The Price of Humility

Humility is generally thought to be a positive characteristic. Let’s consider this a little more carefully.

From the centuries-old teachings of the Catholic Church, one reads that there are “seven deadly sins:” wrath, greed, sloth, pride, lust, envy, and gluttony. Even without such a list, however, young people are often taught to be humble and not boastful.

They are instructed not to call too much attention to themselves, not to be full of themselves or too proud. Arrogance, excessive self-love (narcissism), hubris — all are viewed negatively and point to the notion that you are not as good as you think you are and therefore should not become “too big for your britches.” In effect, the message is, be modest and you will be fine.

But.

Yes, I know, there is always a but.

An example illustrates why I am a hesitant endorser of humility in all things. My seventh grade Chicago Public School home room teacher gave us an interesting assignment. In one of the marking periods (there were four per semester) each of us was to write down the grades that we believed we should receive for the term — what marks we felt we deserved. Up until that time I was something of a humility addict. Whether from home or elsewhere, I’d learned not to toot my own horn, not to draw attention to myself, and certainly not to overstate my accomplishments.

The strategy had worked pretty well up to that time. But, I did not see that it created the potential for trouble ahead.

I dutifully delivered the grades, having understated most, if not all of them. What difference did it make, I thought? The teacher would assign the bona-fide grades, of course, based on the work we had completed, our test scores, and so forth.

Some time later, we received our real marks. And, wouldn’t you know it, my instructor had given me exactly the evaluation I assigned to myself. Since I was enormously invested in my school performance, I was crushed. I seem to recall that each kid had a mini-conference with her up at her front desk. I don’t remember what she said to me, but the grades stood, at least until the next marking period, when she would not be influenced by any external opinions. Nevertheless, I’m sure that I was mad at myself for having understated my worth.

As miserable as she made me feel, this woman did me a great favor. In fact, there probably was no better way to deliver the message: don’t diminish yourself, don’t minimize your accomplishments, don’t be self-effacing. If you cannot be your own best advocate, why should you expect anyone else to advocate for you? While you needn’t trumpet your attainments to the farthest reaches of the earth, neither should you hide them under a rock.

There is a price to excess humility, just as there is a price to the extreme of any human characteristic, not just the seven deadly sins: too much confidence or too little, too much risk-taking or not enough, a naive excess of trust or a cynical absence of confidence and faith in others, and so forth.

My teacher is almost certainly deceased. But, if I could, I would thank her for her instruction in the price of a surfeit of humility.

Ironically enough, her name was Miss Price — my seventh grade teacher at Jamieson School.

The image above is Kandinsky’s Composition V.

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