By Dr. Bjorn Mercer
Program Director, Communication, Humanities, Music, Philosophy, Religion and World Languages Programs
Note: This article is part 5 of a six-part series on humility written by university faculty.
When we think of humility, we usually think of many different forms of the concept. This includes religious humility, dedicating one’s life to charitable works, or being a team player rather than seeking the limelight in sports, business, or government. Individually, people might dedicate their daily activities to various religious ideals of humility, consistently helping and being grateful to others.
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There are many individual actions that people think embody humility, but they are really just individual acts of kindness such as thanking others publicly, taking responsibility for mistakes and not hogging the spotlight. A curious example of humble behavior might be that Kate Middleton likes to do her own grocery shopping and cooking. But this type of behavior does not make the future queen of England holistically humble rather than choosing various humble actions to stay modest and well-grounded.
Among all the different types of humility, three types that are commonly displayed are religious, public and personal.
Religious humility is simple and yet complicated. The first thing to consider is the more than 2,000 years of humility within the Christian church. But the seeds of religious humility go back even further due to Jewish, Greek, Egyptian, Zoroastrian and Sumerian influence.
Besides the Christian faith, religious humility can be found in Islam, Buddhism, Taoism, Hinduism, Judaism, Sikhism, indigenous faiths and many others. Many great writers throughout the millennia have written about religious humility and exploring it within one’s faith.
Public humility is often described as fake, done only for appearances and to convince strangers usually or acquaintances of one’s humbleness. In today’s social media-driven world, this can be in the form of a “humblebrag,” such as a Twitter tweet, an Instagram post or a Facebook post that brags about something while portraying the act as being humble.
It could also be a video posted on YouTube or elsewhere, explaining just how the individual lives humbly, why this is important, and why the person who posts it is so humble. Some examples of humblebrags are collected in a Vox article about pop star Taylor Swift.
In fact, there is no one way to be humble. However, most people who are truly humble do not share with thousands or even millions of people just how humble they are. Typically, the act of humility excludes boasting.
Business humility occurs when corporate leaders strive to act humbly in front of their employees, and talk and write about the virtues of humility. This form of humility can be extremely beneficial for employees as long as the leaders’ words are backed up with actual humble deeds and behavior. There are countless articles about business and leadership humility that, unfortunately, countless business leaders do not read.
Recognizing Fake Humility
Humility sometimes is called an important business skill but one that that should be publicly avoided. However, it is important also to know when to recognize the fake version. Dr. David J. Bobb, a former professor at Hillsdale College, cites five examples of real versus fake humility in his article on Fox News:
- Real humility leads a person to be curious about and concerned for others, not fixated on how others can lead to one’s own enrichment.
- Humility is about true service, not self-congratulation.
- In admitting an error or acknowledging that one is wrong, the humble person not only apologizes but also changes course.
- Real humility builds up; false humility tears down.
- The more responsibility or power one has, the more humility one needs.
As with many things in life, it’s important to trust but verify when it comes to how people act and portray themselves. This is especially true when it comes to humility. There should never be braggadocio, cautiously extroverted, and it’s never about ego, but how to serve others.
Personal and Individual Humility
The foundation of humility is the individual. Humility starts when individuals decide to put the needs of others before their own without causing self-harm. Humble people need to know themselves and understand their needs and how they react to people before they can even think of their own humble behavior.
To become holistically humble takes a lot of work, a lot of practice and a complete change in one’s approach to life. In an informative article in Psychology Today, Dr. Daryl R. Van Tongeren says that being humble requires:
- Awareness: an accurate self-awareness of one’s strengths and weakness.
- Openness: the ability to openly accept feedback and criticism while presenting your own views respectfully.
- Empathy: an empathic concern for the well-being of other people. It takes work.
If your goal is to truly change your life and to be concerned about more than just yourself, Dr. Van Tongeren’s three points are a great place to start.
There are hundreds of books, essays and articles for those who are interested learning more about becoming truly humble. In addition, spiritual leaders at your local house of worship are always happy to provide guidance on being humble.
However, the real work — and the most difficult work —is self-reflection and acceptance of other ideas of humility. As with anything in life, it is important to be honest with yourself, to be your authentic self, and whatever you do, do not be fake or humblebrag.
About the Author
Dr. Bjorn Mercer is a Program Director. He holds a bachelor’s degree in music from Missouri State University, a master’s and doctorate in music from the University of Arizona, and an MBA from the University of Phoenix. He writes about culture, leadership, and why the humanities and liberal arts are critical to career success. Dr. Mercer also writes children’s music.