Humble is the way
Shilpa Shah offers a deep insight into humility—a virtue that allows one to blossom in several ways. She also presents the right approach, through which this great virtue can be practised
I am sure, just like me, even you don’t like egomaniacs. Actually, nobody that I know, wants to ever mingle with arrogant folks. To think about it, what can be more unpleasant than associating with someone who thinks they are way above others or better than the rest? And yet, isn’t it true that we all have known this feeling of being different from others at some point or other?
Let me share a small story about my own life, for I too am guilty of bordering on being an arrogant fool. It all began when I started getting some good amount of success, early on in my career. It so happened that every project, every deal that I was involved in turned out to be a goldmine, and this news spread like fire in the market. Suddenly, I started getting a lot of recognition and even received a few awards for my achievements. The situation was so surreal that not only was I being pursued by head hunters and the industry honchos to work with them, but in some exceptional scenarios, there were even new job roles created to get me on board.
And you know what? It felt incredibly great to be at the centre of it all! Sadly, being barely in my mid-twenties, I was a bit unequipped to handle so much adulation. To make things worse, the business leaders whom I idolised, too were aggressive and arrogant, exhibiting the Type A personality. To my impressionable mind, this loud display of smug behaviour was an endorsement of what is ‘cool and acceptable’ in life. Back then, I wasn’t mature enough to know that arrogance is a mask behind which people hide their insecurities and inferiority complex. And while I had the necessary skill sets to make a mark in my field, I was still naïve and lacked the awareness to see things clearly, especially my own shortcomings. I was under the false belief that my success was because of my efforts alone, hence I deserved all the name and fame. Admittedly, I was really proud of myself to have achieved so much at such a young age.
Timely dose of humility
As evident in many cases, when we achieve something big, it becomes extremely necessary to process it internally, without which our minds can go haywire (as sometimes seen in the case of young achievers), because it is this ‘inner work’ that enables us to manage the ‘weight’ of the achievement and not lose our balance in the bargain.
So, if you are not watchful, this feeling of being successful, of being superior, of being ahead of others in the rat race can be quite overpowering. Fuelled by false pride and arrogance, it puffs one up like an inflated balloon. But, luckily for me, before I could turn into an ego-monster, my mother took me in hand. Although, just like any parent, she was proud of me and happy for my success, on noticing my changed behaviour towards other ‘mere mortals,’ she prescribed me a strong dose of humility. Her simple and yet deep words still echo in my ears: “Learn to be humble, so that you don’t tumble. Remember, the higher you grow, the more important it is for you to stay rooted, so that someday, when you fall and hit the dirt, you will have people to help you and not kick you down.”
However, I got the real import of her wisdom only when I faced some really hard times. It was when, despite my diligent efforts and well-laid out plans and strategies, the outcome failed to meet my expectations that I realised some hard-hitting life-truths. Thankfully, since I had heeded my mother’s advice, I could recognise my limitations, admit my mistakes, and take feedback in the right spirit. And just like she had said, people did come forward to support me during my bad times. Looking back, I sometimes wonder what all could have gone wrong with my life had I been arrogant and blamed others for my failures. It was humility that curbed my arrogance in its roots and saved me from falling into a trap of self-indulgence.
What is humility?
Before continuing with why and how to be humble, we need to clarify what humility is. There are many misconceptions about humility, as it is often equated with low regard for oneself, self-debasement, or meekness, but to be humble doesn’t mean any of these. The Oxford dictionary defines humility as the quality of not thinking that you are better than other people—the quality of being humble. Webster adds to it, as freedom from pride and arrogance. To get more clarity on humility, let us also take a look at what humility is not, which is arrogance, conceit, egotism, pretence, pompousness, and a sense of superiority.
