“It is impossible for a man to learn what he thinks he already knows.” ~Epictetus
Taking my aisle seat on the plane, I hoped no one would ask to sit beside me. There was a lady sitting near the window, and we both seemed to like the space between us just the way it was. Don’t look up, Susan. Don’t make eye contact. It’s usually worked just fine, but then I heard the voice, “Is anyone sitting there?” Gosh, couldn’t he see that our personal belongings were, in fact, taking up that space? “No,” I replied, turning my legs sideways so he could get past me because I am a bit claustrophobic if I sit in the middle. Please, let him just take a nap, I thought to myself. Oh, why did I leave my headphones in the bag that went in the overhead compartment? He was going to talk, there was no doubt about it. Luckily, I never had a chance to chime in more than an uh-huh or hmmm during the 2 1/2 hour flight, or it might have felt like an eternity instead of a couple of hours. You see, I learned very quickly that we had very little in common, but what I also learned that day was that by not offering much of a reply to anything he said, I was able to learn things I thought I already knew about people like him. Epictetus was right, as he usually is — how could I learn what I thought I already knew?
Humility isn’t something we see too much of these days, and maybe it never has been, but it’s painfully evident right now. Most everyone thinks they are right, all of the time, and most everyone else is wrong, all of the time. You and I both know that neither of those things is really possible, but without some humility, I think people will never learn anything new — because they don’t really want to learn anything new. Does that sound like someone you know? Does it sound like you?
Maybe you tinker with cars just enough to know how to change the oil or spark plugs but not enough to change a timing belt or even know where it is, and you know just enough about carpentry to know where you can pick up a bottle of wood glue to fix table leg but not enough to build a table, and you know just enough about numbers to create a budget but not enough to help someone make good investments. You, my friend, are the Jack of all trades and master of none, and many of us fall into that category. I love to photograph people, birds, and events, and I’ve learned so much about the art of photography the past many years, but I am no master. The minute I think I know more than most others about any subject is the very minute the need for humility hits me square in the face. We can always learn more (with a few exceptions, I’m guessing). Being willing to admit that might be one of the best first steps to becoming more humble.
Do you notice other people’s flaws and mistakes? You can work on your humility by stopping when you begin to point out mistakes and instead ask yourself, “How am I doing in that department?” If you are critical of the way someone is doing their job, it just might be that you are lacking in that area, as well.
Did you mess up, make a mistake, let someone down? You can bet that you need to work on being more humble if your first reaction is to become defensive over your error or shortcoming. I forgot to take care of something I said I would do, and admitting that I didn’t get it all finished was very humbling. This was one time I needed to simply apologize and make a plan for doing better in the future. It was not comfortable at all and was especially frustrating because others weren’t willing to do the same. I don’t know why other people aren’t willing to take the humility class at the same time I am.
As with the fellow on the airplane, I am reminded that humility listens more than it speaks. As with the photographers who can work circles around my skills, I am reminded that humility is willing to push to the front those people who deserve to be recognized. As with the people who get away with putting me down and elevating themselves, I am reminded that humility is offering an understanding of others not being where I am on the path of trying to be kinder and allowing them their own journey while I mind mine.
If you and I are convinced that we know all we need to know about cooking, raising children, politics, religion, relationships, or our job, we will discover the bitter taste of humility in defeat when we are taken down a notch or two. The sweeter flavor of a sliver of humble pie is sure to keep us living peacefully and more pleasantly with those in our lives.
Take time to listen to what another person has to offer on a subject you feel strongly about — it makes for a much better flight.