Thursday, December 19, 2013

Nothing Succeeds Like Humility

In a society noisy with trash-talking and self-hype, humility doesn’t seem to have much to offer people. It doesn’t get you talk show invitations, YouTube views, Twitter followers, or album sales. And yet a recent article at Fast Company calls this unsung virtue “the super-achiever’s secret power.”

The authors of The Art of Doing: How Superachievers Do What They Do and How They Do It Well interviewed celebrities, businesspeople, and other achievers, from Dog Whisperer Cesar Milan to Funk Whisperer George Clinton to Tennis Ball Whisperer Martina Navratilova, as well as many lesser-known figures, about how they reached the top of their chosen fields. A common thread is that the subjects consider true humility to have been integral to their success.

The article quotes June Price Tangney, a psychology professor and researcher of moral emotions, who defines true humility this way: “Having the ability to acknowledge our mistakes and limitations, having an openness to new ideas, and being able to maintain a realistic perspective of our place in the larger world.” By avoiding the constraints of their own biases, the book’s interviewees were able to process information in a way that led to better decisions and outcomes.

Despite decades of experience handling the high-pressure duty of hostage negotiations, for example, former FBI chief negotiator Gary Noesner insisted on the input of his less-experienced team in order to get fresh perspectives on situations that often required making life or death decisions.

Tony Hsieh, the CEO of shoe and clothing company Zappos, also readily acknowledges his limitations as a leader: “My goal as CEO is to make as few decisions as possible. The best decisions are made from the ground up.”

Opera soprano Anna Netrebko points out that great performances don’t blossom from playing the diva backstage. From the beginning of each new production, Netrebko keeps her ego in check and strives to foster an atmosphere of cooperation among the cast and crew: “You have to be attuned to your fellow performers to hold it together for each other.”

Whatever personal issues he may have off the set, actor Alec Baldwin, another of the book’s subjects, credits the success of his show 30 Rock to a “vital interdependence” between him and the show’s writers. He compared their relationship to a “singer/songwriter kind of thing,” and said, “I’m just getting up there and saying the lines they write and giving them everything I got.”

“When people in an organization, family, or group practice a truth-seeking humility,” the authors conclude, “the better the chances of their shared endeavor being a smash success.”

This applies to us on a national level as well, says David J. Bobb, author of the recently-released Humility: An Unlikely Biography of America’s Greatest Virtue. Americans are often stereotyped abroad as arrogant bullies, but Bobb argues that, as his subtitle suggests, a proper measure of humility is our underrated and perhaps most important characteristic. Some of the revered figures in America’s past – George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, and Frederick Douglass, to name three – exhibited humility in key decisions that helped propel them and our country to greatness. Many don’t know that Washington, for example, turned down an offer to be crowned king of the fledgling United States. Had he succumbed to this temptation of power and set this country on the path to monarchy, he would have changed the course of the nation forever and probably ended the American Experiment.

But Bobb posits that America has lost touch with both our humility and our greatness. We are afflicted today with an arrogance that hinders a revival of our exceptionalism, and the challenge of our time is to rediscover the humility that will move us forward once again.

Whether you buy that argument entirely or not, the fact remains that we live in a time in which the virtue of humility is at best overlooked or mistaken for timidity, and at worst actually held in contempt. In fact, as individuals or a nation, adopting the right degree of humility can widen the doors of our perception (to paraphrase Blake), clear new paths to success, and keep us grounded along the way.

(This article originally appeared here on Acculturated, 12/17/13)