Gurudev Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, the Founder of Art of Living Foundation and a globally revered spiritual and humanitarian leader, explains the nature of ego in one of his talks: “Ego is a feeling of a wall between you and others. Ego is not being natural, not feeling at home, and not having a sense of belongingness. This is what creates tension and problems within you. It makes you stiff, it makes you suffer, and brings tears to your eyes. Being natural is an antidote for ego.” He makes a beautiful observation, signifying the importance of being humble: “When a storm comes, it is the trees that get uprooted. Be as humble as the grass, and nothing can touch you—nothing! In the eyes of the Divine, those who serve the Creation are the true kings and queens. Walk like a king and be a perfect servant.”
Humility is basically about knowing your real place in the world, small but crucial. A humble person is well aware of their strengths and limitations. They know where their power ends and that of the Universe begins, and therefore, always stay in gratitude for whatever they have, never taking for granted anything in their life.
The science of humility
In the book Humility: The Quiet Virtue, the author, Everett L. Worthington Jr., makes a fantastic observation. She says, “Humility doesn’t shout its characteristics. It is the quiet virtue. We must approach it in reverence. Because it is quiet, we must listen, look, and feel to discern its character.”
Since the research on humility is mired in multiple viewpoints on how to define and measure the construct (an idea or theory containing various conceptual elements), there is, perhaps, no perfect scientific definition of humility at this point. However, the description of humility by June Tangney, a professor of Psychology at George Mason University, offers great insight into it: “Although humility is commonly equated with a sense of unworthiness and low self-regard, true humility is a rich, multifaceted construct that is characterised by an accurate assessment of one’s characteristics, an ability to acknowledge limitations, and a forgetting of the self.” A humble person respects the divinity of others as much as he respects his own. In a way, he sees this world as a level playing field.
So, while ego makes you all uptight, pretentious, and unhappy, humility allows you to be confident, natural, and free because humble individuals don’t try to project themselves as perfect and know-it-all. Instead, they prefer being honest with themselves about their strengths and weaknesses, and also like to help others in whichever way they can. And while it is convenient to act humble when you are seeking something from someone above you in a professional or social set-up, the real test of humility happens when a person has acquired power over others.
Do you respect the peon who clears your table every day or think that he is below you and hence can be disregarded? Do you empathise when your juniors bring their problems to you or scold them into submission simply because they are forced to carry out your orders? Do you remember to give credit where it is due or like to project yourself as the doer and achiever? Think over this, for this will give you clues about how humble you are.
Why embrace humility
The more egoistic you are, the more distant you are from the gentle and easy flow of life where everything is in harmony with each other. Most of the problems of life arise from ego issues—as nobody wants to back down, accept mistakes, or call for a ceasefire in case of conflict—whereas a little humility can go a long way in mending hearts, healing wounds, and straightening complications.
Society makes us egoistic, whereas life is designed to ultimately shatter our ego-self and make us see others too as an extension of ourself. Therefore, while it is fine to derive a sense of self-worth from your pride, if this pride turns into arrogance and later conceit, then you are activating the forces of nature to orchestrate your downfall. Though on the surface it appears cruel, its purpose is simply to bring you closer to your real Self, which is aware, divine, mellow, humble, yet more powerful than the small egoic self.
The recent public debacle of a super-talented comedian serves as a strong reminder of the same. It was only a few years back that he made an entry as a contestant on a comedy show. Due to his amazing talent and hard work, he started winning show after show and soon became an indisputable king of his genre. People would literally flock to watch him perform or stay glued to their TV sets to watch his show. This kind of mass adulation was unheard of in a long time. But then, who could have thought that one day, this king would have a mighty fall?
Although he appeared to be the face of it all, in reality, it was not just him but also the entire team of writers, actors, and directors who (with their superb scripting and acting) had set the TRP’s on fire! Overnight, he became a big brand and big advertisers and celebrities wanted to associate with him. It all seemed just so perfect! There was nothing that could stop him from rising higher and higher, except perhaps his own arrogance, which soon became the talk of the town. The media was abuzz with numerous allegations about him: how he was unable to handle his success with grace and poise, how he arrived late on the sets and made everyone wait for him, and even mistreated his co-actors. High-headedness and conceit can render us insensitive, disrespectful, and unmindful of other’s feelings.
