glad that I'm a nobody: A positive psychology of humility
President, International Network on Personal Meaning
Coquitlam, B.C., Canada
Everyone aspires to be somebody, and no one
wants to be a nobody. From the depth of our souls, there is a persistent
cry for personal significance. This universal search for meaning
manifests itself in a variety of ways, from self-seeking to self-sacrifice.
It seems that we are prepared to do anything to convince ourselves,
if not the rest of the world, that we really matter and that our
lives are worthwhile.
Unfortunately, most people are frustrated in
their quest for significance. The present system of elitism and
rankism only allows a select few to fulfill their aspirations. For
example, many students are competing for admissions into prestigious
professions, such as medicine, law and psychology, but only a small
percentage are successful.
The baby-boomers represent another case in point.
After years of struggle, most of them have found themselves stuck
in their career tracks or displaced as a result of downsizing or
mergers; and their dreams for success have become distant memories.
Once becoming members of the winners' circle,
the insiders naturally want to maintain their hard-earned privileges
by keeping others out as long as they can. The outsiders will continue
to wage a battle to get in, to the extent that they remain driven
by the desire to be somebody.
Is humility practical?
How do we practice the virtue of humility in
such a competitive, winner-take-all world? Is humility practical?
We can all agree that humility is an admirable quality in others,
because we feel safe and comfortable around people who are meek
and humble. But when it comes to ourselves, we may consider humility
a hindrance to success and a by-product of failure.
How can anyone achieve success without ambition
and a competitive spirit? Who does not feel elated and proud after
accomplishing something great? Humility appears to be a foreign
concept in a capitalist economy.
Perhaps, humility seems to make sense only when
we find ourselves soundly defeated. Then, we can at least claim
that we have learned the important virtue of humility, which is
sorely lacking in others. Such self-consolation gives us the needed
reprieve, until we are ready to get back on our feet to fight yet
However commonsensical and appealing, the above
line of reasoning actually prevents us from achieving a deeper understanding
of the virtue of humility. In this essay, I will attempt to clarify
some of the misconceptions, present different perspectives of humility,
consider its practical implications, and finally propose a positive
psychology of humility.
Clarifying Some Misconceptions
The quest for significance vs. selfish ambition
The search for meaning and significance should
not be confused with personal ambitions for worldly success. Meaning
fulfillment can be achieved only through knowing
who we are and becoming what we are meant to be.
A clear sense of identity cannot be found from
external circumstances; it can only be built on the foundation of
core values and beliefs, which define our selfhood. Similarly, a
clear sense of purpose cannot be found from trappings of success;
it can only be based on a deep conviction of our calling and mission
According to Alfred Adler, selfish ambitions
for fame, power and wealth are misguided, because in the end, they
only lead to disillusion rather than fulfillment. The trappings
of success never fill the inner void for meaning and significance.
Personal significance vs. pride
As well, the need for significance should not
be confused with pride. Significance refers to a sense of one's
self-worth and self-esteem. The belief that we are created in God's
image provides a firm basis for personal significance. To love and
to be love are also key ingredients of personal significance, which
can be derived from a variety of sources. Humility comes naturally
from the existential/spiritual perspective, because meaning fulfillment
is primarily a gift, which comes from serving others and serving
Although pride appears to be a close cousin
to personal significance, it has a very different origin. Pride
is egotistic and destructive, contrary to the discovery of meaning.
Traditionally, Christians have considered pride
as the root of human sins. For example, John Calvin considers pride
the very essence of human depravity and rebellion against God. Pride
feeds on elevating oneself over all others, including God. Eventually,
pride leads to isolation and self-destruction, the natural consequence
of having overstepped boundaries and stepped on others in order
to get ahead.
When pride is disguised as a quest for personal
significance, it will take people further and further away from
the path to meaning fulfillment. That is why failure can be a blessing
in disguise, if it makes one pause and reflect on what really matters
Self-abasement vs. realistic self-assessment
Humility is often linked to self-abasement,
and the willingness to be a doormat. The word humility is derived
from the Lain humilitas, that which is abject, ignoble, or of poor
condition. St. Bernard defined it as "A virtue by which a man knowing
himself as he truly is, abases himself."
