May 26 2016

Humility: A Primal Virtue with Modern Value

By Mark Sisson
28 Comments

Humility- A Primal Virtue with Modern Value FinalI’ve gotten a lot of feedback about my leadership post earlier this year—particularly from people who connected with the humility aspect. It’s a characteristic I think most people would agree is in short supply these days, but most of us still admire it when we see it. In truth, little in our culture today encourages a humble disposition, and I think that’s a relatively new development. More than ever it seems to be the loudest, boldest, and (often) most obnoxious voices that garner our attention. Brashness somewhere along the line became an asset rather than an irritation. We’re told we need to do more, be more, have more, “fight” for what what we presumably deserve, and push our way to the front if we want our good in life. Put yourself out there, talk yourself up, and—above all—look out for number one. Is anyone else exhausted by these instructions? The key (and related) question of the day, however, is this: what would Grok have said about this social shift?

First off, I think it’s safe to say he would’ve voted anyone exemplifying said traits off the island, as would have the majority his contemporaries—for very good reason. A band full of overgrown egos would’ve spelled disaster for survival in his day. In the “immediate” economies of hunter-gatherer life (“simple” hunter-gatherers who relied on no food storage in particular), daily cooperation was a must. Everyone upheld their duties to the band, and the group’s good was the organizing principle of each and every day. There simply wasn’t room for entitlement.

In keeping, band cohesion relied on every member’s adherence to the social codes that were passed on through story and ritual. These codes of collaboration and reverence weren’t just rules to be followed to avoid conflict or ostracism (a situation with significant, if not deadly, consequences in those days). Band codes were a spiritual as well as social ethos. Members participated in this ethical and spiritual tradition, and by doing so saw themselves as co-creators of it across the generations. This contribution was a key and honored aspect of their own individuation. Their individual identity was, in part, constructed and fulfilled through the personal upholding of the age-old codes.

In other words, our ancestors defined themselves by more than their bundle of desires, moods, and affinities. They viewed themselves as actors in and stewards of something bigger than themselves. While they enjoyed freedom to move in and out of bands as season or whim dictated, who they were was always, in part, how they lived through the communal codes, the story of their individual and collective humanity, wherever they happened to be settled at the time. Warding off conflict, self-centered action, and power struggles offered the group the focus and cohesion needed for optimum chance of survival.

As I mentioned a few weeks ago, a near universal element in hunter-gatherer ethos was horizontal “egalitarian” leadership. Just as members each upheld the social contract of collaboration, so they all contributed to decisions related to the group. If more focused leadership was required, group consensus—often over an extended period of consideration—determined the selection. Humility was a key merit in this choice. A humble person was a person who wouldn’t be enamored by a taste of “power” and one who would be less likely to overstep the bounds of his/her influence. A humble person was one who could be trusted to serve the welfare of the group. Blowhards and browbeaters needn’t apply.

When cohesion was maintained, the band was safer and more prosperous. Everyone had what they needed based on participation rather than entitlement or power. Problems were more likely resolved peacefully and without lingering resentments that would carry over and disrupt ongoing collaboration. Likewise, balance between human need and natural environment was upheld in a conscious, reverent way. Their respect for the society and natural world around them kept them alive and thriving.

If we accept the virtue of humility for Grok’s time, there’s still the question of how its value transfers to our own age. What does humility mean to the human story as it continues today?

First off, I think we commonly misunderstand humility, seeing it as a low opinion of one’s self rather than what I’d suggest it is: situating one’s self-concept within the steadying perspective of a broader backdrop.

We’ve all met people who believe themselves to be the end-all. Their self-absorption and self-aggrandizement come with plenty of liabilities. Not only are they not fun to be around, but their lack of a larger perspective discourages them from imagining larger impacts of their decisions and prevents them from objectively assessing their own motivations or capacities. How is this an asset?

The core value of humility is, as it was for our primal ancestors, to place ourselves—our abilities, our desires, our purpose—against the larger contexts that exists. This doesn’t need to be a religious or even cosmological issue. To put it simply, it means moving through life and relationships and business valuing ourselves but deciding to see our place and choices through a broader lens and opting not to place ourselves higher than others.

Many people assume this entails limiting the expression of their talents in a false modesty. Others just as unfortunately believe they should think of others’ needs but not their own. Still as wrong, some believe they shouldn’t try to make a mark with what they have to offer.

I think there are substantial differences at work here. You can—and should—offer your potential to the world because that’s actualization. No one in Grok’s day imposed a guilt trip to the best hunter in the band; however, that hunter saw his role for what it was within the group and within the stories of his ancestors. He was part of a larger picture, and it offered perspective. Living your purpose doesn’t equate to indulging in pomposity.

