I used to be humble once. I took criticism seriously, made amends whenever someone felt wronged and took great care of letting others know how valuable they were to our organization. For the longest time I mentored and coached folks to ensure they understood how life and the workplace intersected and what things one should take into consideration when deciding to make the world a better place. Wanting to take over the planet or being a CEO comes with great responsibility, one that many people are not strong enough to carry.
When I got laid off, I asked around to figure out what went awry and the issue everyone had with me was that I was too sincere, to direct and too transparent about my capabilities and experience. To them, I didn’t boast enough about my past and present accomplishments, nor raised my voice to stir the pot! Being humble had made me seem weak, like I didn’t want it enough or thought I was taking the space of a more qualified individual. To some of my peers it sounded like I didn’t care or rather didn’t belong.
The truth is that I did care, a lot, and went above and beyond to make everyone successful, to prove I belonged, but I forgot to lobby for myself. I thought that doing what I was told was good enough; that celebrating silently the real victories and not the perceived ones, was getting noticed. By behaving ethically and humbly, I had stopped making waves, and that was seen as giving up, as admitting I was not worth it. I would have never dreamt in a million years that to move forward I had to take a step back and reassess such a core value. Especially one that is hard to teach, hard to learn and even harder to explain.
When seen in the context of my situation, humility became a conflicted notion that pitted team members against each other. It was beyond comprehension how a fellow human, female to boot, could be successful, yet humble, without appearing disengaged or frail. When we are raised to believe that those who have more than us must share that bounty to be considered humble, many forget that it is up to each individual to decide what they can, want and will share with you. I wanted to focus on my strengths rather than become bogged down attending to my weaknesses. The plan backfired because it made them concentrate harder or pointing out what I wasn’t doing well, although small in comparison to what I was batting outside the park. Expecting more out of me than of others because I wasn’t sharing my frustration and anxiety with the team, and thinking I was not adding value or using my superpowers for the greater good seemed vain to me. Futile. Does not compute.
If I had been too aggressive or assertive, I would have been called bitchy or a social climber. If I had boasted about all the knowledge that in the immediate future I was going to use to save all my coworkers hours of training and pointless discussions, I would still be in engineering. That’s not very humble or comfortable for me to do. If I hadn’t taken care of myself and my family by planning vacations and using sick leave maybe I’d still be back at my old desk chugging along engineering work. Because everyone perceived I didn’t deserve what I had, the salary, the ranking, the information and the network, I was kicked out of the island. They thought engineering was beneath me, never above me at least. The question is, why?
Go inside any church or place of worship and the message about humility is alarming. To be humble you must donate money to your religious organization so that your preacher can buy a private jet and not “fly with Satan”; you must never believe you are better than the hierarchy. Humble people, it is said, do not want fancy cars or possessions. Live like St. Francis of Asisi while those in power take from you liberties and choices. Trust your leaders who know better. Where is the humility in that? Why is the comfort of a select few people more important than ours? Day after day, sermon after sermon, you can hear how we teach others that putting your head down, nose to the grind, is godly. Don’t complain, do as told, follow the gospel, the law or your religious beliefs and you should be fine as long as you don’t challenge the status quo. Is that a fulfilling way to live? Most importantly, why do our leaders preach humility when they don’t practice it?
I see people starving themselves to feed the hungry because that is what humble people do. People sharing their hard earned money to provide services and tools to their local charitable organizations and depriving themselves of a vacation. I see parents every day talking about the sacrifices they make to give their child a good life at their life’s expense. This is what is expected of humble people, to not toot their own horn and to live in order to make the lives of others less miserable. But what about their needs, wants and desires? Can I be in charge of my own destiny and decide how to approach things without the burden of having to prove I am humble? Is being humble a curse these days, an imposition?
On occasion, I’ve met passionate people who started businesses and profit endeavors to make cash to donate to their favorite charity. This is a noble quest but people get turned off about those who make money to share it. These entrepreneurs are met with resistance and suspicion because they shouldn’t be profiting from other’s misfortunes. When we ask that those not inclined to cooperate in this manner bow to society’s expectations of giving, and they decline, we respond by chastising or bullying them into participation. It may be passive aggressive at times but whenever a donation is requested and denied you can tell who is judging whom by the looks and whispers. When did humility instead of charity become voluntary? Aren’t we all supposed to strive to be meek so we can inherit the Earth?
We talk about our cars, children and achievements as if we weren’t part of a competition but it is very palpable that we are competing, even if it is with ourselves. The need to become better, more successful or wiser is a quest that often results in promoting humility as a virtue and key element of how we attained our goals. You can barely pat yourself in the back without someone accusing you of being disingenuous; if you boast of your greatness then you can’t be humble, not at all!
Herein lies the vanity of being humble because it makes us think that others want attention or need to say these humbling things to feel better about themselves. It makes us judgmental, focusing on how to prove the intentions of a comment or thought are self-serving. Being humble is not seen as courageous or righteous but vain too; when we demand attention and recognition we lose our humility instead. I don’t understand why this has to be so, especially since humility is not directly linked nor proportional to wealth or claim to fame.
Humility is something that you practice daily and runs in the background of your operating system and rhythm. You cannot be humble when you mean it, or can you? Subversive as it may sound, I’d like to live in a world where everyone is humble, and not just pretending because some higher power’s lessons were misinterpreted and twisted to benefit a local pastor. Why? Because true humility makes us less assholes and better people. Humility is what drives us to be kind and generous. It is what builds our confidence to strive for excellence by uplifting others and bringing them to a higher standard of living, thinking and being.
You can be the best of the best, acknowledge it, and still be as humble as apple pie. Don’t fall for the guilt trips that those full of envy cast on those who are up and coming under the false pretense of not being humble, by admitting your privilege or social standing. Also, don’t think that to appear humble you cannot treat yourself to the good things life has to offer. Everyone wants to be equal without the hard work. Ask for what is yours and what you deserve. Demanding respect can make others humble too.
More than once I have heard people say that I shouldn’t be talking about the layoff or my feelings so openly because it is not humble. These are the same people that follow the Kardashians or reality TV stars. Hypocrisy is rampant these days. Avoid playing the who is more humble game; nobody wins.