In early 2016, a client hired me to do some website development and blogging work for his lifestyle brand. After a few months of working on the project, I finally got the opportunity to work with him in person. He greeted me with a compliment on the work I had done so far. I thanked him and told him it was hard work.
For a moment, my response caught him off guard. He burst into laughter and then, he said, “Please don’t ever change. Don’t fake humility. Take credit for your hard work. You earned it!”
Until then, I had not given much thought to the concept of humility. After all, I come from a culture that sports the lion as its “spirit animal”. We celebrate each success often and loudly. Being born and raised a Jamaican is success number one and we are unlikely to let you forget it.
Even so, there are many Jamaicans who practice humility. The keyword here is “practice.” These are people who, ironically enough, take pride in being humble. This is not a Jamaican-only past-time. I have noted this quite often among Americans, since this thought-provoking exchange with my client.
Of course, there might also be people who are genuinely humble — including a rare few Jamaicans. This article is not about you.
What Is Humility?
I can thank my sixth-grade teacher for contributing to my tough skin. I was one of her top students, but her constructive criticism was an everflowing fountain. Every compliment from her came with an asterisk. One criticism she gave me and other students fairly often was our tendency to latch on to specific words.
She explained that there were lazy words in the English language that people used so often, the words began to lose their meanings. Sadly, these are the same words sixth-graders find convenient for our English essays. For this very reason, she provided a list of words we could not use in her class. Her top pet-peeve was the word nice.
I don’t recall humility or humble being on her list, but layman English has changed a lot since I was 11 years old. It would most certainly now fit the criteria for one of the many words Ms. McKellop would ban to the detriment of those of us who scribbled our essays hurriedly in the last 20 minutes of lunch break.
But, what exactly does this over-used word mean? According to the Oxford English Dictionary, “humility is the quality of not thinking that you are better than other people; the quality of being humble.” Merriam-Webster describes it as, “freedom from pride or arrogance.”
What Is Practiced Humility?
I spend a lot of time on Twitter. I would love to tell you it’s because it drives my book sales, which it does, but I just enjoy the banter. I follow some of the most brilliant and hilarious people I have had the pleasure of knowing. They, in turn, follow much of the same and help populate my timeline.
Several days ago, a tweep posted that there is a big difference between being “laid back” and plain old complacent. I agreed and shared that I have learned to avoid men who describe themselves as “laid-back.” Why? Because, in my generation, this is generally code for lazy and complacent.
Quite a few women shared their agreement, but several men rushed to defend themselves. As Jamaicans say, “Mi t’row me corn…” Or, as Americans would say, “A hit dog will holler.” The hollering was quite loud. One guy took an interesting approach and explained that men often described themselves as laid-back because they were humble.
I guffawed on my sofa at this ridiculous explanation. In response, I drew a parallel with the men who shout from the rooftops, “BUT I’M A GOOD GUY!” Almost none of them ever truly are. I added, “In my opinion, there are some things that are only true about a person when someone else says it, not them.”
The guy then responded in the way most Generation-X-and-younger men do when we point out problems like this. He decided that this was because of the men we knew, implying, of course, that he was a man apart from these scoundrels.
Well, that isn’t a very humble response, now, is it? Why no, but he sure took pride in being humble. Do you?
Are You Truly Humble or Just Well-Practiced?
I am a strong advocate for continued self-improvement. We are always capable of being a better version of ourselves tomorrow than we were today. There is nothing wrong with setting aside a list of attributes that you want to make true about yourself or values you wish to attain. However, when it comes to humility, claiming it for yourself invalidates the point altogether.
That creates a bit of a dilemma; doesn’t it? How so? If you rushed to answer yes to the question of humility, maybe you’re not as humble as you think you are. There is just no way to say, “Yes! I am humble!” without patting yourself on the back. That might beg the question: is ANYONE humble?
That’s a debate I am open to hearing. As for me, personally, I see nothing wrong with thinking highly of yourself. The trick is to base those opinions on fact, merit, and a commitment to continued self-improvement. Thereafter, I say, celebrate as loudly and often as you like.
I don’t care if you just bought your first bicycle or you’re one day sober. Celebrate like you just won the lottery — and count me in!
The problem with a lot of people nowadays is that they think unless you spend a lot, it don’t mean shit. If you went from a 1992 car to a 2002 car, applaud your damn self! Especially if you worked hard for it.
— Junae 🧜🏽♀️ Ariel (@_ohsomagical_) August 3, 2020
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