~2400 words, ~12 min read time
What follows is the text of the Commencement Address that I gave today, December 16, 2018, to the graduates of Kent State University’s Stark Campus.
Congratulations, graduates! This afternoon we are here to celebrate your accomplishments with you. You have worked hard to master the skills and the content that we have thrown at you, and today you receive the evidence of what you have achieved. So, on the behalf of the faculty, let me say “well done.”
When I was asked to give this talk, I naturally thought back to my own college commencement. Do you know what my commencement speaker spoke about? Well, neither do I. So, it is with a certain sense of what I will call “humble realism” that I approach this talk today. It seemed appropriate, then, to talk about the value of humility.
To demonstrate the value of humility, I hope to make three points – first, arrogance is destructive. Second, humility leads us to a realistic view of ourselves. Finally, in humility, we change the world by serving others.
Before we get too far, let us consider what humility is and, first, what it isn’t.
The following list clarifying what humility is not comes from Dr Larry Osborne.
Humility is not low self-esteem. We have another name for that. Low self-esteem. In the words of the Dalai Lama “there is clearly a distinction to be made between valid confidence or self-esteem, and conceit – which we can describe as an inflated sense of importance, grounded in a false image of self.” So, humility does ask us not to have an unrealistically high opinion of ourselves. But, it certainly does not require that we have an unrealistically low opinion of ourselves, either.
Humility is also not a lack of ambition. One can seek to accomplish great things – and still do so with a sense of humility. UCLA basketball coach John Wooden is quoted as saying “It is amazing what you can accomplish when you do not care who gets the credit.”
Humility is, thirdly, not downplaying our own accomplishments. There is nothing humble in claiming to be bad at something that you actually do well. There are only two possibilities here. Either you are delusional, and don’t realize your own strengths. Or you are dishonest, and simply want to cover them up. Neither delusion nor dishonesty are part of humility.
So, humility is not low self-esteem, a lack of ambition, or downplaying our own accomplishments. But, what is it?
The best definition I could find comes from a very scholarly source. Urbandictionary.com. No, I’m serious. Urbandictionary.com offers this definition: True humility is to recognize your value and others value while looking up. It is to see there is far greater than ourself into who we can become, who others can become, and how much more we can do and be. To be humble is to serve others and be for their good as well as your own. To be humble is to have a realistic appreciation of your great strengths, but also of your weaknesses. We’ll come back to these – but let’s first look at the opposite of humility: arrogance.
How easy it is for confidence – which is not a bad thing – to be twisted into arrogance. The arrogant, then, demand credit for all the wonderful things they do – and somehow find a way to shift blame away from themselves whenever their plans go awry. Once arrogance takes this turn, it, in turn has morphed into something else – fear. As the wise Jedi Master Yoda reminds us – Fear is the path to the dark side. Fear leads to anger, anger leads to hate, hate leads to suffering. And this is true – the arrogant person becomes afraid that, if people don’t know their accomplishments – or if people discover their failings – then their value as people will be diminished. Then, all it takes is not receiving credit for something, and the arrogant person lashes out in anger – is overcome by resentment, and begins plotting revenge.
Imagine with me, if you will, a hypothetical city filled with arrogant people – people who are continuously seeking credit for themselves, and seeking to shift blame to others. Let’s call this hypothetical city… say, Washington. What can we expect Washington to accomplish? I suggest that the best answer is “little to nothing”. So, why is that?
I’m an economist – and my wife can assure you that I’m an economist 24 hours a day, whether she likes it or not – so I can’t help but fit a little of that into this address. One of the most basic principles of economics is the division of labor. That is, we can accomplish more if we divide up tasks according to people’s relative abilities to do them. But, when each person is consumed with a desire for credit and fear of blame, cooperation – which is really just the common word for the division of labor – becomes impossible. And, without that cooperation – that division of labor – it is remarkably difficult to accomplish any complicated task – even the making of something as simple as a pencil cannot be done without an astounding amount of cooperation. I dare say that a society filled with such arrogant people will find itself paralyzed by continuous conflict and a lack of productivity. Such a society will destroy itself – unless it can live parasitically off of another group of people – a group of people that is more interested in accomplishing a goal than in receiving recognition for doing it – and, as such, is willing to cooperate to get the job done.
Arrogance – and the dangers that accompany it – is nothing new. There’s a reason that so many religious and philosophical systems – spanning time and civilizations – warn of the dangers of arrogance.
Solomon – one of the Kings of ancient Israel – is reported to have said that “When pride comes, then comes disgrace.”
Jesus warned his disciples that those who exalt themselves would be humbled.
Aesop shares a number of fables about the dangers of arrogance. I’ll share three:
Roaming by the mountainside at sundown, a Wolf saw his own shadow become greatly extended and magnified, and he said to himself, “Why should I, being of such an immense size and extending nearly an acre in length, be afraid of the Lion? Ought I not to be acknowledged as King of all the collected beasts?’ While he was indulging in these proud thoughts, a Lion fell upon him and killed him. He exclaimed with a too late repentance, “Wretched me! this overestimation of myself is the cause of my destruction.”
A gnat settled on the horn of a Bull, and sat there a long time. Just as he was about to fly off, he made a buzzing noise, and inquired of the Bull if he would like him to go. The Bull replied, “I did not know you had come, and I shall not miss you when you go away.”