From a Christian perspective, self-abasement
is a natural response, and the only appropriate response, when we
recognize our own poor and corrupt state in the presence of a holy
God. Such humility serves an important function in connecting us
with faith in God and trust in His saving grace.
However, self-abasement is not always helpful
in our relationship with people, because it may invite them to trample
on us like a doormat. St. Thomas points out that "It is then not
humility but folly to embrace any and every humiliation; but when
virtue calls for a thing to be done it belongs to humility not to
shrink from doing it." (Cited
in Catholic Encyclopedia)
Humility is not incompatible with realistic
self-assessment. Apostle Paul once said, "Do not think of yourself
more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober
judgment, in accordance with the measure of faith God has given
you" (Romans 12:3). St. Thomas also said: "The virtue of humility
consists in keeping oneself within one's own bounds, not reaching
out to things above one, but submitting to one's superior."
One can maintain a humble attitude without the
false modesty of denying one's ability or diminishing one's work.
However, a humble person does not take oneself too seriously; nor
does one take full credit for one's accomplishments. After World
War II, in response to all the accolades that came his way, Winston
Churchill humbly commented: "I was not the lion, but it fell to
me to give the lion's roar."
What is then true humility? It is easy to define
it by negation, as we have just done. But what are the characteristics
of humility? It may be instructive to learn from different religious
The true Christian humility is embodied in Christ
- in his humble birth in the manger, in his humble daily walk, and
finally in his self-sacrificial death on the cross. The Apostle
Paul wrote: "And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled
himself and became obedience to death - even death on a cross" (Philippians
One of the defining marks of a true Christian
is humility, because Jesus has told his disciples: "Take my yoke
and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart: and you
shall find rest for your souls" (The Gospel according to Matthew
Christian humility is paradoxical. Christ has
promised: "The greatest among you will be your servant. For whoever
exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will
be exalted" (Matthew 23:11-12). James reinforces this point: "Humble
yourselves in the presence of the Lord and He will exalt you" (James
Could we manipulate this paradox by practicing
humility in order to be exalted? I don't think it will work, because
God knows our hearts and He will not fall for this kind of self-centered
If we truly follow Christ's example, then humility
will be a way of life, a habit of submitting to God's will and a
lifelong commitment of devoting ourselves to God's calling. In daily
practice, humility means to put aside self-interests in order to
serve God and others whole-heartedly. Such an attitude would allow
no room for a private agenda to be No.1.
Most likely, the promised reward for practicing
humility is spiritual. Since humility is a foundational virtue,
through humility we can experience all other virtues and blessings,
including God's commendation on Judgment Day.
The Buddhist approach to humility has a very
different starting point. It begins with the concern of how to be
liberated from the sufferings of life and the vexations of the human
mind. The ultimate aim is to achieve a state of enlightenment through
meditation and other spiritual practices.
Chan (Zen) Master
Li Yuansong states that enlightenment can come only after humility
- the wisdom of realizing one's own ignorance, insignificance and
lowliness, without which one cannot see the truth.
Humility is also the result of achieving the
liberation of Nirvana. When one experiences the ultimate Emptiness
and non-self (selflessness), one is free from suffering, vexations
and all illusions of self-deception. This state of enlightenment
is characterized by humility, compassion and wisdom.
It makes perfect sense that one can experience
humility when one recognizes selfish ambitions as illusions, and
concentrates on cultivating the mind to achieve Nirvana. Through
such spiritual exercises, one is removed from selfish desires and
the attractions of the world.
The central tenet of Taoism
is that the purpose of life is to follow the Way or Tao. To live
life according to Tao, the universal principle, one needs to embrace
the principle of humility and non-striving (wu wei). This philosophy
is actually quite practical, because it enables people to live in
tranquility and contentment even in the midst of poverty, wars and
This philosophy of life also discourages people
from competing for material gains and personal power. As a political
philosophy, it teaches leaders to lead by following the Way rather
than through coercive power or military might.
