Are you humble? I have been trying to wrap my head around this concept. When I ask people to list “Indian” values, hospitality is always included in the list. Also humility. For some reason, we value humility as a personality trait. People in the West, for instance, are comfortable with saying things such as, “I am the best maths student in the school,” or “I am an Olympic-level swimmer.” We Indians would probably view such statements as unabashed boasts (not that too many of us are Olympic swimmers, anyway). What an arrogant bastard, we would think. Hence humility.
What is humility? Is it an attitude or an air? In other words, when we demur at compliments, are we feigning humility or do we really think we are average non-achievers? Is the following statement an outright lie or a true reflection of our feelings: “Q3 profits? Oh, no, it wasn’t just me. It was the whole team.” There are many things that we say to deflect praise— oh, it was nothing, it was just good timing, it was the markets, and my personal favourite: It was because of the blessings of the Almighty in all his infinite glory. The question is whether we actually mean what we say or whether we are just saying it. One of my favourite definitions of humility is by William Temple, the 98th archbishop of Canterbury. “Humility,” he said, “does not mean thinking less of yourself than of other people, nor does it mean having a low opinion of your own gifts. It means freedom from thinking about yourself at all.”
Media mogul Ted Turner once said, ‘If only I had a little humility, I would be perfect’
I want to be humble. Don’t get me wrong. I am not arrogant and, as my brother would say, I have little to be arrogant about. But I do have a pretty healthy self-esteem. I know my flaws but I am also aware that there are areas in which I am not a complete washout. Is that arrogance?
I think there are different kinds of humility. Artistic humility is effusive and flowery, like artists themselves. Musicians are supremely self-effacing. If anyone compliments a singer, they’ll say things such as, “Oh, but I am nothing compared to Gangubai. I am the mud under her heel.” In other words, while my bandish can capture the essence of the raga Yaman, Gangubai’s bandish defines Yaman.
Scientists, on the other hand, deprecate themselves with a certain clinical distance. “Oh, thank you for calling my theorem groundbreaking. But there is actually that vexing matter of the material implication of the alleged logical equivalent of the temporal order of events which Bose at JNU seems to have solved.” In other words, I may be a genius, but Bose is a super-genius.
For portfolio managers, humility, as with many things, is a function of the markets. “Yes, I am the Master of the Universe... until the markets open tomorrow.”
Captains of industry exude humility with a twist. “Yes, I built Cipro from scratch into a multi-billion dollar empire. But I may be the only bozo in the world who is consulted by two opposing political parties.” Say what? Who cares if you are consultant to political parties? What does that have to do with Cipro? And while we are at it, where’s my dividend?
Recently, I came across a Wikihow on how to be humble (www.wikihow.com/be-humble). When it is listed in Wikihow, you know that humility has come of age, that it has become cool. Wikihow lists a number of self-evident, somewhat idiotic tips: Recognize your faults (oh really? What a novel idea!); appreciate others; and “rejuvenate your sense of wonder”.
Thankfully, humility is easily gained without having to undergo this rigmarole. All you need to do is live a life and have a shred of self- awareness. There will be countless opportunities when you will screw up or have people tell you how bad you are. There will be countless occasions when you will hurt people you love and have to make decisions you regret. The next time your boss or board rips into your performance, don’t think of it as a failure; think of it as life’s lesson in humility.
Shoba Narayan is humbly trying to figure out humility. Write to her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Read her previous columns on www.livemint.com/shoba-narayan