Humility is a crucial virtue for personal growth and the flourishing of community. But I will argue here that it is widely misunderstood.
The reason this misunderstanding is so widespread is that genuine humility is not functional for getting ahead within the large, hierarchical organizations that are currently prevalent in our societies.
But deep technological forces are setting a trend towards the obliteration of hierarchies and the emergence of networks as the prevalent organizational form, in which genuine humility is flourishing as a key virtue for personal success.
Humility is way too often confused with submissiveness. This is the concept of humility that prevails in hierarchical institutions, as it serves their stability by keeping the lower ranks from questioning the allegedly good judgement of the higher-ups.
But its influence goes beyond authority relations and serves as a destructive weapon among people who perceive each other as social peers.
It’s the typical sick put-down with which members of a herd usually attack the non-conformist black sheep that dare do anything remarkable, anything that raises above established mediocrity. It’s usually accompanied by a detestable, equally false sort of self-deprecating humor that reinforces the sense that no one should ever dare step out of the crowd. This is in direct contradiction to the real, healthy, empowering sort of self-deprecating humor.
It is very effective in undermining our sense of self-worth and creating all sorts of pathological insecurities.
There are two complementary ways of understanding genuine humility:
- As behavior, humility is the lack of haughtiness and arrogance.
- As attitude, humility means being aware of our weaknesses.
Obviously none of the above imply submissiveness or lack of self-esteem.
It can also be argued that humility is as much about not overestimating our strengths as it is about being aware of our weaknesses.
Humility is crucial for keeping ourselves aware of our fallibility.
Regardless of how much experience, knowledgeable or skill we might have in a particular field, we always need to keep a minimum of open-mindedness towards alternative, potentially superior courses of action than the one we are currently committed to.
It’s impossible to know beforehand all the alternative means to an end. Usually the most valuable knowledge about how to do something emerges serendipitously while we try do it.
But we won’t detect the value of that knowledge if we aren’t minimally ready to admit at any point that we might be wrong, and that we need to change course.
Following through with confidence towards the achievement of a goal is important. But humility is more important than confidence.
If humility is the virtue that allows us to be aware of our weaknesses and limitations, then it is a fundamental tool for self-control.
It is always hard to create good habits, but the best way to start is taking a humble, small-goals, baby-steps approach.
More in general, our arrogant drive to conquer the world and take on as many challenges as we can possibly handle is a a recipe for failure, because willpower is a finite resource — the bigger the ego, the worst the ego depletion.
Humility allows us to accept that it is impossible to control others, even when we think that our controlling them would be for their own good.
Your friend, your sibling, your parent, even your children once they’re old enough will be the ultimately responsible for deciding whether they want to change anything in their lives and to take action accordingly.
It is true that if you really love someone, you should let them free. But the reason this is easier said than done is because in large part our capacity to love depends on our capacity to give up our arrogant pretension to mold the other to our liking; to fully accept others as they are.
Arrogance is compounded and quickly turns into extremely irrational hubris when the impulse to control others is boosted by the incentives people face within a given social institution.
At a macro level, economic central planning not only leads to rampant authoritarianism, but also to economic collapse due to the fatal conceit inherent in the idea that those at the helm of the state are able to collect and process the vast amounts of local, inarticulate and constantly changing information that the price system translates into an efficient allocation of resources.
This is not an argument that applies exclusively to the unworkability of soviet-like authoritarian socialism, but to a large extent, to contemporary capitalism as well. The Dilbertesque reality of the corporate behemoths that thrive in the global economy is the direct result of big, powerful states subsidizing economies of scale.
As the quintessential form of political endeavor, war is the area where the hubris of state chieftains is seen in its crassest form. Throughout history, the drive for conquest, for extending the reach of grandiose imperialist schemes to every corner of the world has caused immense, unnecessary death and destruction.
“The concept of ‘truth’ as something dependent upon facts largely outside human control has been one of the ways in which philosophy hitherto has inculcated the necessary element of humility. When this check upon pride is removed, a further step is taken on the road towards a certain kind of madness– the intoxication of power… I am persuaded that this intoxication is the greatest danger of our time, and that any philosophy which, however unintentionally, contributes to it is increasing the danger of cast social disaster.” - Bertrand Russell
Humility in the 21st century
As the dominant technological substrate we rely upon shifts from industrial- to information-related technologies, genuinely free markets will thrive, providing the economic incentives for networks to flourish as the predominant organizational form.
The extreme horizontality of networks makes genuine humility an invaluable character trait, as seen in the ethics of open-source hackers. More generally, the organizational culture of networks can be characterized by a predominance of the humility of lyrics versus the arrogance of epics.
Again, today we see the clearest example of the hubris of hierarchy and its disastrous consequences in war, with the world’s mightiest military machine stubbornly refusing to accept the No. 1 rule of modern warfare: Many and Small Beats Few and Large.
Embracing radical change for positive personal and social transformation is necessarily a humbling experience. And exactly for that reason, today more than ever, it is also extremely empowering.