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....
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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