A deer was drinking from a river and began to admire his antlers. He then began to think about his hooves, and he wished his hooves were as big and majestic as his antlers were. To the deer’s surprise, a hunter appeared and fired an arrow, barely missing him. The deer took off into the trees and realized that he was able to get away only because of his small, nimble hooves. He realized how truly great they were, but as he was looking at his hooves, his antlers got caught in some tree branches. The hunter caught up to the deer and just before he met his fate, he lamented his love for his antlers and wished he should have realized how great his hooves were sooner.
Having seen that arrogance is personally and socially destructive, let’s turn then to consider humility. First, the fact that humility requires that we have a realistic sense of our own strengths and weaknesses.
The philosopher Socrates showed the virtue of humble realism in this story, which I paraphrase from Plato: The story goes that Socrates went to the Oracle at Delphi to ask who was wisest – as, knowing his own ignorance, Socrates wanted to learn. The Oracle declares that Socrates was the wisest person in Greece. Not believing this – after all, Socrates knew that he knew nothing – Socrates visited people of various occupations – politicians, poets, craftsmen – but he found that everyone else lived under a pretense of knowledge – that is, they believed they knew things that they did not actually know. Socrates – and he alone – recognized what he did NOT know. And, so Socrates was forced to conclude that the Oracle was right. For, while Socrates knew nothing, he was at least aware of that fact.
True humility requires that we recognize both our strengths and our weaknesses. In this facet, humility is a form of clarity of perception reflected in the Delphic maxim “gnothi sauton” – “know thyself”. If we truly know ourselves, we will recognize that we have often been wrong – or at least I have. This should lead us to a more tolerant view of those we disagree with. This does not mean that I have no confidence in my beliefs – if that were the case, I would change them. Rather, it simply means that we recognize that we may not be 100% right on all of them – and we’re not quite sure which ones we got wrong.
True humility requires a recognition that – regardless how good we are, we can always be better. One of my college friends recently told me that he had come to two realizations in life. First, he would never be good enough. Second, that doesn’t mean that he isn’t better than everyone else. I think if we reverse the order, we discover humility. Humility asks us to recognize that, even when we are better than everyone else, there is still room to be better still.
Can you look at yourself and your accomplishments objectively? Can you see the things you have done the way that other people would see them – with all of their flaws and glories? If so, you are on the path to a humble realism.
Finally, in humility, we change the world by serving others.
True humility requires that we take on the role of a servant. I’m guessing this story is fictional, but it, none-the-less, is a good illustration. In the early days after the United States was born, a rider came across a group of soldiers trying to remove a tree that had fallen across the country road that the rider was traveling. The rider noticed that one soldier was standing aside, doing nothing, and asked the man about this. This person clarified that he was the corporal – so it was his job to give the orders. The rider accepted this fact, got down off of his horse, and helped the soldiers. With his help, the tree could be removed and the road cleared. After this, the rider walked up to the corporal and said to him “The next time this happens, just ask the Commander-in-Chief for help” – for the rider was none other than President Washington, himself. True humility asks us to serve others – regardless our relative positions. Of course, this doesn’t mean that being a leader is a bad thing. On the contrary, leadership often places you into a position where you are able to serve more broadly – as long as you have the strength of character not to let the position go to your head.
Many of the ancients – from Laozi to Jesus to Muhammad – suggest that humility is rewarded with exaltation – and often leadership.
Humility is so central to Islam that even the term “Islam” can be translated approximately as “humility” or “submission”. And the Qu’Ran declared that “Success comes to believers who humble themselves.”
Jesus tells his disciples not only that those who exalt themselves will be humbled, but that the reverse is also true: those who humble themselves will be exalted.
Laozi says “I have three precious things, which I hold fast and prize. The first is gentleness; the second is frugality; the third is humility, which keeps me from putting myself before others. Be gentle, and you can be bold; be frugal, and you can be generous; avoid putting yourself before others, and you can become a leader among men.”
Why do so many – across time and civilizations – see a connection between humility and being exalted to a position of leadership? For the answer to that, I turn to a more modern source.
This past October, the Wall Street Journal ran an article entitled “The Best Bosses Are Humble Bosses”. Why is that? Because humble leaders are more successful at inspiring teamwork, rapid learning, and high performance in their teams. Humble people are more aware of their own weaknesses – sound familiar? – are more eager to improve themselves, and – here is a key – are appreciative of others’ strengths.
Putting these pieces together, a leader that displays humility recognizes the value of working as a team – so that each person can show their own strengths, and that each person – including the leader – can minimize the effects of their own weaknesses. It is no wonder then, that those who are humble would find themselves lifted up into positions of leadership.
I am convinced that each of us can change our own little corner of the world – and for the better – if we follow three rules. Let us do justly, love mercy, and walk humbly.
I will close by asking you to do some self-assessment. I’m going to ask each of us to consider these questions:
Are you overly sure of yourself? Do you find it difficult to admit when you are wrong or make a mistake? Do you find it difficult to respect people who disagree with you? Are you upset when you don’t get credit for things you do? Do you look for others to blame when things don’t go as they should?
Are you realistically aware of your own strengths and weaknesses? Can you look at your accomplishments objectively – as if they were accomplished by someone else? Do you recognize when others are better than you are in certain tasks or traits, and try to learn from them?
How do you serve those around you? Do you seek to build teams, helping each person you come into contact with discover their own strengths?
Do you do justly? Do you love mercy? Do you walk humbly?
Again, congratulations, and all the best as you walk the path that lies before you.