Humility

Head like a kite in a thunderstorm by Will Ringland

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“Make sure you’re not made ‘Emperor,’ avoid that imperial stain. It can happen to you, so keep yourself simple, good, pure, saintly, plain, a friend of justice, god- fearing, gracious, affectionate, and strong for your proper work.” - Marcus Aurelius


What do you do when you succeed at something? Does it get to your head of do put your head down and get back to work?

I recently presented about this Virtue Project at Nerd Nite Madison and it went really well. I typically have a low opinion and high expectation for public speaking and I feel like I absolutely nailed it despite spending the hours leading up to it feeling woefully, terribly, very obviously underprepared. But the stars aligned and I had the audience rapt - no one went to the bar to get a drink, it got quiet and intense, I got strong applause at the end.

Magic. Head high in the clouds like a kite in a thunderstorm.

I was feeling pretty powerful and awesome. So I started working on this piece, a piece to discuss how humility keeps us hungry.
 Hubris, conceit, pride are all the perverting of humility by great success that leads us down the path of self-destruction1.

That may a little dramatic2. The moment that we let success stand between us and understanding the world, we calcify. Hardened to the outside world, we lose our curiosity, we lose focus, we lose sight of what it is *to be a person*. Curiosity of our environment is what brought us out of the trees, out of the savannah, out of darkness, and into the modern world3.

Epictetus, one of the best known stoic philosophers, said it like this,
“It is impossible for a person to begin to learn what he thinks he already knows.”


The best remedy to pride is approaching the world with humility, with the understanding that you only know what you know, not everything. As I started writing the talk, I pulled out so many things. All the great things. I went back to the book that started all this for me - Walter Isaacson’s biography of Ben Franklin - I went back to the most *comprehensive* biography by Leo Lemay and even reread from the collected works of Franklin published online at FranklinPapers.org.

It was as if I was a neophyte. It reminded me that there are others who have studied longer and harder than I who knew more, will likely always know more. And it puts into perspective the way of understanding and knowledge. No person can ever, should ever, believe they are the sole bearer of knowledge and truth. There are always others to whom we can aspire.

So, I spoke well and I knew my topic. And I *got there* despite having been reading and researching and practicing Franklin and his virtue project for *years* by approaching it like I had no idea what I was doing and that I was going to fail.

Here’s an exercise for then next time you have a thing you’re working on you feel you know well. And,likely, is a good set of precepts for Humility if you have a knowledge focus in your own Virtues.

    Ask yourself these questions:
  1. What *don’t* I know about this topic?
  2. Who out there knows *more* than I do?
  3. How can be more like them and their expertise?


If you otherwise think naught but of your own expertise, all the things you do, know, and understand already, what could you possibly care about outside of that?




Footnotes:
  1. (Ominous music).

  2. It is....

  3. Also, thumbs thumbs aren’t a virtue.

Enter 2018 with... appropriate... humility by Will Ringland

Politics aside (like really, really, far aside) events in the world for 2017 were objectively terrible. More terrorism, more disease, more economic disparity and inequality. The world could certainly be better in numerous ways.

And I, hardly, am perfect and certainly could have been better about many things. Just look at some of my low lights from the last 52 weeks of virtue grids

With all that failure, it’s useful to remind myself that I did accomplish some things too. It’s easy to focus on failure, especially those of us raised in the “always be better, anticipate everything” mentality of Midwestern upbringing. We could be looking at a list of 10 things, 8 of which we accomplished, and just stare at those two unfinished things and scream...

FAILURE

...at ourselves until the first dawn of 2019.

Eww can all agree that looking only on the good things we did, the accomplishments, is vanity. Rarely are we perfect but it is equally vain to ignore all our triumphs for any or all of our failures.

Consider that hubris is pride in one’s actions to the exclusion of all other things. Let me bust out a little Aristotle. Aristotle defined “hubris” as:

”... to cause shame to the victim, not in order that anything may happen to you, nor because anything has happened to you, but merely for your own gratification. Hubris is not the requital of past injuries; this is revenge.”

We can dwell in failure, really dig in and slop in the mud, the same way we can for success. This can create the same sort of self-satisfaction, though not positive in affect, as external hubris used as a violent act on another.

Let’s not do that to ourselves?

