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The Underappreciated Power of Humility

Invite feedback, recognize others, and achieve for the right reasons.

Key points

  • In our fiercely competitive society, integrity has taken a back seat to individual achievement.
  • Humility has a positive effect on self-awareness and it strengthens social bonds.
  • Inviting feedback and learning from others are ways to cultivate the virtue of humility.
Kyle Johnson/Unsplash
Source: Kyle Johnson/Unsplash

In our fiercely competitive society, achievement has become the top priority. We have become obsessed with personal success and will often stop at nothing to achieve it, even if it means breaking the rules. Cheating schemes aiming to admit privileged students into elite colleges exemplify the tainting of our moral fabric. Integrity has taken a back seat to individual achievement.

The current cultural climate makes it hard not to fall for this trap. After all, we are mistakenly associating one's self-worth with their level of achievement. We idealize people for their feats of fame and fortune. We treat them as superhuman and forget that they have flaws like the rest of us.

Going against the grain is difficult but feasible if we can cultivate a forgotten virtue that is often misunderstood. A healthy dose of humility can help us regain perspective and not prioritize personal success over other essential virtues, such as integrity, honesty, and service.

Humility is the acceptance that you are no better or worse than anyone else. No amount of success makes you more worthy than any other human being.

You are a mere mortal, one of the over 100 billion who have ever walked on this planet.

The same fate awaits us all. We will die and be forgotten. It may be within the span of one generation or 10 generations, but the ripple effect of your life will ultimately come to an end.

Though initially terrifying, accepting this truth is liberating. It forces you to be intentional with your limited time on this earth and focus on what really matters.

Humility is a dying virtue because it is misinterpreted as weakness, fragility, and meekness. It is in contrast to the Western cultural ideals of individualism and unrestrained capitalism. Its demise is unfortunate because humility comes with many benefits.

On an individual level, humility has a positive effect on self-awareness. Humble individuals accept that they have blind spots and look for ways to improve. They are open to receiving feedback from others. They avoid the trap of overconfidence which clouds judgment and decision-making.

Humility can keep you grounded and spare you the erratic swings between narcissism and shame. This virtue is an antidote to shame because it embraces your humanity, which is the essence of your worth. It is also protective against narcissism. Unlike narcissists, humble individuals do not carry a sense of entitlement or view themselves as above anyone else.

On an interpersonal level, humility strengthens social bonds. Humble individuals are quick to accept responsibility and apologize for their mistakes. High-quality apologies are extremely effective at reducing conflict and repairing relationships.

How to Cultivate Humility

The good news is that you can go against the cultural grain. Like other virtues, humility can be developed with intentional and consistent effort. Here are four steps to help you cultivate this virtue.

1. Invite feedback.

The first step is to accept that you have personal biases and blind spots. Inviting feedback from others can help you overcome them.

Take a moment to listen to feedback with curiosity. When someone is offering feedback, seek to understand rather than reflexively defend yourself. If you are observing a trend in the feedback from different sources, then you have likely identified an opportunity for improvement.

2. Learn from others.

No matter your level of education or intelligence, there is always something new to learn from someone else. The best learning sources are people who have different educational, socioeconomic, and cultural backgrounds.

As a physician, I have had the privilege of learning so many important life lessons from my patients. Their diverse backgrounds and unique life stories provide a wealth of knowledge and wisdom that cannot be replicated by any medical curriculum or psychiatric textbook.

3. Recognize others.

Success does not occur in a silo. You would not have achieved your level of success without the grace of others who have helped you, and continue to help you, along the way.

Develop the habit of observing and recognizing how much others are contributing to a common cause. It may be your office secretary fielding countless phone calls, a work colleague who is willing to go the extra mile on a project, or the janitor keeping the work premises clean. Express your appreciation for their contributions.

4. Achieve for the right reasons.

Do not achieve in pursuit of fame and fortune. These superficial measures of success will eventually leave you feeling empty and chasing more with no end in sight. They also plant the seed of envy in others who emulate the same path only to arrive at the same disappointing conclusion.

Achieve because you want to make a positive impact in the lives of others without seeking anything in return. Cultivate a spirit of service because it is the right thing to do.

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