When the World Gets Louder, Humility Can Quietly Help
Back when I began the work on this project a couple years ago, I can honestly say that I knew next to nothing about humility. Beyond a general understanding of what the word meant, and that it was probably a good thing to have, I wouldn’t have had much to say about why it would matter. In the intervening months of inquiry, I’ve learned a lot. I can see now, very clearly, how humility can help us in so many ways—at work, in society, at home—to make our lives more rewarding and our work more effective. I realize, too, how a lack of humility is behind so many of the problems with which we struggle. Humility, I’ve come to see, is a critical characteristic for any of us who want to lead a healthy organization, or live a grounded, meaningful life. As businessman and writer Dov Seidman said: “What people actually want in a leader, even a charismatic one, is humility.”
Humility, I’ve learned, works quietly backstage. But please, don’t confuse humility’s calm discretion with passive ineffectiveness. Humility, I now strongly believe, has power; the power to heal, the power to help. The power to restore health. The thing is that to access what humility has to offer we need lower our voices and calm the cacophony. While the news seems to get louder and ever more frenetic, humility is waiting for us to let it contribute to the conversation. When we’re ready to listen, I’m confident it has a lot to offer to all of us.
Here’s what I wrote in the opening piece of the pamphlet:
Humility, by definition, won’t win big headlines.
It waits quietly in the wings.
If we listen closely, humility has a lot to teach us.
Mozart once said, “The music is not in the notes, but in the silence between.” Humility fits that frame. It’s the space between the sounds. The whisper between the words. The energy between the egos. Humility is both ethereal and essential. Like great music, it’s hard to measure—and often goes past unnoticed by casual listeners. But if we pay close attention, we can begin to benefit from the beauty and grace that humility brings to the world.
The subtle silence of humility is blended into everything we say—and how we say it. Marcel Marceau, who silently mimed his way through an amazing and creative career, said, “Music and silence combine strongly because music is done with silence, and silence is full of music.” My hope is that the humble, anarchistic inquiry into humility that follows will offer you insights on how to bring the “music” and the “silence” of life together, in the interest of helping us all be ever more effective leaders and live more meaningful, rewarding lives.
If humility was a guest professor, the assignment it might give us would be to turn off the news, take a couple of deep breaths, cock our ears, look inward, and pay close attention to what comes up in the quiet. What at first, to the casual observer, could sound like nothing at all, just might turn out to be a wonderful whispering source of strength and wisdom. In the inflammatory state of current national discourse, humility is a soft but still effective voice leading us away from ego, and in the direction of much needed doses of dignity, compassion, kindness, inclusion, reflection, and respect. (To paraphrase anarchist folk singer and spoken word performer, Utah Phillips, we might want to consider adding “rant control” to our list of programs going forward.) Humility is equally important in our homes and at work. When it’s absent, ego dominates the conversation; antagonism rises, voices get louder—in essence, we might say, it’s all over because of the shouting. No exaggeration—our future, on many levels, may depend on having humility. As Wendell Berry writes: “It is only on the condition of humility and reverence before the world that our species will be able to remain in it.”
Does the subtle, gentle presence of humility have much value when the country is in crisis? On its own, we know, humility won’t cure Coronavirus. But having learned what I’ve learned over the last few years, I’ll answer with an adamant yes. Why? Because rather than shutting out what others (with whom we may not agree) have to say, humility leads us to be more open to the input and help of those who know more than we do. It makes it easier to meaningfully say, “I don’t know.” It increases the likelihood that we will own our responsibility for our errors. It improves the odds we will take the advice of experts seriously, even while still making our own decisions (and sometimes, respectfully going against what experts advise). Humility makes it more difficult to be curt and dismissive. More difficult to be curtly dismissed. And harder to say, “I don’t care.”
Humility, I’ll suggest, would also help us improve the effectiveness of our organizations. It’s a prerequisite, I’ve learned, for the kind of collaborative and caring communities, organizations, and personal relationships we’re working so hard to create. Patrick Lencioni, in The Ideal Team Player, posits that humility is one of a trio of critical characteristics, along with “hungry” and “wise”—as in socially sensitive and emotionally intelligent. When I used Lencioni’s lens to look at our own work, his theory proved out. Nearly everyone I’ve loved working with over the years has exhibited all three of those characteristics. And while I’d long been actively working on hiring and training for the other two, I’d never previously listened and looked for humility in a conversation or a job interview. As you can imagine, that’s all changed. I now have humility front of mind.
