Friday, 1 July 2011

Humility - finding a balance...

The concept of humility is talked about a lot in martial arts circles. It is a sign of advancement that as you progress on your journey you become increasingly more humble. For many people humility is a natural part of their character, they have always shown humility towards others, whatever path they have chosen in life. For others, humility is learned the hard way – they are humbled by their experiences of life. A few remain blinkered all their lives and never come to understand the strength of humility.

But what exactly is humility? Here’s a dictionary definition: “The quality or state of being humble in spirit. Freedom from pride or arrogance. Humble: Modest or meek in spirit, manner or appearance, not proud or haughty. Absence of vanity.”

That all sounds reasonable but at the moment it’s just words. How do you actually show humility? How do you know when you’ve stepped outside the boundaries of humility? If we step over the upper boundary of humility then we may be guilty of ‘showing off’, ‘boasting’, being arrogant or displaying ‘pride’. However, if we stoop below humility’s lower boundary then we may be guilty of false modesty, obsequiousness or sycophancy. How do you find your balance point in terms of how you behave and is it the same for all of us?

For example, am I being arrogant by writing an article on humility? What gives me the right to tell you what being humble means? It has been suggested to me that I was not demonstrating sufficient humility when I posted an article about my shodan grading, that I was showing off. I was a little surprised by this viewpoint, particularly as my blogs are titled ‘My journey to black belt’ and ‘Countdown to shodan’.  Wouldn’t it have been a little strange not to tell you of the outcome of my grading in the circumstances? I didn’t expect you to be impressed – many of you have had a black belt for years. However, I thought some of you might be interested having read my blog for two years, that’s all.

Anyway, this comment troubled me quite a lot and has prompted me to look at the concept of humility in more depth, hence this article. Back to the question: Am I being arrogant by writing an article on humility? Well, having thought a lot about the subject recently and researched it, it seemed a suitable topic to share with you in the hope that it will generate some useful discussion.  I’m not pretending to have all the answers; what follows is merely my opinion....

…so IMHO:

Here’s a quote about humility that I like: Humility is to make a right estimate of one's self.” Charles H. Spurgeon (19th century English preacher)

I like this quote because it suggests that the root of humility is to know oneself, to have insight and to be true to oneself – it’s about honesty and truthfulness. I believe that one shouldn’t overestimate what you know or can do, that would be pride or arrogance. But one shouldn’t underestimate what one knows or can do either, particularly if that underestimation is a deliberate attempt to make one appear more humble – this is false modesty. It is important to find your own balance point and your own boundaries of humility. 

Here is a Christian/Catholic warning about false humility: “  “True humility" is distinctly different from "false humility," which consists of deprecating one's own sanctity, gifts, talents, and accomplishments for the sake of receiving praise or adulation from others.”

Don’t you think there is something slightly creepy about the person who puts on the cloak of humility in order to be held up by others as a paragon of virtue? Especially if their behaviour is a complete change to their usual personality.  There is something subversive about this behaviour when you see it.  

Here’s an interesting fact from Wikipedia: The term "humility" comes from the Latin word humilitas, a noun related to the adjective humilis, which may be translated as "humble", but also as "grounded", "from the earth", or "low", since it derives in turns from humus (earth).

The word ‘grounded’ leaps out of the page for me.  Humility, for me, is about being grounded in reality or having your feet on the ground. It’s about knowing your limits and living within them. It’s not about being sanctimonious or holier than thou. Most of us are not training to be monks. But what if your limits are high, your achievements vast or your knowledge great? How do you continue to display humility whilst still being true to yourself?

Time for another quote: “To have a thing is little, if you're not allowed to show it, to know a thing, is nothing unless others know you know it.”  Charles Neaves.

There are people amongst us, within and without the martial arts world, who are extremely talented, hardworking and high achieving. And we know about them – they don’t hide away under a cloak of false humility but neither do they jump up and down saying ‘look at me, I’m great’. They are willing to share their success with others by passing on their knowledge and skills so that we can learn and benefit from their achievements. They know their ‘humility balance point’; it is higher than the average Joe’s but never the less it is appropriate.  It would be arrogant of me to write a book about how to do martial arts as I do not have sufficient experience but it is not arrogant for someone of 30 years successful experience to do so. They can still display humility but their balance point is just higher than mine.

Here’s another interesting fact: A five year research study into what factors turn a company from ‘good’ to ‘truly great’ found that the single most important factor was a CEO who showed the dual traits of personal humility and professional will. The author of that paper, Jim Collins, said: “The most powerfully transformative executives possess a paradoxical mixture of personal humility and professional will. They are timid and ferocious. Shy and fearless. They are rare-and unstoppable.”

