Is Humility A Good or a Bad Force?

Do you ever find successful people boastful, perhaps even downright obnoxious? Perhaps I can explain this? More importantly, how will this insight help us to find WHealth in our own lives?

When I transitioned from being a fulltime physician to being a corporate executive, I was surprised by the comments of my best friend’s father. He was a seasoned and successful businessman. He said to me, “Roddy, I’m delighted about your decision; we need good people leading business”. I have pondered on his words often. They implied that we didn’t have good people leading business.

Prior to this, I had worked with elite athletes, helping them to achieve optimal physical, mental and emotional condition. A sizeable number were training to compete in the Olympic Games. I invested long hours with them in the laboratory, their training environments, and if necessary, the injury and rehabilitation clinic. I clearly remember their return from the Atlanta Games in 1996. I received only two phone calls. Only two of the many athletes thought to thank me for my considerable efforts. I wondered if elite performance required a personality that lacked some of the niceties we teach our children.

When I work with WHealth Seekers today, I recommend two major constructs that lead to success. The first is the Power of BELIEF; the second is the Power of Optimism, which drives Resilience. Let’s recap each briefly.

I hope you have read my series of three articles on the Power of BELIEF? In essence, if you harness the significant power of your cognitive brain behind your aspirations, then success comes easily. This means that if you BELIEVE in something, truly BELIEVE, you can make it happen.

What do you need to truly BELIEVE? You need to have a constant stream of positive thoughts. If you planted a recording device in the corridors of your mind, this is what you would hear:

“I will succeed.”

“I am destined to succeed.”

“I have the power, the drive, the intellect, the muscle and the work ethic to succeed.”

Now many of us were raised in polite, respectful families. We were taught humility, and we have taught the same to our children. Imagine your oldest son walking around your house, shouting these statements at the top of his voice. Perhaps we should celebrate this, but I suspect that many of us would feel a little uncomfortable. We might wonder if this apparent loss of humility was a good thing.

I also hope that you’ve read my series on Resilience, and the critical role that Optimism plays in driving it. We determine if you are optimistic (or pessimistic) by analyzing your reaction to events in your life. Each time something happens (whether good or bad), you explain it. If your default explanatory style is positive, we decide you are optimistic. If negative, we conclude that you are pessimistic. There are three axes to your explanatory style: permanence, pervasiveness and personalization. Each axis is a continuum, so permanence ranges from temporary to permanent; pervasiveness from specific to universal; and personalization from external to internal. It’s easier to understand this construct through examples.

Let’s imagine something bad happening to you. Imagine, for example, you drop a carton of eggs while doing your grocery shopping. They explode all over the store, spattering a very nice looking gentleman’s shiny black shoes and dark suit with bright yellow egg yolk. You can explain the event optimistically, pessimistically, or somewhere in between. Here’s how that would sound:

Pessimist: “I’m sorry, I’m always (permanent) so clumsy. Bad things happen around me (universal). It’s my fault (internal).”

Optimist: “I’m sorry, I never (temporary) drop things. This is an unusual situation (specific). The box can’t have been closed properly (external).”

The same is true when something good happens to you. Imagine you win the raffle at the school auction. As you walk up to receive the giant basket overflowing with delicious treats, you are heard to say:

Pessimist: “Wow, I never (temporary) win these things. I don’t get lucky with anything I do (specific). Perhaps the organizers didn’t sell many tickets (external).”

Optimist: “This always (permanent) happens. Good things happen when I’m around (universal). My powerful intentions have earned this (internal).”

Notice how the three axes flip in explaining good or bad events. After bad events, the extreme optimist comes up with an explanation that is temporary, specific and external. “This never happens to me and it’s somebody else’s fault”. After good events, he or she comes up with an explanation that is permanent, universal and internal. “I’m responsible for my own success and it happens a lot.”

Now, here’s the conundrum. Remember I told you that Optimism is a good thing? It drives resilience, it wards off illness (especially depression), and you actually live longer. Sounds good, right? Well, if you read the explanatory quotes in the preceding paragraph, and picture your youngest daughter walking around the house speaking like this, you may quickly suggest that she sounds arrogant, and that you’d prefer a little humility in her voice.

It appears then that BELIEF (which may manifest as excessive self-confidence) and OPTIMISM (which may masquerade as arrogance) can look and sound unsavory to those of us with sensitive ears and an affinity for good manners. Is this what happened with the rude athletes I supported, or perhaps the “bad” leaders my friend’s Dad was describing?

What do we really want for ourselves, our children and the people we surround ourselves with? We want them to BELIEVE and we want them to be optimistic. At the same time, we want kindness, courtesy and consideration for the value and contribution of others.

I don’t pretend to have all the answers to this WHealth mystery. Research shows that it is most important that you get the permanence and pervasiveness axes right. If you chew on this concept for a while, and I encourage you to explore your own explanations and those of others more carefully, I’m sure that you’ll realize that it’s the personalization axis that can be offensive. Nobody wants to hear that all the good things are your doing, while all the bad things are somebody else’s fault!

I hope that you will spend time on this weighty question on your journey to WHealth. As with many important topics, I’m sure the contemplation is worth far more than the conclusion. I urge you to share your experiences and opinions with the extended BodyWHealth community, either by publicly commenting on this article, or send me a private message. I’ll capture all your feedback in a follow-on blog.

And, until we meet again …..

Have fun,

Roddy

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