Humility

Humility is an attribute that seems to generate a surprising amount of controversy. On one hand, it’s a bedrock Greek and Judeo-Christian value that has long permeated western culture. We admire the hero who underplays his or her role, who is slow to take credit and quick to assume responsibility. Yet, it’s not unusual for highly successful people to have outsized egos and we tend to admire them too. Like Dizzy Dean who once said, “It ain’t bragging if you can do it,” we’re willing to overlook a little hubris if it’s supported by true accomplishment.

In a culture obsessed with personal achievement, it’s tempting to agree with those who argue that, “Humility is vastly overrated.” A child that exhibits too much humility is at risk of being labeled, “low self-esteem,” a problem that must be addressed, we’re led to believe, or the child’s development will be hopelessly stunted. Some parents now defend their child’s self-esteem with a zeal once reserved for matters of personal safety.

We use a rather odd calculation to reconcile the tension between these supposedly competing values: We strive to “balance” them, as though self-confidence is on one side of a scale with humility on the other side. We assume there’s some tradeoff between the two; the more confidence one has, the less humility and vice-versa. It’s a strange perception when you think about it because it suggests that somehow confidence and humility are part of the same “stuff” and that there’s only so much of this “stuff” available.

What is this “stuff?” It’s a myth, and one that creates a false choice.

Innovation (and much of life) requires the courage and self-confidence to try new things and risk failure. Yet it also requires the humility to recognize what’s not working so we can make appropriate adjustments. That’s not a contradiction; it’s an imperative. It doesn’t mean we must somehow reduce our level of confidence in order to have more humility or reject some level of humility in order to maintain more confidence. No, it means putting the pedal-to-the-metal on both and at the same time. It’s having the confidence to experiment and take chances, while simultaneously recognizing that we will have mistakes and failures—and that’s acceptable.

Seen this way, confidence and humility don’t cancel each other out; they reinforce each other. We’re truly confident when we (humbly) recognize the prospect of failure yet still choose to act. We’re truly humble when we can accept our failures and (confidently) move on. Only when we can consistently do both are we able to deal with things as they are rather than as we wish them to be. Without that sort of reality check and a healthy response to it, innovation quickly breaks down (along with many other things).

We all know someone who has trouble accepting feedback (And that includes most of us at times). In those moments, what we lack is not just humility—the willingness to hear about our shortcomings. We also lack the confidence that allows us to comfortably accept that information without it taking too great of an emotional toll on us. Those with high levels of true self-confidence are more willing and able to accept feedback not less. The curse of low self-esteem is that it prevents us from accepting feedback and that robs us of the ability to learn from our experience.

Do you have the humility to seek out the truth? Do you have the confidence to accept it when you find it? This is an area where I suspect we all could become better—on both fronts. It’s an essential personal innovation skill.

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