Do you wish to rise? Begin by descending. You plan a tower that will pierce the clouds? Lay first the foundation of humility. —Saint Augustine
I’ve been taking pictures longer than a third of the US population has been alive. Yet, there are still aspects of photography with which I struggle. I have three adult sons about whom I generally feel positive. Knowing how to respond correctly to Kat’s little ones, though, often leaves me frustrated and confused. I like to think I am generally a smart guy, but I start reading through the journal articles to which I subscribe and it only takes a few minutes before I feel as dumb as a box of rocks. Humility reaches out and slaps me in the face on a daily basis.
We live in what has the potential to be a gilded age of knowledge. For the first time in the history of humanity, there is almost universal access to information and the combined knowledge of experts in almost every field. Yet, we’ve yet to experience anything close to a renaissance of intellectual reasoning or academic understanding. Why? How are we missing out on what should be one of the most fantastic periods of advancement in the history of the world?
The answer to that question is simple but painful to accept: We lack any sense of academic humility. We are so confident that we already know everything we need to know that we close our minds to even looking for more knowledge and information. We let Internet memes inform our opinions. Our social media feeds become our sole source of knowledge. If a topic isn’t trending we don’t know that it exists and, even worse, we don’t care.
Why We Need Humility
From the outset, we are plagued with the misguided notion that equates humility with weakness. Popular social themes have instructed us to “fake it ’til you make it.” Pseudo-psychologists appearing on talk shows have us convinced that we need to exude self-confidence even to the point of covering up the fact that we don’t know something. Employment “experts” tell us that it is just fine to walk into a job interview and pretend to know something we don’t in order to land a job. After all, you can always look it up on the Internet later, right?
All that advice you’ve been listening to is wrong. Every last damn bit of it. Throw it all away. Push it from your mind. Do you want strength? Start with a little humility and admit that you don’t actually know nearly as much as you want people to think you know. We are all so fallible that when we are correct it comes as a surprise.
Jacob Burk, writing for aeon, lays out a strong argument that the ineffective way we obtain information has given us an over-confidence in what we think we understand. He cites recent research, which I strongly suggest you read but know you won’t, showing the “illusion of wisdom” that comes from our sloppy learning methods. As a result of that illusion, we stop looking for answers even when they’re right at our fingertips, such as the two links I’ve provided in this paragraph. I’ve expressed that frustration before and it that lack of humility that prevents you from learning. Even now, you’re likely arguing in your mind that you know enough.
Benefiting From Humility
Compare and contrast time. Confidence breed bullies. Humility breeds negotiators and problem solvers. Confidence says, “I have the best ideas and you need to just shut up and follow me.” Humility says, “Let’s work together and find a solution that respects everyone.” Confidence says, “I am a great leader. Do what I say and everything will be okay.” Humility says, “We do better when we work together, no matter who we are.”
Consider the words of Michele Obama from a speech made at the 2012 Democratic Convention:
We learned about gratitude and humility – that so many people had a hand in our success, from the teachers who inspired us to the janitors who kept our school clean… and we were taught to value everyone’s contribution and treat everyone with respect.
Such is the strength and power of humility. Those who are humble, especially on an academic level, don’t feel as though they have to come up with a solution to every problem on their own. People who are humble are team players. They look for the strength in others and humble leaders bring together those strengths and find solutions through the power of combined effort. Humility is, in essence, at the very heart of democracy. Our nation does not work well under the forceful demands of a tyrant. We believe, and have proven, that we are at our best when everyone contributes their voice and their vote.
Oh Lord, It’s Hard To Be Humble
The Mac Davis song from back in the 1970s is meant to be humorous. The chorus was laughably funny when the novelty song first hit the airwaves. Now, it sounds almost like it might be a campaign theme song.
Oh Lord, it’s hard to be humble
When you’re perfect in every way.
I can’t wait
To look in the mirror.
Cause I get better looking each day.
To know me is to love me.
I must be a hell of a man.
Oh Lord, It’s hard to be humble,
But I’m doing the best that I can.
I still want to smile when I hear that song. Mac’s voice takes me back to a time when I was still riding in the backseat of my father’s car and didn’t think anyone could actually be as egotistical as the guy in the song. I was naive. We are surrounded by people who think they know everything simply because they can Google an answer to a question and make themselves look more intelligent than they actually are. We see them in comments to news articles and in the trolls that proliferate on Twitter.
Such overconfidence is holding us back. Solutions are not found when we refuse to recognise the problem. We need people with humility to successfully negotiate treaties and business agreements. Learning is not something on which we can snack while binge watching Netflix. We need the humility to realize we are letting our brains atrophy. We need real, deep knowledge to lift us out of these antique ideas based in mythologies that are thousands of years too old.
We’re not perfect. The image we think we see in the mirror is an illusion. We’re not doing the best that we can. We all need a strong dose of humility and we need it applied right now.