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The Pursuit of Humbleness

How a change in words has helped me stay more grounded

The Pursuit of Humbleness

Sometimes, small shifts in wording can work wonders. As Governor Gretchen Whitmer said a few months ago, “Words matter.” Which is why I keep coming back to a realization that I had while working on the new pamphlet “Humility: A Humble, Anarchistic Inquiry.” As I shared in the latter half of the pamphlet, I began to imagine what most of us have always thought of as “humility,” instead, as “humbleness.”

In the pamphlet, I referred a fair bit to Dr. Edgar Schein and what I learned from his work over the years. At the age of 10, Schein arrived with his parents to my hometown of Chicago in 1938. The family had first fled Slovakia for Switzerland, from there to Russia, then to the United States. Schein’s father, a professor who studied cosmic rays, took a position at the University of Chicago. (My grandparents had a laundry in Hyde Park, not far from the University.) In the same year the Scheins arrived in Chicago, another professor, Dr. Alfred Korzybski, founded the Institute of General Semantics in Chicago.

Korzybski, who had been born in Warsaw (then part of the Russian Empire) in 1879, arrived in North America during WWI—first to Canada, and then to the United States where he lived the rest of his life. One of Korzybski’s key teachings was that what made us human was the ability to create, share, manage, and transform symbols—one of the most important of which was words. He believed, too, that we humans will always be limited by our language. To someone like me whose life has been significantly altered by a series of simple linguistic shifts, that makes total sense. As I write about in “It’s All About Free Choice,” switching from saying “I have to” to “I’m going to;” from “I should” to either “I’m going to” or “I’m not going to;” to understanding the difference between “good problems” and “bad problems;” Korzybksi’s concept resonates with me. Language and word choice, he believed, make all the difference. “Definitions,” Korzybski declared, “create conditions.” Watching what was happening back in Europe at the time he started his Institute in Chicago (and totally relevant today), he wrote that:

Humans can be literally poisoned by false ideas and false teachings. Many people have a just horror at the thought of putting poison into tea or coffee, but seem unable to realize that, when they teach false ideas and false doctrines, they are poisoning the [the minds of] their fellow men and women.

The linguistic shift I made by switching my thoughts to “humbleness” hasn’t been as extreme as what Korzybski described, but the shift remains personally significant. As I shared in the pamphlet:

What seems to resonate for me having spent so much time working on this essay is that perhaps the frame I’ve always had for humility is less helpful than it might be. For whatever reason, I’ve always believed it to be more of a personal characteristic—like “some people start out humble and others don’t.” And that if we work at it… we can move from unhumble into a state of humility in the same way we move to a new house or a new town.

But of late I’ve started to think about humility more in the way I think about mindfulness. It’s a state of being that we struggle, daily—maybe even by the minute—to stay in. Which makes me wonder if maybe the concept would be more effectively imagined as something we can call “humbleness”? The word actually exists but is rarely spoken.

Here’s how I’m thinking about it now: every human being is, consciously or unconsciously, struggling on a continuum of emotional self-management, of which humbleness is in the middle.

On the one end of the continuum, we’re not humble because we feel like we’re losers, worth little or nothing, unable to accomplish anything of consequence, or frauds who are falling short with a high degree of frequency. And yet, sometimes six minutes (or maybe six hours) later, we slide to the opposite end of the continuum—we feel like we’re on top of the world, the hero who can swoop in and save others. And then in a matter of minutes, we feel down again. At least that’s how my days often go. Neither extreme is productive and neither encourages our humility.

The shift in language, to Korzybski’s point, helped a lot. It’s only been six months or so but…

  • Humbleness (pokora in Korzybski’s native Polish) has obvious ties to mindfulness—about which I have a lot of good learnings and experiences.
  • In this new context, it’s easier for me to grasp that none of us, no matter how hard we’re working at it, are going to be in the state of humbleness all the time. (Or at least, as Brené Brown says, “If that person exists, I haven’t met them yet.”)
  • Humbleness makes it easier for me to feel calm and grounded about constantly and gently getting myself back into a good place. It’s not that I’ve “failed.” It’s that the natural pulls of the ego and a brain filled still with a lifetime of self-doubt are always working at odds and, no matter how hard I work at it, it’s not easy to stay in a state of humbleness.

Thanks to a lot of therapy, daily journaling, insightful books, and supportive friends, I’ve learned to try to avoid the highs and lows of emotional life. To honor the emotions, but still stay as centered as I can. The same, I’ve come to realize, is equally helpful with humility. Or humbleness. It’s what my friend and former Navy captain Chris Dennis calls the “sweet spot of humility.” Calm and kind of confident, but at the same time owning our fallibility and our shortfalls. Working with our weaknesses while still staying strong within ourselves. Understanding that a shortcoming is not the end of the world, that falling short doesn’t make one a “failure,” nor will winning awards or getting written about in a nationally-published article make us a “success.” That, just as no one is ever fully mindful all the time, so too none of us are probably ever going to take up permanent residence in a place called humbleness. Understanding that this shifting back and forth is “normal” has allowed me to focus on managing my own internal issues. And knowing that if I do that decently well, good things are likely to happen.

