My friend Maria Hill wrote a beautiful article recently about the distinction between humility and humiliation. Go read it, because I am not going to repeat that, but this theme keeps coming up everywhere I turn, so I have some thoughts I’d like to share.
Humility is not a lack of self esteem, self-confidence, or assertiveness. It is not a lack of anything. Rather, it is evidence of a fullness and a completion of character. The root of humility is simply the ability to perceive value in other people.
In the culture I grew up in, this is grossly undervalued and misunderstood. The widespread idea that you get ahead by crushing and using others is a lie. To the extent you believe this, you are sabotaging yourself.
You might gain temporarily through such behavior. It might feel good, if your conscience is atrophied. But you do not ultimately gain much of importance in life through your own isolated efforts. You ultimately gain in life because you work at being the sort of person that people want to help.
Rugged individualism and independence have their place, but we live in societies. To thrive in a society you cannot effectively compete with people who are tapping into networks of dozens or hundreds of people willing to help them. And you will fail utterly if your behavior inspires people to gang up on you.
Humility has to be cultivated because it takes time for experience to teach you that there is more to life than winning all the time. It feels great to win; I’m a big fan of winning. But outside of games, winning can easily cost the winner more than it is worth.
Life is not itself a game or contest. It is a team activity. In gamer terms it’s PvE not PvP. Cooperators consistently and easily beat lone wolf competitors in “real life.” Cooperative people have immensely greater resources at their disposal. Lone wolves will always be there because some people choose to sacrifice long-term gain for small immediate payoffs. This is the definition of immaturity.
Real humility is a cultivated willingness to appreciate differences in others and receive the value they freely offer us through every interaction. It’s the result of a higher perspective from which you can see that the synthesis of opposition is superior to the simple triumph of either opponent. It is realizing that most of the people you initially view as opponents would be more beneficial to you, and you would be more beneficial to them, as friends and allies: win-win is better than win-lose.
Humility is the counterweight that balances and moderates the innate craving of the ego for ever more conquest. Humility harnesses the drive and raw power of the selfish side of our nature and channels it toward overall success. An ego harnessed this way is the only ego worthy of being called “healthy.”
Humility is an indicator of a mature character, a beautiful soul, because without it, the character cannot help but be stunted by a poverty of input and feedback. When I meet a person who shines with humility–and they do shine–I know they have developed a wide range of virtues, because humility makes a vital contribution to personal growth. Humility amplifies every other virtue. Confidence, for example, is hardly more than a form of foolishness when it is not balanced and informed by humility.
Humility is not just a social virtue, it is a personal one. That same willingness to acknowledge and take into account the value outside of yourself extends to all of life. Other people have much to teach us, but the larger humility of being willing to receive inspiration, and to learn from life itself, is the most underrated key to success and happiness.