The problem with “Be humble”

This may be controversial – I’ve learnt that we cannot ask ourselves (or other folks) to “be humble” or, for that matter, to be grateful or to take things less seriously.

The notion that we can tell ourselves – “Hey, I know you think you are wonderful. But, it isn’t right to let people know you think that way. So, tone it down a bit so it looks more acceptable, will you?” – is flawed and comes across as fake.

All we can do is to help ourselves gain perspective and understand reality. And, when we do realize how little we actually know and that most of what is working in our life is a result of accumulated privilege and luck (my theory below), humility, gratitude, and a sense of humor flows easily.

Like many of life’s best things, humility is simply a by-product of a good product (perspective). The same holds true for gratitude and keeping a sense of humor.

(H/T: Kapil Gupta for an excellent articulation of the “be humble” problem/charade)

Xerox Parc

In 1969, the Chief Scientist at Xerox – then a rich and famous photocopier company – suggested that they ought to invest in a second research center away from headquarters. They chose Palo Alto and created Xerox Parc.

In the next decade, the scientists at Xerox Parc incubated, among other things, the first graphical user interface controlled by a mouse, graphics display, and text editor.

Of course, Xerox never ended up commercializing any of this as their executives never saw the potential of these inventions. So, many of the best researchers left to places like Apple Computer and ended up inventing the future.

Xerox Parc was a one off in many ways. It was and will likely remain among the most productive research facilities in the history of mankind (Bell Labs, perhaps, would be its only real competition). But, the retelling of this famous story doesn’t fail to inspire humility.  The executives at Xerox weren’t stupid – they were just not incentivized to recognize the potential of these breakthrough ideas. That could easily be you or me.

It also never fails to remind me of the importance of investing a small but consistent portion of resources – be it at work, in our financial investments, or in life – in research/exploratory projects with no immediate pay off.  Many of these don’t seem to pay off for the longest time.

Until they do.

Being a beginner

We gravitate to things we’re good at. Doing something we’re good at feels great – we’re in our element, we feel good about ourselves and we’re appreciated for what we do.

If success builds careers and failures build character, it makes sense that we gravitate to areas we can be great at in our careers. Notching successes matters. However, in our personal lives, I think it is critical we become beginners from time to time. We can do this by attempting a new difficult side project, learning a new skill or simply doing something we haven’t done.

I am experiencing this in a small project where I am, by far, the beginner. It has been a fun experience attempting to do the basics, feeling very grateful to the experts around me for having me around and encouraging me, and just experiencing the joy when I occasionally do a couple of things right. Being a beginner is a very humbling experience.

Someone I met said she would regularly ask people – “when was the last time you did something for the first time?”

That’s a question worth asking every once a while.