility is most appreciated in people who could act superior but do not. They are superior, a cut above, but they don’t act that way. Those who are accomplished, gifted, highly placed, well-off, famous. Not just the emiment, though, but anyone who is quite good at what they do.

Humility then is an indisputable virtue, unalloyed, pure. Or is it? Unfortunately not. To be humble is to keep your ego in check, and it can be held too much in check. If you bend over backward to avoid ego inflation, you come down with a case of ego deflation. In which case, you don’t act enough on your own behalf.

It’s not that these people aren’t assertive. It’s that they are reluctant to assert themselves on their own behalf. They're so averse to self-promotion that they may hide their light under a bushel or they may not throw their hat in the ring.

Humility gets drilled into many of us as kids. "Thou shalt not toot your own horn." "Keep a low profile." "Let your work speak for itself." "Don't get a swelled head." Humility is bossy, coercive, and its staying power is remarkable. Decades later, it's still forcing us to do this; it won't let us do that.

Here's how one person managed to get his humility to loosen its grip. Despite how identified he was with being humble, despite how much he was under its thumb, he proved able to stand back from it and see his humility for what it was, objectively. It helped him to name it: "Deflater" (self-worth deflater). Then, instead of downplaying how able and accomplished he was, he gave himself fuller credit. "Now I'm more comfortable with myself, more confident," he reported. As a result, he did his job better. True story.