To illustrate the wisdom of Taoism, here are
a few quotes from Lao
Tzu in Tao
If the sage would guide the people, he
must serve with humility.
If he would lead them, he must follow behind.
In this way when the sage rules, the people will not feel oppressed...
Accept disgrace willingly...
Accept being unimportant...
Surrender yourself humbly; then you can be trusted to care for all
Love the world as your own self; then you can truly care for all
But never be proud.
Because this is the natural way.
Creating without claiming,
Doing without taking credit,
Guiding without interfering,
This is Primal Virtue.
Mask your brightness.
Be at one with the dust of the earth.
This is primal union.
...The sage works without recognition.
He achieves what has to be done without dwelling on it.
He does not try to show his knowledge.
Although from different perspectives, all three
religions emphasize humility as a cardinal virtue, essential for
the attainment of other virtues and blessings. In this sense, humility
is the alpha and omega of all virtues.
Humility can yield many benefits. It is certainly
beneficial to mental health, social relationships, leadership, world
peace and human progress. For example, a humble individual is more
likely to be happy and content than a proud person. A humble attitude
will also contribute to better relationships. It would be beyond
the scope of this paper to discuss all the practical implications.
Here, I would just like to highlight two interesting developments.
Sir John Templeton (2000) has developed what
is called humble theology. He correctly points out that egotism
hinders human progress. We need a humble approach towards science
and theology, because no one can claim to know it all with respect
to the universe and God. An open-minded, humble attitude to seek
new insights and new discoveries will facilitate progress in religion
and its dialogue with science.
The merit of humble theology extends well beyond
the integration between science and religion. Just imagine how much
progress can be made in all human domains, including world affairs,
if we resort to humility and dialogue as a way to resolve conflicts
rather than depending on intimation and force.
Level 5 leadership
In the area of management and leadership, humility
also plays an important role. Collins (2001) recently reported the
results of a five-year study of companies that made the leap from
being good and competent to greatness. Among other things, great
companies are able to demonstrate sustained outstanding performance
for 15 years.
What should good companies do to join the ranks
of such elite great companies as Coca-Cola and Intel? One of the
surprise findings is Level 5 leaders. Transformation to greatness
is possible because of leaders, who are able to combine extreme
personal humility with intense professional will.
Level 5 refers to the highest level of leadership
capabilities. The characteristics common to Level 5 leaders include:
personal humility, professional will, unwavering resolve, and the
practice of giving credit to others while assigning blame to themselves.
Some Level 5 leaders, such as Gillette's Colman Mockler and Kimberly-Clark's
Darwin Smith are not only humble, but also shy. They avoid drawing
attention to themselves; they want to quietly focus their energy
on building a great company. Collins recognizes that "Level 5 leaders
are a study in duality: modest and willful, shy and fearless."
The attributes of Level 5 leaders overlaps with
some of the characteristics of servant leadership, first popularized
by Robert Greenleaf (1991). In contrast to the self-seeking, celebrity-conscious
leaders, servant leaders are primarily interested in developing
workers and building up the company; they achieve success and even
greatness through developing a great workforce. The key element
common to both Level 5 leaders and servant leaders is personal humility.
It is sad but true that so few leaders, including religious leaders,
possess this important personal quality.
A positive psychology of humility
Is humility an inherited personality trait?
Can it be cultivated? The consensus is that like most psychological
attributes, humility is the product of interactions between nature
A positive psychology of humility would need
to address the following issues:
Hindrances to humility
Competition is clearly the No.1 hindrance.
Humility is probably the most difficult virtue to achieve, mostly
because egotistic pride works so much better than humility in a
competitive society. Think of all the star players in major-league
sports; how many really stand out as a good role model of personal
Success is another hindrance. Feeling good about
success can easily lapse into pride, especially when others heap
praises on you. Pastor Brett has this to say about the temptation
of pride: "Of all the problems Pastors face, this is one of the
hardest. On the one hand, you have to completely die to yourself
and be a humble servant, and on the other you feel God's power flow
through you and experience His inspiration and begin to feel like
God uses you because you are special. This is where pride sneaks
in and your head begins to swell."