Rather than seeing our particular skills or smarts as justification for authority, we do better to view them as tools. This is what I have to work with in life. It will help me make a good living for myself and my family. It gives me a way to contribute to the greater community, however I define that for myself.

Likewise, people living from humility will position their purpose within a greater circle of reflections and feedback. They’ll be open to other opinions and methods. They’ll be able to work more cooperatively. They’ll be less attached to their own power and more focused on the process. As a result, guess what? They’ll be more successful in their endeavors. They’ll have a more fulfilling family life. They’ll enjoy greater rapport with their colleagues and clients. They’ll have access to others’ insights and perspectives, which they’ll be able to understand are resources they can apply for their own and others’ benefit.

Humble people will be more trustworthy and thereby attract (and retain the cooperation of) others, who want to partner or collaborate for mutual advantage. One study, for example, emphasized the abilities to admit mistakes, to acknowledge others’ strengths and to teach others as solid predictors of people’s success and that of the organizations they worked for. Another study demonstrated that managers who were humble inspired more commitment and receptivity from their employees. I would humbly suggest the same goes for personal relationships.

Finally, when we cultivate humility, we don’t get lost in the entitlement lie that tells us we don’t need to work for what we want. In Grok’s day, before the rise of hierarchy, that wouldn’t have flown. Today we do just as well to understand none of us is above doing the work that needs to be done—whether it’s within our families, professions or communities. Showing up and taking part with a healthy dose of humility not only fosters our own sense of self-discipline, but it opens the door to the benefits of communal belonging and endeavor—what we’re all wired to appreciate. Never underestimate the timeless power of tribe and purpose—in Grok’s day or our own.

Thanks for reading, everyone. I’d love to hear your thoughts on humility and what it means to you. Share your comments, and enjoy the rest of your week.

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28 thoughts on “Humility: A Primal Virtue with Modern Value”

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  1. I’m not sure if American entitlement is on the rise or if I simply notice it more now that I’m grown but I notice that I tend to gravitate toward quieter, humble people. I stay humble by understanding that there is always more to learn about the world and one’s place in it. I try to see things from a broader perspective and truly understand that nothing by any means is all about me. I just wish more people would consider that the needs of others or the needs of their community may deserve just as much if not more consideration than their own. As always, your post got me thinking. Thank you.

    1. I think feeling entitled is definitely on the rise in America. I’m seeing it right now with my neighbor who rented out a room cheap, as a favor, to the 24 year old son of her friend. Anyway, he has a raging party while the homeowner is on vacation and it ends in a street brawl at 7:30am right in front of my house! A couple of arrests, some busted teeth. Lots of cops.

      She says “here’s the rest of your rent back, you need to move out in seven days”. And he threatens to sue her because he has rights as a tenant! And he’s still there five days after their agreed upon date to move out!

      No shame at all. He still doesn’t see what the big deal is.

      Sadly this is becoming more common.

      By the way, speaking of humility, I’m like totally the most humble person ever. Like way more humble than most. Top one percent for sure.

      1. Hmm… Isn’t bragging about one’s humility sort of an oxymoron? (Just kidding, Clay. I always enjoy your comments so keep on posting.)

  2. More than ever it seems to be the loudest, boldest, and (often) most obnoxious voices that garner our attention. Brashness somewhere along the line became an asset rather than an irritation.

    And instilling fear is always the tactic of last resort…or sometimes the first. Practice humility, and there’s nothing to fear.

  3. Insightful as always, Mark. The emphasis of seeing yourself as a contributor to a larger cause/life story, rather than the center of it, is at the heart of what you’re talking about.

  4. In the media, with the rise of reality TV, social media influencers, and the cult of personality, humility seems to be in short supply. But in every day life, I’m still fortunate enough to see lots of it.

  5. Being humble is a lost virtue. This made me think of the people I know that are up to their ears in debt and live paycheck to paycheck. To me living this way would be humiliating. However, these same people insist on maintaining an illusion by driving the most expensive automobiles and having the latest stuff in an effort to avoid humility? Living modestly and within one’s means, is freedom. There is nothing humbling about being debt free, not having a mortgage, car payment, etc.

  6. Lack of humility and a sense of entitlement are often most obvious in the way a man treats women. Common knowledge has it (although no one really knows for sure) that Grok and his ilk treated women rather poorly; i.e. bigger and stronger meant domination over the smaller and weaker. That was then. In today’s world true humility is indeed important in a personal relationship if that relationship is to survive.

  7. I’ve always worked twice as hard for a humble boss. I’d do anything for them. The ranting, raving screaming boss loses me immediately and I was soon down the road…happily!

    1. He is the first person who comes to my mind when hearing the word humble. He is a true representation of humility.

  8. Love this! To me the bottom line is we owe it to ourselves to reach our full potential, and then we can truly contribute to the betterment of the group. Thanks for making us think,Mark!

