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)

Sometimes all you need is a bit of perspective

We faced a few situations in the past few weeks during which we were well in over our heads. These situations involved some combination of a sick kid or kids, visits to the doctor, cleaning up puke – lots of puke, and feelings of exhaustion.

I vividly remember a few moments during these weeks when it occurred to me that, sometimes, all you need (and have?) is a bit of perspective.

When many of these things are going against you, it is easy to drift unconsciously into zones that attract self-pity or whinging or general unhappiness.

The truth, however, is generally far from it.

In our situation for example – the kids are building immunity, we are learning plenty about each other thanks to an extended stretch in the trenches, we are lucky to not be stressed about affording medicines or insurance, and, most importantly, we are dealing with tractable, non-chronic, problems.

Once we summon that bit of perspective and realize that these brief (at least in the grand scheme of things) trysts with chaos and exhaustion will pass, we realize quickly that there is a lot to smile about. It is all relative – all is actually well.

All that leads to the following note to self – expect problems, eat them for breakfast, smile, hug, laugh, and go do things that makes this experience better for everyone else.

Remembering Arthur Ashe

There are a few classic ALearningaDay stories that I share every 1-2 years as part of my attempts to internalize them. One of these is from tennis legend Arthur Ashe – the only black man to ever win the Wimbledon, US Open, and Australian Open.

He contracted AIDS from a blood transfusion he received when he was in surgery and once received a letter from a fan asking why, of all people, was he chosen to have AIDS?

To which, he replied – “The world over – 50,000,000 children start playing tennis, 5,000,000 learn to play tennis, 500,000 learn professional tennis, 50,000 come to the circuit, 5,000 reach the grand slams, 50 reach the Wimbledon, 4 make the semi finals and 2 make the finals. When I was the one holding the cup, I never asked god “Why me?”

Arthur Ashe taught us that if we’re not asking “why me” when things are going well, it isn’t fair to ask “why me” when things are not.

One of the most profound reminders I’ve gotten to keep perspective and to keep plugging away..

Counter productive behavior and perspective

Most infants hate changing clothes. So, they generally cry, kick, and scream when it happens. That is, of course, completely counter productive. It only lengthens the process and makes it worse.

I found myself amused when I observed this counter productive behavior the other day until I realized that we aren’t all that different as adults. We often do our equivalent of crying, kicking, and screaming when we deal with inevitable change, have an unexpected difficult conversation, or worry about something we don’t control.

That’s why taking the time to develop the sort of perspective that leads to equanimity can be very powerful. The sooner we can eliminate the counter productive behavior, the more productive we can be.

And, a great way to develop that sort of perspective is to spend more time with folks who have that perspective.

Uncertainty on Continuations

Albert Wenger, a venture capitalist at Union Square Ventures, authors one of my favorite blogs – Continuations. Yesterday’s post was about a new series on uncertainty –

I intend to write a bit about just how much of our lives is impacted by uncertainty (hint: all of it) despite us largely not acknowledging this reality. Then I plan to look at examples that illustrate how poor our intuitions are when it comes to dealing with uncertainty. With that in place, I will share the answers I have arrived at for myself for how to live with uncertainty.

He goes on to share three examples from his own life that involved major shifts that were far from certain.

I am excited about this series because a version of one of these stories inspired a classic ALearningaDay lesson – “You never know if a good day is a good day.” It has been five or six years since I first heard that idea from Albert and it is still one of those ideas that I think about every few weeks and write about every few months. For someone who struggled to learn how to keep perspective, that story was a game changer.

Repetition is a key part of learning. And, I love thinking about the topics I’m repeatedly re-framing and writing about – those lessons are the ones I clearly want to learn. At some point in the future, I hope to take on a project where I share some of the core principles I end up writing about every day.

One thing is for certain – when I do, the principle inspired by Albert’s story on the inherent uncertainty of our lives that reminds us of keeping things in perspective and plugging away will be key among them.

An undercurrent of perspective

Of late, I’ve been thinking of two streams at work and in life. The stream at the top is the one that dictates our response to the flow of the day-to-day. It deals with our plans for the future, the crisis of the moment, and the many other highs and lows that we deal with in our journey.

Underneath that stream is another which isn’t easily touched – but is one we can choose to access. It flows thanks to the undercurrent of perspective. Reaching for this undercurrent means reminding ourselves that we’re not here for too long and that nothing we do will last for long.

This undercurrent can be mistaken for a morbid thought that needs to be shushed away. But, it isn’t. Instead, in reminding us of the end game, it teaches us to focus on the little that actually matters. Our petty competitions, factions, politics, and rivalries are all going to count for nothing.

It reminds us that our life might be shorter than we think. So, we’d be better served dealing with today’s issues with a smile (they will pass). And, as we’re all fighting the good fight, we could all be kinder to ourselves and each other.

Stepping out of the frame

Author Salman Rushdie once quipped – “The only people who see the whole picture are the ones who step out of the frame.”

Our ability to step out of ourselves and observe ourselves from the wall or ceiling is core to our ability to be human. That ability to see ourselves from another point of view gives us instant perspective and the ability to separate stimulus from response.

The question, then, is how often do we step out of the frame in the course of a day or week? How often do we trigger reflection and perspective? For most of us, sleep, meditation, a walk in the outdoors, writing in a journal, taking deep breaths, running, among others, are ways to do so.

Doing most or all of these well over the course of a day aren’t an optional add on at the end of a work day. They result in step changes in productivity as perspective inspires a focus on what actually matters.

And, perhaps more important for our life and relationships, they enable us to be more in touch with our humanity.