“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:
- What *don’t* I know about this topic?
- Who out there knows *more* than I do?
- 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?