  9. Fantastic post but somehow I wonder if this Is this really about Trump, or maybe even Clinton lol? Or is this just about America in general at this point in history, because where I live, in Asia, leaders all over, are apologizing and falling on their swords for the most minor indiscretion. Excessive pride is a non-starter here and humility is the norm. But if they can’t lead by greatness alone, they will find other perhaps more surreptitious modes to achieve their objectives while still maintaining a humble face. Not that there is anything wrong with that. You still have to make the omelet.

    In the West, there is a different tradition. One thinks of Cleon of Athens when he promised to kill or capture the Spartans within twenty days. They had never surrendered. They surrendered within twenty days. Or more recently, Conor McGregor, who promised to knock out Jose Aldo, who hadn’t been beaten in eleven years. He knocked him out in 13 seconds. This brash behavior is rewarded in Western societies up and until the promise is left unfulfilled. Cleon was killed, and Conor, choked out. The latter, thankfully, very much still alive, with the opportunity to redeem his great promise.

    This, no doubt, testosterone inspired behavior, is what the brilliant Deborah Tannen referred to as a hierarchical authority pattern, or to brutally paraphrase, an upper and lower dog interaction. Any male who has waited on the playground to be picked for the team knows about this behavior. The weakest boy always gets picked, just picked last, and perhaps gets verbally abused a bit, in a loving, or not loving way, for that distinction. But he is included in the group. In horizontal authority patterns, that Tannen (1990) associated with females, girls really, that weakest member of the society might be excluded from the group altogether. She observed this in the patterns of interactions of children. As I interpret this, girls can be really mean. Boys are just plain mean, but also brutal. You can watch the movie Mean Girls to see the downsides of horizontal authority patterns (2004).

    So maybe now, in 2016, all the gender differences have gone away. But what happened to hierarchical authority pattern. Do the rules of the playground not apply to Grok? I think this interpretation of Grok’s world underestimates hierarchical authority patterns. Of course, you need both to be a great leader. As Nocona mentions, you will break your back for a humble boss. But I think they need to have both attributes. Salt of the earth and awe-inspiring ability of some sort. Humble, from “humus” meaning ground, but also something else, some form of greatness. Perhaps greatness from dexterity with a spear, physical mastery, divine right, extreme intelligence, experience, or now, mostly, mastery of public media, or most pathetically, extreme cuteness. Great leaders are us, but somehow better than us. This is the balance they tread and this is a balance we have recognized from our early childhood.

    As Shakespeare’s Henry V said,

    “We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;?
    For he to-day that sheds his blood with me
    ?Shall be my brother; be he ne’er so vile,?
    This day shall gentle his condition;?
    And gentlemen in England now a-bed?
    Shall think themselves accurs’d they were not here,?
    And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks?
    That fought with us upon Saint Crispin’s day.”

    Harry, my brother, my great brother, my king, my lord. Me, but still, in reality, far greater than me. For this man, I will proudly lay down my life. But still my brother.

    And, Clay, you are so not humble, but with such greatness, why would you be. ; )

    1. I’m going to have to look up Deborah Tannen. I’ve thought about this a lot but these definitions make a lot of sense. Men really do have a dog pack like pecking order. It’s simple and you know where you are in that pack. You can rise and fall but you are always included.

      I remember with my guy friends growing up, that pretty much any guy that showed up and tried to be part of the group was allowed to join.They may be at the bottom, and teased a bit, but it was kind of understood that if someone puts in the effort to join the group, you kind of have to let them.

      In surfing it’s pretty much a grok situation. The pecking order is pretty clear (if you pay attention) and enforced (against those who don’t pay attention). And it changes from hour to hour. I can paddle out and be at the top, getting the best waves, unchallenged, and then it can all change in minutes when the “pro show” paddles out. Then I shift way down the pecking order and the people below me, well, they might as well go in because they’re going to be waiting a long time for scraps.

      If you understand ad repect this dynamic, it goes smoothly. If you don’t you’re going to get mad dogged out of the line up.

  10. Self-deprecating is more common in the UK, which is good because it is funny.

  11. I really enjoy the philosophical discussion on this – the needs of the many outweighing the desires of the few – so to speak. The irony is perhaps that one travels further and higher with a humble approach…good stuff Mark.