Glamour, stardom, and super success: all had apparently gone to his head, making him feel way above others, including those who had contributed to his fame and glory. After a much publicised, ugly public showdown with his team members, his team left him. Had he been prudent enough to practice humility and treat people with love and dignity, he would not have suffered such a dreadful fall. In his second innings, he is still struggling to reach the dizzying heights of popularity and success he once enjoyed.
Modesty is different
It is commonly seen that sometimes people confuse modesty with humility and though they are different conceptually, even tend to use them interchangeably. The most critical difference is that unlike modesty, which focuses on an average or a moderate assessment of one’s qualities or achievements, being humble doesn’t mean having an underestimation of one’s abilities or accomplishments. In fact, humble people usually have an accurate view of their strengths and weaknesses.
Just like someone wise once said, “Humility is not thinking less of yourself; it’s thinking of yourself less,” being humble doesn’t involve harbouring any self-contempt or a sense of unworthiness. Also, to practice humility, it is necessary for you to be authentic with yourself and others. For example, genuine humility is not about trying to force yourself to believe that you are ugly or unintelligent, even when you are actually quite good-looking or pretty sharp. Being humble means realising that, just like others, you are also a part of this vast Universe, and hence there is no need for any unhealthy competition or comparison.
Benefits of embracing humility
By imbibing humility, one gains in several ways, as one becomes receptive to an entirely new world of possibilities. Humility teaches you to be at ease with yourself and others, and experience the interconnectedness of it all, thereby allowing the individual to blossom and do something meaningful in life.
A full cup: Since gratitude is a by-product of humility, humble people are also one of the most grateful people in life. Humility helps them realise that though the effort and work lie in the human domain, results and achievements can only be granted by the Divine. Since the Universe gives you more when you live in gratitude, humble people have very less to complain about life. They lead a satisfying life and most of their desires get fulfilled sooner or later. It is because of this attitude of gratitude that humble individuals are also much happier than others.
Better relations: Humble people are thoughtful and empathetic beings who value others and their contribution to their life. Since people feel appreciated in their company, they love to be around them.
Such people support others in whichever way possible and do not hesitate to receive help when needed. They humbly acknowledge the spiritual fact that the Universe conspires to help them achieve their desires by sending them the right people, opportunities, and support at the right time. It is because of their humility that people come forward to help them, which leads to forming stronger and better relationships. Another attribute that helps them have good relationships is keeping the relationship above the need to be right. Humility makes them accept the fact that they could have perceived the situation wrongly and therefore they do not hesitate to apologise to people who matter to them. This attitude goes a long way in keeping the relationship strong and healthy.
Self-awareness, learning, and growth: Humility is an extremely powerful tool to achieve greater self-awareness, which, in turn, promotes learning and growth. Since humility involves being truthful and accepting your limitations and mistakes, it helps you take judicious stock of your situation. Humble people also realise that they don’t know everything and hence are more open to learning and collaborating with others. If anything goes wrong in life, the trait of humility compels them to acknowledge their own mistakes, instead of fixing the blame on others. This helps them make fundamental changes in their behaviour, planning, or execution if earlier ways did not yield expected results. Such a habit makes them grow exponentially in life.
Holistic wellness: Nascent research suggests that humble people also have a positive sense of well-being. Since they are aware of their faults and gifts, they do not engage in any form of self-loathing or unfair judgements and hence have a healthy outlook towards life. They are also known to handle stress more effectively and reflect better physical and mental health. This is because once you have wised up enough to realise that true humility is a sign of inner health, you practise it, not to impress anyone but for your own health, happiness, and peace of mind.
Ways to cultivate humility
Some traits are innate and some can be acquired with diligence. To cultivate humility, you can practice the following till it becomes part of your very nature:
Listen, listen, listen: Can’t emphasise the importance of doing this more. Most of the time, we are so full of ourselves that instead of listening and paying attention to others, we are lost in our own narcissistic world. We are under the false impression that we know what is best and hence don’t listen to others. But if we want to cultivate humility, it is critical to value others and be genuinely interested in what they have to share. We need to accept that we don’t have answers to everything and thereby make a sincere effort to actively engage with others, acknowledge their ideas, and accept their feedback.