Jim Collins refers to these people as ‘Level 5 leaders’ and describes the ‘Yin and Yang of level 5’. What is interesting about these people is that whilst at the same time as demonstrating personal humility ( never boasting, shunning public adulation, being quiet and calm, relying on ‘inspired standards’ rather than charisma to motivate others, channelling ambition into the company rather than themselves and never blaming others or bad luck for poor results), they also showed a high level of professional will (settling for nothing less than the highest standards for the company, an unwavering resolve to do whatever is needed to get results and apportion credit for success to others). They were ambitious, go-getting , talented, driven people but this was not at odds with demonstrating sincere humility – they still knew their boundaries and acted from within them. In fact, it was their humility that drove their success because they focused all their energy outside of themselves – focusing on the needs of the company and their staff, rather than on their own egos.

Interesting isn’t it?

So are good martial arts leaders like this – demonstrating a natural humility whilst ambitiously driving the standards of martial arts up in their clubs?  Aren’t the best ones those who are at ease with themselves, willing to share their knowledge and skills with others whilst still pushing at their own boundaries.

In conclusion then, what is humility? For me humility is about knowing who you are – your strengths, weaknesses and limitations. It’s about understanding your own boundaries of acceptable behaviour and living within them. One should never overstate or understate who they are and what they can do.  Humility does not mean that one should subjugate ones ambitions or never express joy at ones achievements. However one should realise that one cannot achieve success in a vacuum and should apportion credit to those around us for their success.

Here’s one final quote that I like: “Humility is like underwear, essential, but indecent if it shows” Helen Neilson.

What does humility mean to you?

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Charles James said...

Sue, thought provoking ... it will require some contemplation ... then maybe a view on you question, "What does humility mean to me?"

Journeyman said...

Wow. That was quite a post.

I'm surprised that someone suggested a lack of humility by posting about your belt success. Odd.

Humility is almost a riddle. Trying to be humble can negate your humility. Hmmm...

I like your bit on balance points. I think you're on to something there. Humble people I've met have never felt a need to prove or impose their view, way of doing things, or their thought process. They gave freely of their knowledge, but only when asked. They never felt a need to prove anything to anyone. They were truly comfortable in their own skin.

Interestingly, I have met one or two truly inspired leaders. As bosses, any successes were because of their people, any failures were because of them.

All thought provoking stuff. Thanks.

John Coles said...

Well done SueC. While I'd never agree with the person that questioned your humility, you are to be commended in taking that person's 'critcism' to grow. I always go to Roosevelt's wife's quote that nobody can make you feel inferior unless you give them permission. That is very Buddhist like. But to take the ignorant's comments to reflect on your own life is a sign of a commitment to personal growth. Never forget to question.

I've been watching Wimbledon. There was an article on Nadal's win over the British hope. It was about his humility as a champion. I have to agree. Don't deny your achievements, but, you can still be humbel in teh process. Just listen to Nadal and Federer. They are true champions in that they had a degree of humility that is rare in the modern sporting environment.

Felicia said...

Hi, Sue...Great post!

To me, humility is lot like the martial arts titles we see floating around: Master, Kyoshi, etc. Sure, they denote a certain level of skill and expertise, but when folks refer to THEMSELVES as "Master" So-and-So, it says loads. Said a different way: you don't have to announce to the world that you're humble because those around you will already know...

I see examples of what humility is and isn't most often in the dojo when dans with 30 and 40 years of training under their belts wear a simple black belt to train in. THEY know they are 5th, 6th, 7th or 8th degree, but they don't feel the need to announce it to the world. Nothing against those who do wear their stripes when they step on the mat, but, well, I hope you get my drift. Sort of like knowing what you have in your pocket and being content with it without having to take it out and flash it to the world every now and again.

IMHO, Humility is the pinnacle of martial arts. It takes a humble person to chose a path of peace in the face of adversity/confrontation, it truly does. But it's also about understanding and accepting the idea that there is always, always, always more to learn, I think.

Just my two cents :-)

. said...

Great post Sue (as always).

I can't believe someone has harangued you about a lack of humility over your Shodan success. That speaks volumes about THEIR personality and not yours I think. Anyone who feels the need to point out a perceived lack of humility in other people obviously has some issues with their own.

On to the topic at hand then. Personally I don't think humility is something that can ever be consciously achieved. The second you become aware that humility is an issue it is clouded by your conscious response. That internal dialogue of "should I say this, or is that boastful?", "I won't say anything here, I don't want people to think I'm bragging" etc Any action driven by a conscious thought of your perceived humility is by its very nature not humble.

Even Felicia's example of 5th, 6th, 7th Dan grades not wearing their stripes. Two ways to perceive that, one they don't feel they need to advertise their grades (therefore are consciously being falsly modest) or two that they think they are so good they are beyond having to show their grades (thereby consciously drawing attention by their lack of action (being covertly boastful).....other people knowing they have such a rank but are deliberately chosing not to show it).

I absolutely agree with you that its about finding balance. Acknowledging your acheivements to yourself and others without using them to make yourself appear great or others less great.

As I said though, I don't think it's something you can acheive consciously. I think it only comes from being truly comfortable in your own skin, with your own ability and with your own weaknesses.

We can only strive to be that grounded (there's that word) a person and take lessons of humility from all our failed attempts to be humble along the way.

Thank you for making me think about this. Nothing like a good martial arts condundrum to get the brain moving on a Monday morning! LOL.