  12. I think it also goes along with today’s society and media; so big, too many people, “connecting” everywhere but impersonally with no real human footprint. And there is so MUCH, so FAST it can’t ever be caught up.
    It engenders the feeling that the loudest, biggest most obnoxious noise will be the one noticed… and to be noticed in such a foray is difficult and prized so the bigger, the noisier, the better.
    The most brash becomes prized in the spotlight of this nameless space because it’s nobody’s HOME or community. If people had to go HOME to those people every night, and live in the same smaller community tomorrow, face to face, it would be a different story. Humility and character would again come to the forefront where people live WITH each other over time instead of sound bites skipping in front of the tv screen.
    You can’t fake character over time. But it also takes time our media doesn’t have

  13. “Do not boast about tomorrow, for you do not know what a day may bring. Let another praise you, and not your own mouth; a stranger, and not your own lips.” Proverbs 27:1,2

    Personally I think true humility is one of the most attractive characteristics in a person. Thanks Mark, another thoughtful article.

  14. In a therapy group I used to attend they explained it by saying, “Humility is teachability.”

    In other words, respect what other people have learned and be willing to learn from them.

    Don’t think you have all the answers. Don’t be prideful and unwilling to change.

    On the other hand, it doesn’t mean self-abasement or believing everyone is better than you. Stay steadfast in your course, but don’t be too rigid about it.

  15. Humility is a beautiful virtue that is sadly missing and seems to give rise to many of our “modern problems” like road rage. Humble people understand we are all on this road together trying to get somewhere in a short period of time (otherwise we’d all just walk). I see several drivers who pay no attention to other drivers nor the speed of the traffic, as a result they go at a pace that is good enough for them – that driver who drives 10 MPH slower than the speed limit and maybe 12 to 15 MPH slower than the flow. It is irritating, yes, however, have seen it cause people to swerve or otherwise move about to miss hitting them nearly crashing into other cars as a result. Sure, it may not cause the car directly behind them to “miss the green light” but the other 10 cars following may be late to work because they now will miss the 3 or 4 other green lights. That shows a lack of humility. As a result I leave 15 minutes early and I only work 4 miles from my home. My motto is “if you wanna get by me I will move out of your way, it’s obviously more important for you to get on your way and I will yield”. The funny thing is that the “I’m in a hurry” person usually then snaps out of it and slows down to the pace of the group. Also, I give a “pass” to the slow people since perhaps they are 90 years old (like my dad) and actually need to get somewhere and it’s safer to go that slow.
    Then of course there are people walking about with ear buds in, walking out into traffic. That also shows a lack of humility. That error can kill you, and there are no “do overs” for dead.
    I’m trying to train my son to treat others as “more important” than he is and to show humility to everyone.
    True humility is a strength and will help us to be compassionate and empathetic with people who seem to be entitled. Maybe there is something going on in their life that has them distracted enough to act like that. The humble people will just flow with it and not allow it to provoke anger in themselves.
    People who are humble can be taught, they are teachable and as a result rather pleasant to be around.

    And yes, I have the day off and have had a cup of coffee so sorry for the rant.

  16. “Do not imagine that if you meet a really humble man he will be what most people call “humble” nowadays: he will not be a sort of greasy, smarmy person, who is always telling you that, of course, he is nobody.

    Probably all you will think about him is that he seemed a cheerful, intelligent chap who took a real interest in what you said to him.

    If you do dislike him it will be because you feel a little envious of anyone who seems to enjoy life so easily. He will not be thinking about humility: he will not be thinking about himself at all.”

    And, “True humility is not thinking less of yourself; it is thinking of yourself less.”

    Both quotes from the late C.S. Lewis.

  17. I was was always taught humility is truly knowing oneself, your positives and weaknesses. We have an entrenched sense of entitlement here in Australia, many people refuse to consider contributing to their own health care costs and in many cases expect “the government” ( which is actually all people in society anyway) to continually bail them out of financial hardship. Ironically, in Grok society this hand up happened as a matter of course because it was the best outcome for the group but it also came with shared responsibility. What is happening now is that we distance ourselves from the responsibility of contributing to society and its workings and hand it to “the government”. This has led to individualism with no sense of contributing to society, a “me” generation. We truly need a society of humble people who contribute the best they can and accept the differences of skill and ability within the community as part of what makes each person unique and to do so without resentment or envy. Great article Mark

  18. The 77th story in ‘Zen Flesh, Zen Bones’ is called “No Attachment to Dust”. It consists of a series of pointers that a Zen Master gives to his students, and is wonderful food-for-thought with regards to humility. Here are just a few of the phrases:

    Even though alone in a dark room, be as if you were facing a noble guest. Express your feelings, but become no more expressive than your true feelings.

    A person may appear a fool and yet not be one. He may only be guarding his wisdom carefully.

    Modesty is the foundation of all virtues. Let your neighbors discover you before you make yourself known to them.

    Some things, though right, were considered wrong for generations. Since the value of righteousness may be recognised after centuries, there is no need to crave immediate appreciation.

    Live with cause and leave results to the great law of the universe. Pass each day in peaceful contemplation.

    Thanks, Mark, for reminding me of this – it’s a little story that’s worth reading again and again.