A story with dubious source material

Nov 4, 2009   //   by Alida   //   Career, Creative Discontent, Faith, Television  //  2 Comments

I work with a lot of really talented people.

I have classmates, colleagues, and peers (and organizations, for that matter) with impressive lists of accomplishments and accolades. I could make a very long list of people who have received awards and honors; been the first whatever-it-is in their school, field, or industry; participated in world premieres; been accepted to prestigious programs — and the list could go on.

Which has gotten me to thinking lately about humility, pride, false humility, and arrogance.

It can be a little unnerving to listen to someone spout off a list of accomplishments, or to hear someone say, point-blank, “I am the best in my field.” It can be uncomfortable to listen to someone speak of their own achievements, especially without a self-deprecating tone or a “humble,” aw-shucks overtone to the information.

And yet…

I read somewhere — and I’m pretty sure it was C.S. Lewis who said it, but my books (with the exception of about 25 that are specifically thesis-related) are all packed away, so I have no way of looking through to find it, but Google is confirming that I’m at least in the ballpark when I attribute this idea (if not the quote) to him…

Ahem.

I read somewhere (and I paraphrase greatly here) that true humility is seeing ourselves as we truly are. Humility is seeing ourselves honestly, and while that means seeing the less-than-desirable qualities, it also means seeing the good ones.

Trying to find the original quote by Lewis, I did find an essay that paraphrased the idea that I was trying to remember:

First, we must recognize that the true end of humility is not self-contempt (which still leaves people concerned with themselves). To paraphrase C. S. Lewis, humility does not consist in handsome people trying to believe they are ugly and clever people trying to believe they are fools. When Muhammad Ali announced that he was the greatest, there was a sense in which his pronouncement did not violate the spirit of humility. False modesty can actually lead to an ironic pride in one’s better-than-average humility.

Humility is a strange, complex trait, and I’m not even going to try to get into a full discussion of it here. The essay I linked to does a pretty good job of exploring the full implications of humility, but this idea of humility being a full, honest view of ourselves has intrigued me for some time.

Colin and I spent part of the summer watching the first four seasons of Bones, and the titular character, Temperance Brennan (“Bones”), is a brilliant forensic anthropologist who happens to be a little socially awkward and unaware of certain unspoken yet agreed-upon societal conventions, which makes for some amusing character interactions. (And once again, I don’t have any source material with me, so my reference to the scene is going to be far less precise than it should be.) It happens numerous times throughout the series, but there was one particular scene where she bluntly states that she is the best in her field, so of course her answer had turned out to be the right one.

That struck me as a great example of this kind of humility — or, at least, humility in the context of achievement. Bones has no illusions about her intelligence. She consistently refuses to be dumbed-down, and is confident in her status as a brilliant scientist, best-selling author, and wealthy woman. And that makes people uncomfortable. For the most part, though, she presents those statuses in this kind of humility: seeing herself, professionally, as she really is.

The counter to that scene was another moment in which Bones was corrected by a co-worker, and instead of getting defensive, thanked her for pointing out the error. Cam, the co-worker, was taken aback, and were it not for the fact that Bones doesn’t “do” sarcasm, would have thought that the thanks was a passive-aggressive move.

Fully aware of her talents, fully willing to be corrected. (At least, in that scenario; I’m not saying that the character is perfect, but that those are two examples that perfectly showcase what I’ve been thinking about.)

It’s easier to do professionally than personally, I think. Every artist has written a bio listing parts played, shows worked on, awards won, education received. Those are the easy ones to claim. The next level, I think, are the achievements that are quantifiable and documented, but sound more like bragging: First in her class. Highest-ranked. Founder of a successful program.

And then, there’s that level of very real achievement that’s more difficult to quantify, but true nonetheless. Internationally renowned. Highly sought-after. Life-changing. Innovative. Successful. Best in the field.

Like all other areas of life, there’s a fine line between humility and hubris, between honest self-representation and exaggeration for the sake of impressing others.

And maybe it is easier to find that balance professionally. Maybe it’s easier to recognize our good qualities, in balance with the things that aren’t so good, in those quantifiable achievements. It may be unsettling to hear someone say, without qualifying the statement or making excuses, “I was the top of my class.” That kind of direct self-confidence may be uncomfortable, but I think that it’s still a kind of humility. When it comes to personal humility and vanity, though, there are far fewer ways to quantify, and seeing ourselves as we truly are, good and bad, is more difficult when we don’t have those quantifiable labels to fall back on.

I’ve worked hard for my professional achievements, and I don’t want to diminish them. I’m writing a lot of cover letters these days, and that’s definitely an art. It’s taking the achievements listed on my resume and looking at them through the lens of the company that I’m applying to, finding the ways in which my skill set aligns with their needs, and finding the words to craft myself, in two pages or less, as the answer to all their problems. It presents a lot of opportunity for exaggeration, and we all know of (or have maybe even written) resumes that have greatly overstated the applicant’s skills, responsibilities, and achievements.

However, I’m finding that I see my own skill-set through different eyes as I look at it through the lens of each company’s needs. What may start as a desperate search for commonalities so that they don’t throw my resume away after the first sentence (or, more likely, delete it) very often turns into a realization that I do have the skills they’re looking for; I’ve just always described them differently. Or that my experience feeds directly into the job that I’m applying for; I just never put the pieces together in that way.

I don’t want to devalue myself professionally. I have a lot to bring to any company that I work for, and I recognize that I’ve worked hard for the skills and recognition that I have. And yet, I sometimes feel uncomfortable with other people’s blunt assessments of their own talents and accomplishments — not to mention feeling uncomfortable presenting myself in such a forthright way.

So here’s the question: How does humility fit into achievement? How do you handle your accomplishments and advertise yourself as a professional commodity without sacrificing humility, integrity, and honesty?

2 Comments

  • the quote is from Lewis’ Screwtape Letters

  • I think the kind of genuine humility you’re describing has a couple of factors, and both of them tie into community and relationships — that it’s not just about me, but about all of us.

    One is that I am more focused on what’s good for other people than what’s good for myself. In my dizzying pride, as in my deepest self-contempt, my eyes are firmly focused on myself. But when I focus on what’s best for everybody, I can recognize that my own excellence is an incredible gift to others — to my students, to my family, to my community, etc. Denying my own accomplishments or talents would significantly reduce my ability to use them to serve my community. At the same time, aggrandizing myself to the point that I ignore the accomplishments and gifts of others in the community isn’t good for them, or for those who might benefit from the gifts of others.

    The second thing is that I must recognize that a certain level of pride or arrogance can make other people uncomfortable — either because they’re so turned-off by my attitude that they can’t receive and appreciate what I have to offer, or because they’re uncomfortable sharing their own gifts in the presence of someone so much more accomplished (or just vocal in her accomplishments). So that’s about hospitality and courtesy — my ability and desire to make others feel welcomed, appreciated, and valued.

    Surely that means there are times when I won’t mention my own accomplishments, either because they’re not relevant or because they would make someone else feel rejected by comparison. Likewise, there are times when I am obligated to bring them up, because they are relevant and of service, or because they might give another person permission to be excellent.

    I guess at the end of the day it’s about realizing that we’re not in competition with one another; that the ideal situation isn’t for me to be best at the expense of everyone else, but for ALL of us to increasingly progress towards excellence in our own fields and callings. To the extent that my experience and accomplishments put me in the top of my field, I have an obligation to help others learn and progress, as well — because ultimately the community is what’s important, not my solitary self.

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