Kururunfa said...

If humility is creating a "correct estimate of yourself", then I have none of it! I go in to everything with the attitude that I can do absolutely anything if I work hard enough - so I often try things that are beyond my current abilities.

I've been called humble by many people though, because I never think that anything I've done is all that great. I assume that if I can do things, so can anyone else. I respect people until they give me a reason not to, and I try to earn respect from others by just being me - not by presenting people with a list of my credentials and saying "I'm great, you have to listen".

Perhaps that's a twisted definition of humility, but it's the one that works for me.

Charles James said...

I remember once long ago while instructing my system at the Naval Weapons Station Concord California, as a civilian karate-ka, when a person spoke up about an article in the base newspaper. He mentioned that it was a bit forward of me to promote health and such via karate while holding a cigarette in my hand. You see, the picture along with the article had me at my work desk so they took a photo out of the karate-gi and I held a black pen in my hand, between my first and second fingers much like a smoker.

The moral here is a persons perceptions can be askew with out all the facts about such things. So, before I go into what humility means to me I just want to say that a blanket statement from a stranger to another stranger with out full understanding and proper perspective means diddly.

Sue, there is nothing haughty or prideful in your blog, at least from my point of view.

When we think of humility outside the world of martial arts we consider a person to be without a false sense of pride. To be at a level of modesty that is accepted by a society/group/tribe as appropriate. It can be a feeling within or a feeling another has who may know of you. It can be a diligent personality trait, both natural and learned, that says you do things in life out of the goodness of your heart. It can be a spirit that exudes a feeling when others are in close proximity. It can be demonstrated in simple conversations. Some might think it a type of charisma. It can be the absence of the tendency to boast. Vanity is not apparent or present.

I think of Mother Teresa when I think of humility both spiritual and outwardly. Mother Teresa should be the level of humility we seek in our lives. If in doubt simply look her up in google and take a moment to read and be reminded. I am not saying drop everything, take up a religious stance, and go around the world doing the kind of unselfish things she did, that would not be proper. Just take the time to realize that you can achieve great things in a humble way by following her example. There are others we can look to as well.

How about Ghandhi, don't you think he can be an example. But I am skirting the issue as to the question where I must come up with my own answer as to what humility means to me.

I guess I have to say just one thing, "Asked and Answered." It matters not whether your a MA practitioner or a school teacher or a minister or another Mother Teresa, humility is something that transcends any one thing much like my view of fundamental martial principles that also transcend all systems and those who practice them.

Sue C said...


you said: "Trying to be humble can negate your humility. Hmmm...." I think what I was really trying to say was that humility is something that you should 'feel' on the inside rather than 'wear' on the outside. As soon as you start wearing it it can become a 'performance' and thus negate itself. I like Marie's comment that humility should be unconscious.

Like you said, you know a genuinely humble person when you meet them - they are comfortable in their own skin. Thanks for your comment.


I have to agree with you about Nadal and Federer - they definitely combine those dual characteristics of personal humility and professional will.

I think it's a good thing that those around us remind us of the need for humility occasionally, particularly if it makes us reflect on our actions. It helps us to understand ourselves better so I bear no ill will to the person that made the comment. Thanks for your support though John.


I never understand what all those grand titles are about either! The wearing of dan stripes is a bit paradoxical isn't it? Some people will damn you if you do wear them and others will damn you if you don't - it seems like a no win situation! I think the truth of it though is that it doesn't matter whether you wear them or not, your humility (or lack of it) will show in your behaviour, not your belt status.

Accepting that there is always more to learn.... absolutely!


I agree with you about humility being an unconscious behaviour rather than a conscious performance. If we know ourselves and are comfortable in our own skins then we won't go far wrong in being humble without having to think about it.


Having a correct estimate of yourself doesn't mean that estimate has to be static. There isn't a lack of humility in striving to improve oneself and push the boundaries forward. After all that's what following a Way is all about - self-improvement. The estimate will change as you get better at something - but it still has to be realistic.

It's interesting that you say "I assume that if I can do things, so can anyone else." I tend to take my cues from other people so I'd re-phrase it, "I assume that if other people can do things, then maybe I can too." Just a different way of thinking about it I suppose...


First let me say thank you for taking time to consider your response and come back. I appreciate the time and effort you always put into your comments.

That's an interesting anecdote you tell about yourself. It's easy to misunderstand or misinterpret what you see....or read....when you don't have all the information about a person! One of the problems with blogging with people who don't actually know you personally is that you only have written words to express your thoughts with no visual or non-verbal clues as to someone's true demeanour. It's inevitable therefore that when one opens up their inner thoughts so publicly one will occasionally slip up and write something a little inelegantly such that it may give the wrong impression. Perhaps that is what I was guilty of?

Anyway thanks for sharing your thoughts on humility with me..

The Barefoot Lawyer said...

Hey guys, before we make judgments about people, let's just say I was that reader who made that post. If you want to talk, email me and we'll talk by phone or via Skype. Seriously. Also, I emailed Sue without posting it online and being mean about it.


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