Will humility have an impact on our other recovery? The rebuilding of social trust and mutual respect? I will answer, adamantly, in the affirmative. Humility, I believe, is incompatible with racism, hierarchy, and hatred. Twentieth-century theologian Reinhold Niebuhr wrote, “To the end of history, social orders will probably destroy themselves in an effort to prove they are indestructible.” Humility, by definition, could help us steer clear of that tragic fate. If we have humility we accept that we are all imperfect, all fallible, all interdependent. If this year of 2020 is, as I wrote in the summer issue of Zingerman’s News, a “marathon through a minefield,” then I’m realizing humility is one of the keys to successfully getting through. When you don’t need to be “the best,” “the biggest,” or “first to the finish line,” the odds of successfully getting to the other side of the minefield—without losing our minds, our lives, or our livelihoods—increase significantly.
I would suggest that when we approach the world from a place of humility, it makes it much more likely that we will:
- Own our own part in creating the problem with which we’re confronted
- Acknowledge our shortfalls and ask for help
- Understand that none of us have all the answers
- Treat everyone with whom we interact with dignity
- Be much more open to outside perspectives and creative insights
The cover of the new “Humility” pamphlet features a scratchboard illustration of a violet—the historical flower that represents humility—by artist Ian Nagy. In honor of the violet, the pamphlet cover is printed on recycled purple cardstock. Artist and designer Takara Gudell says, “Purple is perfect for this pamphlet. It’s the color of inspiration, of self-awareness, creativity, and empathy.” (Come by the Roadhouse to buy a couple of those beautiful, colorful VOTE pins Takara crafts.) Violet, color psychologist Judy Scott-Kemmis says, stands for, “inspiration, imagination, individuality, and spirituality.” It “assists those who seek the meaning of life and spiritual fulfillment—it expands our awareness, connecting us to a higher consciousness.” Maybe I’m making too much of it, but Scott-Kemmis’ prompt helps me understand why holding the violet pamphlet leaves me feeling good and grounded. Maybe I’m just in a mental place where I’m desperately seeking solace, serenity, and soulfulness. But there’s no cost to you to drop by and hold a copy in your hand for a bit, take a few deep breaths, and see if it helps.
Can we come back from the brink of the world situation? Can calm overcome chaos? When we’re in the midst of the madness, it sure doesn’t feel that way. But this piece from Saturday’s New York Times gave me some solace. The headline is “30 Years After Reunification, Old German-German Border Is a Green Oasis.” The article, by Christopher Schuetze, tells the tale of the once closely guarded space between East and West Germany: “Crossing the militarized border that split Germany into east and west once meant risking death,” the subhead says. “Now? It’s a literal walk in the park.” Schuetze’s piece helped me remember that humility can come back from even some of the worst the world has to offer. During the Cold War, the space was known as the “death zone.” Seventy-five years after the end of World War II, and thirty years after the end of the division of Germany into two political entities, what was once one of the scariest spots in Europe is now a peaceful, natural refuge.
Natural Law #10 says that strengths lead to weaknesses; and weaknesses lead back to strengths. War, it turns out, if we wait a bit and work through the conflict, can ultimately beget beauty. For over half a century, no one entered the zone other than the occasional bold soul trying to escape, or the occasional soldier checking security. “Farmers and foresters on both sides had been forced to leave the strip alone, allowing animals and plant life to flourish,” Schuetze writes. “Today, more than 5,200 different species live there, 1,200 of them so rare that they are on a list for extinction.” A West German gentleman, about my age, who used to go to the border space to do birdwatching, shares at the end of the article: “It is hard to believe that this peaceful place was once the frontline between N.A.T.O. and the Warsaw Pact.” It was heartening for me to see that the space between the warring, nationalist “notes” could be successfully be converted into a healthy, vibrant green strip where tension and the constant threat of war have been replaced by natural beauty.
I can guarantee that the Cold War was not caused by an overabundance of humility. In fact, it’s the opposite. I think it’s safe to say that, like nearly all wars, it came out of ego and the desire for domination. But when the warring stops, the cacophony is quieted, and the soldiers put away their weapons, the sound of humility can still come gently to the fore. Now the space sounds like the calls of rare birds, the wind whistling through wildflowers, and the gentle bubbling of the brook that runs through the strip. Maybe those are the natural sounds of humility. I believe we can bring them back. And as Simon and Garfunkel once sang,
Because a vision softly creeping
Left its seeds while I was sleeping
And the vision that was planted in my brain
Within the sound of silence
Whether it’s at work, at home, in our communities, or around the country, I hope we can, quietly and humbly, follow the German lead and let the beauty, the grace, and the natural goodness return.
You can find “Humility: A Humble, Anarchistic Inquiry” waiting for you, quietly, here.
*** 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!