Thirdly, even reflecting on one's own humility
can be a hindrance. Humility thrives only when one's attention is
directed away from it towards serving others. It withers away whenever
attention is directed toward its presence. When I congratulate myself
for making progress in humility, or when "I thank my God for my
humility" (Shakespeare), I actually hinder its development.
The development of humility
As long as people firmly believe that winning
is the only thing that matters, it is not possible to develop humility.
However, when people realize the enormous benefits of humility on
both personal and societal levels, they would be more inclined to
There are two complementary approaches to the
development of humanity. On the macro level, we need to embrace
a religion that incorporates the following beliefs, individually
- Self-awareness of our own mortality
- Belief in life after death
- Realizing our own inadequacies and wrong
- Realizing our need for redemption and cleansing
- Realizing our need for help and guidance
- Believing in a spiritual and transcendental
- Believing in the need to submit to a higher
Humility needs a proper religious home, because
it is not an isolated virtue that can stand on its own. It is one
of the few virtues that are intimately related to our assumptive
world and core values.
On the micro level, we need to develop the habit
of humble practices on a daily basis. These include the following
skills and exercises:
- Acknowledging our wrong doing
- Receiving correction and feedback graciously
- Refraining from criticizing others
- Forgiving others who have wronged us
- Apologizing to others who have been wronged
- Enduring unfair treatments with patience
and a forgiving spirit
- Thinking and speaking about the good things
of other people
- Rejoicing over other people's success
- Counting our blessings for everything, good
- Seeking opportunities to serve others
- Willing to remain anonymous in helping others
- Showing gratitude for our successes
- Giving due credit to others for our successes
- Treating success as a responsibility to do
more for others
- Willing to learn from our failures
- Assuming responsibility for our failures
- Accepting our limitations and circumstances
- Accepting social reality of discrimination
- Treating all people with respect regardless
of their social status
- Enjoying the lowly status of being an outsider
and a nobody
Benefits of humility
Just imagine how the above beliefs and practices
can dramatically transform one's life for good. If we were to develop
a reliable and valid instrument to measure humility, I would predict
that humility is associated with the following psychological benefits:
- A reduction of anxiety, fear and depression
- A reduction in conflict, anger and aggression
- An increase in happiness and well-being
- An increase in optimism
- An improvement in friendship and intimate
- Openness for new experiences and new learning
- Greater empathy, compassion and altruism
- Higher job satisfaction and morale at work
Systemic research on the above will help create
a body of scientific knowledge on humility. It will be the cornerstone
of developing a paradoxical positive psychology of what appears
to be a human weakness.
I have been entertaining the idea of writing
a book entitled: "I'm glad that I'm a nobody: A positive psychology
of humility", because such a book will resonate with the great multitudes
of common folks. This brief essay provides some ideas of what the
book will look like.
As I survey all the tall walls and hierarchies
erected around us, and as I watch the so called "big shots" strutting
across the stage, wearing an arrogant but anxious look, I can honestly
say: "I'm glad that I'm a nobody." This statement is no sour grape,
because there is indeed no place safer and freer than the lowly
spot of humility. The curtain will fall soon enough on all of us.
What will outlive us is not the applause, but the life lived.
Thank God that He has created so many nobodies.
I am particularly thankful that "God chose the weak things of the
world to shame the strong" (Corinthians: 1:3). The world is preserved
and enhanced by millions of ordinary folks doing honest work without
fanfare, without recognition.
I would like to end this brief essay with an
inspiring statement by Helen Keller:
I long to accomplish a great and noble
task, but it is my chief duty to accomplish humble tasks as though
they were great and noble. The world is moved along, not only
by the mighty shoves of its heroes, but also by the aggregate
of the tiny pushes of each honest worker.
Collins, J. C. (2001). Good
to great: Why some companies make the leap..and others don't.
New York: HarperCollins Publishers.
Greenleaf, R. K. (1991). The
servant as leader. Indianapolis: The Greenleaf Center.
Templeton, J. (2000). Possibilities
for over one hundredfold more spiritual information: The humble
approach in theology and science. Philadelphia: Templeton