Let’s remember that we are human and that we we will mess up in our drive to be better and that’s ok. Let’s enter 2018 with a self-aware humility that recognizes the best and the worst of 2017 without bogging ourselves down on one part of it.

So, buck up. Make some goals and raise a drink to all the good we did in 2017.

What's your point zero? by Will Ringland

Prior to this Virtue Project, I never gave much thought to Humility.  I never assumed I had anything worth pride. Not in like a "I have no faults" way but more like an obliviousness to my capabilities. In the absence of information, do you assume you're right or wrong?  That what you're doing is correct and true or not? Knowing where you are to start helps define your path to humility.  

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Applied Humility by Will Ringland

And lastly, his great Resignation and Humility in acknowledging the Just Censure passed on his Essay, joined to his hearty Repentance, as well for that as other Sins of the like Kind he has heretofore been guilty of, together with a sincere Promise of Amendment for the future.
- A Defense Renewed (1)

Humility is multifaceted. It's not just moderating one's self opinion to avoid arrogance, but also having a modest or low view of one's own importance and knowledge. Humility is understanding the distinction between what you do know and what you don't know. And when you encounter the boundary between the two, humility is see that before you barrel across the line into a morass of uninformed arrogance and pride.

And like most of the virtues, perhaps especially so, humility is hard to maintain but glaringly obvious when you don't have it.

I recently inherited a company wide initiative that fell off the rails (2) in the hope that I can, at least, drag it kicking and screaming nearer the finish line for the current development version. Because at this point, it's bloated and decomposing carcass is way too heavy to actually get it across the line.

Yeah. So, part of that screaming involves getting people on all the other applications to finish the analysis of their data that we asked them to do in 2014. For lack of previous completion, we created some high priority bug reports that show up on all the application reports with really red text. The idea being that, by hook or by crook, we're going to get people to pay attention.

In our bug tracking system, you can attach the bug report to a development tracker and, once you flag that development as complete, it flags the bug report as fixed. And it then drops off all the reports. One team opted to attach the report to a development log and set the dev as complete. In about an hour. Without attaching any development objects or filling out the requested research documentation. So, poof, the bug report fell off all the reports.

I found that the next day when reviewing all those reports to see if they had, at least, been assigned for review. And I wrote an email.

In said email, which included their team lead and the application manager, and my boss, I did anything but assume for competence. I assumed, rather, that because they did the above they were trying to game the system and avoid all the red marks on their application reports. And boy did I make that clear. This was about 6pm that night so I went home.

The next morning I was greeted with a few BCC "hey look at what this jerk is saying about your team member" emails. And a voicemail from his team lead. To his team lead's credit, he was calm and deferential. He said that he understood how all this looked, understood where I was coming from, and dang it they were going to fix it, and that email read as really mean — don't do that again.

In short, he was doing everything opposite what I did and acted without ego.

And I felt awful.

I immediately called the guy I accused of gaming the system and apologized. We worked out what was going on, why he did what he did, and both arrived at the place we needed to for tracking their research progress as intended.

And I felt better. And I called his lead and apologized to him too.

Well, sort of. I felt awful for all those assumptions but great about where we ended up. I was, ultimately right that we needed to track things and that was what he was trying to do. He just didn't realize that the way he did it defeated the escalation path we were using. Which made sense as he had only been around for about 7 months.

A couple of lessons taken from this total failure at humbleness: 1. Don't assume people are trying to work around the system. Ask them what's going on. 2. Assume for intelligence, dedication, and a desire to do right in the world until you have evidence to the contrary. And even then, be helpful and not accusatory. 3. Don't send angry emails when you've been working late for most days the last few weeks. And wait to send it when you're NOT BEING EMOTIONAL. 4. When you screw up, acknowledge it and make it right.

4 is clearly the most important part if you find yourself in this sort of hole which is easy to do in a world of digital communication. You cannot include tone or intention in your digital breadcrumbs, one can only infer it.

And inference is a dangerous hubris.







  1. John Webbe: Defense Renewed, I. Printed in The American Weekly Mercury, November 27, 1740. Accessed from FranklinPapers.org.

  2. I'm not entirely sure it was ever on the rails.

    Also: the more time you wrestle with each virtue the more you find your flaws with them. When do you actually start getting better at them?