Acceptance: To imbibe humility, it is important to accept yourself with your warts and moles. But that doesn’t mean you get depressed and lazy, and not strive to improve or work on yourself. On the contrary, once you accept what needs to be changed, you can gently and patiently start working towards self- transformation, i.e., instead of cursing and rejecting the darkness, you simply light a lamp. This kind of mature behaviour helps you to stay calm even under stressful situations and overcome challenges with inner peace and outer dynamism.
Serve with a smile and be happy: A humble person is not selfish; they realise that the purpose of human life is not just to live for yourself. It is much bigger and grander than that. So, to imbibe humility, make service to others a part of your daily life. And don’t wait for an opportunity to help others; create your own ways of sharing and caring. If you are good at something, such as writing, teaching, or cooking, use that talent for the betterment of the world. Also, while helping someone, do not try to make any judgements nor expect any acknowledegment in return. To be truly humble, continue doing your best and be grateful for every opportunity to serve, for the Divine dwells in every heart.
In his world-renowned book Autobiography of a Yogi, which is a spiritual treasure for seekers, the great master Paramhansa Yogananda describes an eye-opening incident that elucidates why humility must be cultivated by one and all:
“The scene was a Kumbha Mela at Allahabad,” Lahiri Mahasaya told his disciples. “I had gone there during a short vacation from my office duties. As I wandered amidst the throng of monks and sadhus who had come from great distances to attend the holy festival, I noticed an ash-smeared ascetic, who was holding a begging bowl. The thought arose in my mind that the man was hypocritical, wearing the outward symbols of renunciation without a corresponding inward grace. No sooner had I passed the ascetic then my astounded eye fell on Babaji. He was kneeling in front of a matted-haired anchorite. “Guruji!” I hastened to his side. “Sir, what are you doing here?” “I am washing the feet of this renunciate, and then I shall clean his cooking utensils.” Babaji smiled at me like a little child; I knew he was intimating that he wanted me to criticise no one but to see the Lord as residing equally in all body-temples, whether of superior or inferior men. The great guru added, “By serving wise and ignorant sadhus, I am learning the greatest of virtues, pleasing to God above all others—humility.”
Heroes of humility
Can you name just five people whom you would call humble and which qualities do they have in common? Seems difficult to answer? Well, it’s because, in today’s materialistic world, people are becoming competitive, entitled, attention-seeking, and obsessed with their outer appearance. However, in my own experience, humility is not about any achievement or the lack of it, or any other measurable parameters but about how you are with others in spite of it all, as exemplified by Rajanikant, a megastar from the Indian film industry.
This enigmatic superstar has been ruling the hearts of millions of fans across the globe for decades and is virtually worshipped as a living God by many. His movies are known to create an unimaginable kind of euphoria. Even though he is considered to be a living legend, this superstar does not like to take things for granted. Known to arrive on the sets on time, he has no starry tantrums whatsoever. It is a common truth that the mark of a true gentleman is how he treats people who are lower than him in stature. Rajanikant, being the humane person he is, is known to treat everybody with respect and dignity, whether it is a nondescript spot boy or a glamorous co-star. No wonder that the film industry is full of stories about his magnanimity and humility. It is said that when his films don’t do well at the box office, he helps in compensating for the losses too. Such humility, such selflessness cannot be cultivated overnight or pretended for a long time. It can, however, come from one source—within.
The fact that he once battled hand-to-mouth conditions and did many odd jobs (such as that of a bus conductor) to survive and support his family, and that he is also a spiritual seeker (who regularly travels to the Himalayas to meditate), could provide some insight into his admirable attitude. The skill with which he has balanced his unparalleled fame with genuine humility is, perhaps, what makes him a real-life hero!
