The Sweet Spot Between Hubris and Humility

Greatness lies in balancing self-belief with egolessness.

Posted Mar 03, 2013

When Robert Noyce, the founder of Intel, was asked how he felt about being known as the “Father of Silicon Valley” he responded, “You know it makes me a little bit proud, and a little bit humble.” There is a sweet spot between hubris and humility that is the key to greatness.

Bob Noyce was like a rare alloy that blended ambition and confidence with conscientiousness and compassion. He was a humanitarian who rallied against corporate autocrats while building one of the most powerful companies in the world. Noyce created an egalitarian culture at Intel with as little hierarchy as possible. He was a very tough and demanding boss, but ultimately a real softie who was very empathetic, hated confrontation or having to say no. When you look closer you realize that these character traits are textbook for many people who achieve greatness.

Noyce refused to play dirty or fall into the ‘win-at-all-costs’ mentality that is so prevalent in corporate America, and every walk of life. It is such a shame that he died of a heart attack in 1990 at the age of 62. Noyce had the chutzpah to believe that he could change the world (and he did) but also seemed to realize he was a flea in the bigger cogs of the universe and was very humble about his contributions.

Pride comes before the fall.

How many hubris-filled heroes have we seen fall from their pedestals in mythic proportions recently? Lance Armstrong embodies how astray someone can go when his or her balance between hubris and humility is out of whack.  Armstrong epitomizes how the quest for fame and glory and to win-at-all-costs will destroy you. I tried to give him the benefit of the doubt after his Oprah Winfrey interview but feel let down by him (yet again) since he refused to testify before USADA. I’m finished trying to defend Lance.

Believing that you possess both the power of Atlas and are as insignificance as an Ant is a difficult paradox for the human ego to navigate, but it is the key to being extraordinary. A lot of athletes are incapable of doing this. I’ve struggled with it myself over the years.

Last summer I wrote a Psychology Today blog called Cheaters Never Win and included a quote from Armstrong where he said: “Two things scare me. The first is getting hurt. But that’s not nearly as scary as the second, which is losing. Athletes…they’re too busy cultivating the aura of invincibility to admit to being fearful, weak, defenseless, vulnerable, or fallible, and for that reason neither are they especially kind, considerate, merciful, or benign, lenient, or forgiving. To themselves or anyone around them."  I couldn’t disagree with Armstrong more. The priority of sports and being an athlete in our society should be about fostering character, resilience, empathy, and camaraderie—with a healthy dose of humility. Good sportsmanship is not about hubris and winning at all costs.

The core philosophy of The Athlete’s Way is to: aim high, work hard, have fun, play fair, and to trust yourself. In the introduction to my first book I include a quote from Abraham Lincoln on the eve of his “Declaration of Emancipation” which I think captures the delicate balance of strong self-belief against a backdrop of humility. Lincoln said in 1863,

I know very well that many others might, in this matter, as in others, do better than I can; and though I believe that I have not so much of the confidence of the people as I had some times since, I do not know that, all things considered, any other person has more; and, however this may be, there is no way in which I can have any other man put where I am. I am here. I must do the best I can and bear the responsibility of taking the course which I feel I ought to take.

Barack Obama reflected on the importance of humility in February of 2013 when he said, “let me suggest that those of us with the most power and influence need to be the most humble.”  Earlier last month when reflecting on his second term in the White House President Obama said "The fascinating thing about this job is the longer you're in it, the more humble you get and the more you recognize your own imperfections.”  Adding, "The one thing about being president is after four years, you get pretty humble," Obama said. "You think maybe you wouldn't but you become more humble."

As a parent, I try to walk the tightrope between wanting to be a champion for my daughter and applaud her achievements with constant positive reinforcement. But again, this is a slippery slope. I want my daughter to be brimming with self-confidence but constantly bubbling well below the point where it becomes obnoxious hubris. How do we balance this in a healthy way?

You’re not special. But your efforts are.

On February 27, 2013 the American Psychological Association published an article titled “On Feeding Those Hungry for Praise: Person Praise Backfires in Children With Low Self-Esteem.” The study found that children with low self-esteem often received praise for their personal qualities, and that type of praise can trigger greater feelings of shame from failure and may lead to a diminished sense of self-worth. The differences between praising a person and praising his or her efforts may seem very subtle, but those differences can have a big impact on children's self-esteem, said study co-author Brad Bushman, PhD, a communication and psychology professor at The Ohio State University. Therefore, parents and teachers should focus on praising children for their efforts rather than their personal qualities, he added.

"In general, it is better to praise the behavior rather than the individual," Bushman added. "If you praise the individual and he fails, it can cause shame and may inadvertently send the message, 'I am a bad person.'"

David McCullough Jr. captured the essence of finding the sweet spot between hubris and humility in a commencement speech to Wellesley High School students last spring. He reiterates the findings of the recent APA  findings by saying: 

Like accolades ought to be, the fulfilled life is a consequence, a gratifying byproduct. It’s what happens when you’re thinking about more important things. Climb the mountain not to plant your flag, but to embrace the challenge, enjoy the air and behold the view. Climb it so you can see the world, not so the world can see you. Go to Paris to be in Paris, not to cross it off your list and congratulate yourself for being worldly. Exercise free will and creative, independent thought not for the satisfactions they will bring you, but for the good they will do others, the rest of the 6.8 billion—and those who will follow them. And then you too will discover the great and curious truth of the human experience is that selflessness is the best thing you can do for yourself. The sweetest joys of life, then, come only with the recognition that you’re not special. Because everyone is.

Oops, there goes another rubber tree plant.

I did most of my training for ultra-endurance sports in Central Park. One of my favorite things to do on my way back home to my apartment in the east village after late night-runs was to run down Fifth Avenue and stop for a few seconds to stand behind the Atlas sculpture at Rockefeller center. There is something very powerful about all the juxtapositing  forces and systems of belief that collide at this particular spot.

You can’t stand behind this sculpture looking at that cathedral without feeling very small and insignificant but empowered at the same time. Standing in this spot late at night when no tourists were around after long sweaty runs was a ritual for me. I carried the feeling of being there and simultaneously feeling like atlas and ant with me as an athlete. It became part of a winning mindset and took me far. 

Frank Sinatra’s “High Hopes” is an anthem for me as an athlete. As cliche (and overplayed) as it is, the song always reminds me that if anyone works really hard and is persistent that he or she has the power to do amazing things. If you haven’t seen this video from 1960 of Frank Sinatra singing  with a children’s chorus I recommend taking a few minutes to watch it here.

As first lady Michelle Obama strives to mobilize young people in our country to become champions in their communities and promote well-being and resilience through Let’s Move! Active Schools, I find the playfulness of Frank Sinatra singing with these kids and the message of “High Hopes” captures the essence of the Let's Move! message. What song makes you want to get up and dance? Please share in the comments here. 


Physical activity makes everybody feel uplifted and hopeful. The more people we have breaking a sweat every day the happier we'll all be. The feeling we get from moving our bodies is contagious and universally accesible. The trick is to find the perfect blend of hubris, humility and a sense of humor while striving for greatness.