Pierre du Plessis (who writes that he uses “words to whittle meaning out of madness”) says, “Words create worlds.” Being in a state of humbleness, for me, is not an accident. It’s actually the opposite. Just like I take a deep breath to get moving towards a more mindful place when I start to slip and slide around the emotional ice on which my brain is generally walking, now it’s the same with humbleness. Ego pulls one way. Self-destructive inner dialogue pulls the other. If they’re both pulling about the same, I’m ok. But if one pulls harder at a particular time, it’s hard not to fall.

Here’s another, deeper perspective on humbleness that’s also helped me. I wrote in the pamphlet:

John O’Donohue in his amazing book, Beauty; The Invisible Embrace, tells the Celtic tale of Teannalach, a skill that’s said to be a gift, but at the same time, also something that can be developed over years and years through daily practice. Teannalach is rare, and those who have it are held in high regard— if not downright revered—by others. O’Donohue tells the tale about beauty, but I’m going to believe it’s equally meaningful in the context of humbleness. Teannalach, he says, “only reveals itself when the mind’s attention is radical and the imagination is finely tuned.” It is, he says, “seven layers deeper than awareness.” And maybe that’s what it takes for us to reach and effectively remain in a place of real humbleness. A concerted effort of daily practice over a long period of time, work directed towards the mastery of self-awareness and self-management, that takes us seven layers deeper than surface-level humility?

If I, or any of us, imagined we were going to get really good at humility quickly, humbleness reminds me that we have a lifetime of work ahead. And if Teannalach means that there are seven layers of depth to work through, and I’m only at the first level… I have a lot of work to do. It brings me back, regularly, to what many of you already know as “beginner’s mind.” As Rilke wrote: “If the angel deigns to come, it will be because you have convinced him, not by tears, but by your humble resolve to be always beginning: to be a beginner!”

Humbleness, to be clear, does not imply apathy. It actually leads in the other direction. Maybe steering around the idea of “success” or “failure” towards what we might call “mastery.” By definition, when we’re in a state of humbleness, we know we can do better. Not because we’re bad people, but because we believe in what we’re doing and in our ability to do it—even if we know we won’t likely quite hit the highest bar we set for ourselves. John O’Donohue alludes to it. Dr. Sarah Lewis says it more directly:

Mastery, a word we don’t use often, is not… perfectionism—an inhuman aim motivated by a concern with how others view us. Mastery is also not the same as success—an event-based victory based on a peak point, a punctuated moment in time. Mastery is not merely a commitment to a goal, but to a curved-line, constant pursuit… Masters are not experts because they take a subject to its conceptual end. They are masters because they realize that there isn’t one.

It’s easier said than done. Humbleness, for me, would include awe, inspiration, openness, beginner’s mind, appreciation, acceptance, reality checks… It’s knowing how little I know, remembering how many mistakes I’ve made, and then reminding myself, twice, that those shortfalls are what humanity and creative pursuit of new things is about. It’s about learning from everyone. Seeing beauty in everything. Appreciating our achievements. Finding the flaws in all we’ve done, but doing it from the loving supportive place of what Julia Cameron called being a “believing mirror,” though in this case for oneself. It’s understanding that everything we do matters, but that at the same time we’re almost insignificant. It’s knowing we mess up daily but we’re still good people. It’s realizing that the more you learn, as James Baldwin said, “You learn how little you know.” It’s knowing the caring pursuit of excellence is, ever imperfect. And that as Ursula K. LeGuin wrote, “There is no safety, and there is no end. The word must be heard in silence; there must be darkness to see the stars.”

Humbleness can’t alter the past, but it does have the quiet power to change both our present and then our future. More than anything, I think it shifted me from thinking of humility as a trait we ought to already “have” into something that we want to do. And keep doing. As best we can, always imperfectly, every day. As Wendell Berry writes, “The world cannot be discovered by a journey of miles, no matter how long, but only by a spiritual journey, a journey of one inch, very arduous and humbling and joyful, by which we arrive at the ground at our own feet and learn to be at home.” Humbleness has helped me do that, and I hope that the writing in the pamphlet will help others as well. As I wrote,

The pursuit of humbleness… is a multi-layered, complex piece of work that continues on for our whole life. As we do that work, we all impact, and are impacted by, each other. None of us can do it alone. Maybe we could consider authoring a Declaration of Interdependence that references Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Humbleness?

That pursuit, combined with this quote from Dr. Korzybski, is a good place to ground myself every morning before I start work: “All human achievements are cumulative. No one of us can claim any achievement exclusively as his own; we all must use consciously or unconsciously the achievements of others…” As I put the pamphlet:

We are all, whether we like it or not, ultimately in this together.

You can find the pamphlet “Humility; A Humble, Anarchistic, Inquiry” here.

For more on humility and humbleness, check out this interview.

*** This post is an excerpt from Ari’s Top 5, a weekly newsletter from Ari himself. Sign up to receive Ari’s Top 5 here!