Not just him. Take a look around you. I am sure there are many people out there who can teach us a lesson or two in humility. These are simple, everyday folks who have humbly offered their lives in service to others without wanting to draw any attention to themselves. These people refrain from any kind of self-promotion, as they are secure from within. They are the true ambassadors of humility.
I also learnt what it means to be humble from my dad, and more importantly, without him being ever preachy about it. He was a topper throughout his academic years, in spite of being forced to survive on a daily cup of tea and bread, and a few meagre scholarships, as his father did not want to support his medical vocation. Even though he turned out to be a brilliant dermatologist with a healing touch, he was neither arrogant about his achievements nor bitter about his past. In fact, just by observing him go about his life meeting others’ needs, I imbibed the art of impartially sharing the gifts and talents the Divine has bestowed me with.
It hardly mattered to him if the patient sitting before him in tattered clothes would be able to pay his fees. What was of utmost importance to him was that his patients should be cured of their ailments, irrespective of their socio-economic class and status. And even now, years after his passing away, people whose lives had been touched by him, fondly recall how humble my dad was and how he treated everybody with dignity in spite of his busy schedule and vast knowledge. It is truly because of his humility and compassion that he continues to live in so many hearts and minds.
Humility at workplace
Humility is not just some quiet virtue to be practised in your personal space, but it is also the new ‘H-factor,’ that is changing the way things are shaping in the professional world. Citing here a brilliant case, as described by authors Pat Williams and Jim Denney in their book, Humility: The Secret Ingredient of Success:
When New York Times columnist Thomas L. Friedman questioned Laszlo Bock, Senior VP, People Operations for Google, about the qualifications needed to get hired, Bock replied, “A job applicant’s skills are definitely a factor in deciding who gets hired. But there are other qualifications that weigh much more heavily—and one of those qualifications is humility. The kind of humility Google is looking for is essentially ‘intellectual humility,’ the ability to learn from others, learn from experience, and learn from failure; the ability to adapt to new ideas and new situations; the ability to recognise when someone else has a better idea, even when it means discarding our own ideas. “Without humility,” said Bock, “you are unable to learn.” People who lack humility think that if something goes right, it’s because of their own skill and genius, but if something goes wrong, they blame other people or factors beyond their control. Their lack of humility blinds them to the lesson they need to learn from that failure.”
The people Bock seeks to hire at Google have that paradoxical balance of confidence plus humility. Google seeks people who will argue fiercely and confidently for their point of view. Then, when presented with information that contradicts their view, they will change their minds, humbly and instantly.
And, by the way, Google is not the only company that is looking for people with great attitudes; many companies are now looking for leaders with humility. Shares Rashmi S, who runs a search firm for senior positions, “Gone are the days when leaders with aggression were preferred. Now, with the changing market dynamics and presence of huge millennial workforce, many organisations are looking to hire leaders with soft skills such as humility and empathy along with the domain skills. Leaders who have a willingness to listen, who can collaborate are increasingly being sought.”
According to Pranav Joshi, Business Head with an MNC and also a Spiritual Coach, apart from the other key factors, humility helps in bonding with colleagues and customers. He explains, “Embracing humility doesn’t mean that you are meek or that you don’t speak up. Rather, being humble signifies that you have an accurate view about yourself, that you are receptive to different views, and most importantly, you are courageous enough to acknowledge your mistakes. This, in turn, helps one to adapt easily and do what is best needed.”
The Indian culture, being rooted in spiritual wisdom, has always known the value of this rare virtue and has sought to inculcate it in its people. The tradition of bending and touching the feet of elders has its origin in giving up ego and cultivating humility. And the elders inevitably respond with a blessing such as “May you always be happy,” “May you achieve your desires,” or “May you be blessed with long life and prosperity.” These positive affirmations come into fruition sooner or later as heartfelt words are potent with manifesting power. While visiting temples too, people genuflect before the deity to get blessings. All these things strongly indicate an important thing: that the Universe showers its bounties upon those who know how to bend, how to be ego-free, and how to be humble.
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