How Humility Flourishes

Humility is not thinking less of yourself, but thinking of yourself less. 

C.S. Lewis

A lot less.

When we pursue something because it makes us feel and look virtuous, we lose the virtue. Humility is not an effort or mindset. It is like a beautiful flower that just grows and blooms without regard to others expectations. It just is. But pride can be pretentious, and ego can be excessive. So humility really cannot be considered a virtue. Humility is being yourself as part of the world. The need and pursuit of credit is the antithesis of humility.

Water is a wonderful symbol of humility. It seeks the lowest ground, following the path of least resistance. There is an Asian saying, “Going with gravity is wisdom.” 

Humility literally means “low”, “low to the ground”. Being grounded.

Be like the bamboo. The higher you grow, the deeper you bow. – Chinese Proverb –

In Jim Collins’ seminal work Good to Great he defined the most successful leaders—level 5. Level 5 leaders “display a powerful mixture of personal humility and indomitable will.” They’re ambitious, but their ambition is first and foremost for the cause, for the organization and its purpose, not themselves.

We all want to be less arrogant, less self-centered. We strive for the self-awareness to not be the person who always talks about themselves. I know I have been that person. Dominating conversations with MY stories, always trying to one-up someone else. I mistook this for assertiveness or some other leadership trait that is powered by self-promotion. When you toot your own horn too much you can really blow it.

A seed never needs to see its flower.

I am humbled every day by the needs of others, by the potential of the human spirit, by the unknown and the unknowable. I am in awe of everyone I meet for their uniqueness. For I used to under-estimate others and over-estimate myself.

As I become more self-aware, more authentic with myself, and more open to the world around me–I cannot help but see how insignificant I am. That my relevance is tied to others, to nature. And to my pursuit of larger purposes and questions than myself. That the truth about education is the more you learn, the more you discover what you don’t know.

But crawling into your shell and not speaking up under the guise of being shy or polite is wrong too. I was giving a compliment to a fellow golfer the other day. I said, “nice shot” and he did not respond. I said “Why don’t you say thank you?” as a joke. And he says “I’m not good at taking compliments.” and begins this clearly rehearsed speech about his upbringing….. Whoa Nelly! TMI! And he was serious. We all understand that feeling when someone says something really nice about us. They mean it. They are trying to make you feel good acknowledging something that you’ve done. And we often start this little routine where we look down at our shoes and take a deep sigh and say, “Well, thank you but it was really nothing.” Sounding like, “I’m really nothing.” We need to be better at accepting compliments, praise and acknowledgement. We need to be better giving it too. It is a real chance to give credit to others, the support you have been given, luck and good fortune—to acknowledge all that it takes to be successful, to win, to come up on top………If we are truly honest with ourselves, we have never done anything with no help, no advantages, no luck—by ourselves.

I met a young lady on Zoom. A graduate student seeking my advice after a class I led. I asked her to tell me about herself. She told me where she was going to school and what she was studying. And then that “humility is my best quality.” Yikes! Once you say you are humble, you aren’t. You can be humbled by the sacrifices of others, the needs of others—many things. But listing humility amongst your strengths is a deal breaker so the next time someone acknowledges you in a real way and you know in your heart that you’re even somewhat deserving of such attention. Thank them, be sincere. Specifically express the gratitude for the support and good fortune you have received.

Every flower came from a seed and was nurtured by nature.

I get an unnecessary amount of this type of attention because I’m teaching classes because I’m giving speeches because I’m engaged with a lot of people. So the people that like what I have said will say things to me and the people that don’t, don’t. So I get a disproportionate number of people who praise me. When I do, I thank them with my heart, with my eyes. I tell them sincerely that I get energy from preparing and delivering my words. Sometimes I tell them how proud my parents might be. Then I ask questions. “What was great about it for you? How will you use what I conveyed today to help advance your goals? What is your top takeaway? Something that you will actually use in your life? I do this not to shun the attention, but I’m interested, genuinely interested in what I’m doing that might make a difference to other people.  I try to make notes about what works. What’s helping people. Another gift from others that makes me better.

A flower thrives in a garden. 

Accept praise. Ask for the help of others. Say thank you. Give credit to what got you there. Take some notes. Appreciate the room for improvement. Becoming the best you. And we will blossom, and flourish closer to the ground of who we are and were meant to be.

Thanks for reading. John

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