The Art of Humility
Why it is time for an urgent revival of spiritual modesty.
At first glance, the injunction to be humble does not sound very attractive. It seems to be in conflict with our current valorization of self-esteem and self-worth, and to contradict the ubiquitous personal development advice that we should celebrate our achievements and take pride in ourselves. But humility does not mean meekness, and neither does it equate to weakness. In fact, this ancient virtue has nothing to do with adopting a self-effacing or submissive doormat mentality and is not to be mistaken simply for low self-esteem. Rather, humility is a form of spiritual modesty that is triggered by an understanding of our place in the order of things.
We can practice it by taking a step back from our own desires and fears, and by looking outward at that larger world of which we are a part. It has to do with changing our perspective and realizing our own limited significance in that bigger picture. It means stepping out of our bubble and understanding ourselves as members of a community, a particular historical moment, or even a profoundly flawed species. Finally, as Socrates knew well, it has to do with recognizing just how much we don’t know and acknowledging our blind spots.
Here is why we should all care about humility:
Many writers, past and present, have reflected on humility, including Confucius. The ancient Chinese philosopher believed that knowing our place in a larger social world, as well as obeying social rituals and traditions, was the panacea to the evils of his time. In his philosophy, our individual needs and desires are always secondary to what is deemed best for society at large. The Confucian form of humility is profoundly pro-social in spirit, valuing the social good more highly than the satisfaction of our personal aspirations and ambitions. In this form, humility can greatly enhance social cohesion and our sense of belonging.
Humility is also a core value in Christianity, where it takes the form of self-renunciation and submission to God’s will. While the Christian version of humility – associated, as it is, with guilt, shame, sin, and self-abnegation – may not be to everyone’s taste, there is still something important to be learned from the theologians. They teach us to avoid arrogance and pretentiousness, to see ourselves as part of a species that is far from perfect, and to remind ourselves of the very limited role we each have to play in the fate of humanity as a whole.
We all still have much to learn, not only from each other but also from other species. If we could live more like plants, for example, we might discover how to exist in harmony with nature and not recklessly seek to exploit its resources. Animals, too, could be wise teachers. If we could live more like cats – Zen-masters all – we could learn to privilege well-being and self-care over ceaseless activity, and stop our pointless striving for attention and approval. If we could live more like wolves, we could learn a lesson or two about intuition, loyalty, and the value of play. (See Pinkola-Estes 1992 and Radinger 2017.)
Humility is also about admitting our own shortcomings and seeking to overcome them. It is about readiness to learn best practices from others. Humility involves teachability, a mindset that embraces constant self-correction and self-improvement. It is not just an ancient virtue with a long and rich history, but also a distinctive psychological trait. As David Robson (2020) has shown, recent psychological research has proven that the more humble among us possess a large number of advantages. A humble mindset has significant positive effects on our cognitive, interpersonal, and decision-making skills. Humble people are better learners and problem solvers. Humble students who are genuinely open to feedback often overtake their naturally more talented peers who think highly of their own abilities that they reject all advice. Some studies have found that humility is more important as a predictive performance indicator than IQ. (Bradley P. Owens et al., 2013; and Krumrei-Manusco et al., 2019) Humility in our leaders, moreover, fosters trust, engagement, creative strategic thinking, and generally boosts performance. (Rego et al., 2017; Ou et al., 2020; Cojuharenco and Karelaia 2020.)
Humility is therefore vital for our ability to learn and an essential prerequisite for improving ourselves. For if we cannot admit to gaps in our knowledge or flaws in our character, we will never be able to take the steps necessary to address them.
Finally, humility is also the only effective antidote to narcissism. In many respects the dominant bane of our age, narcissism is a challenge that we have to address both at an individual and a wider social level. (Twenge 2013) Humility can be a cultural corrective to our problematic overvaluation of self-esteem and self-worth, which a growing number of psychologists view ever more critically. (Ricard 2015)
Irina Cojuharenco and Natalia Karelaia, “When Leaders Ask Questions: Can Humility Premiums Buffer the Effects of Competence Penalties?” Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 156 (2020), 113–34.
Elizabeth J. Krumrei-Mancuso et al., “Links Between Intellectual Humility and Acquiring Knowledge.” The Journal of Positive Psychology (2019), 155–70.
Bradley P. Owens et al., “Expressed Humility in Organizations: Implications for Performance, Teams, and Leadership.” Organization Science, 24:5 (2013).
Amy Y. Ou et al., “Do Humble CEOs Matter? An Examination of CEO Humility and Firm Outcomes.” Journal of Management, 20:10 (2020), 1–27.
Clarissa Pinkola Estés, Women Who Run With The Wolves: Contacting the Power of the Wild Woman (London and Sydney: Rider, 2008).
Elli H. Radinger, The Wisdom of Wolves: How Wolves Can Teach Us to Be More Human, translated by Shaun Whiteside (London: Michael Joseph, 2019).
Arménio Rego et al., “How Leader Humility Helps Teams to Be Humbler, Psychologically Stronger, and More Effective: A Moderated Mediation Model.” The Leadership Quarterly, 28:5 (2017), 639–58.
Matthieu Ricard, Altruism: The Science and Psychology of Kindness, translation anonymous (London: Atlantic, 2015), pp. 293–4.
David Robson, “Is this the secret of smart leadership?”. BBC, 1 June 2020. Online at: https://www.bbc.com/worklife/article/20200528-is-this-the-secret-of-smart-leadership (accessed 3 June 2020).