What An Iceberg Taught Me About Humility

I recently found myself in Iceland for a few days, on a spontaneous last-minute adventure while en route to Europe for business. The country is stunning, it feels truly untouched by humans. It was an opportunity for me to disconnect from technology and reconnect with nature.

Visiting the glaciers was awesome. As a quick aside, the glaciers are actually melting, which was made that much more real for me up close. The specific ones I visited are melting a rate of 300 meters per year and have created a giant lagoon that did not exist 30 years ago. Now if you subscribe to the belief that there is goodness in everything, thanks to climate change, I was fortunate to do a glacier lagoon tour, which was a beautiful experience.

While on the tour in a tiny motor boat, I was surrounded by hundreds of icebergs, which sparked a real curiosity for me. Icebergs are simply a portion of a glacier that has fallen off and is floating in the sea, melting away slowly. I saw icebergs of all shapes and sizes. The smaller ones were the size of a basketball (I even picked one up out of the lagoon) while the larger ones looked like small buildings standing on the water.

A lot more beneath the surface

Driving right next to an iceberg, you can see how 90% of its volume is beneath the surface. The depth and breadth underneath the surface is not easily seen until you are right next to one (I can now see why the Titanic crashed into an iceberg without notice). I learned that the age of an iceberg can be seen by counting its layers, that are each different colours. The darker blue layers are older (more densely packed ice with less oxygen), while the lighter layers are more recently formed.

My curiosity growing, I found myself trying to convince the tour guide to let me jump onto one of the larger icebergs. After giving him my best pitch, he responded without pause, in a serious Icelandic tone, “No, I’ve seen too many of them flip”. Hold on, I said. What do you mean ‘flip’?

He explained to me that based on the temperature of the water or the sea, different parts of the iceberg will melt at different rates. And then the iceberg may appear as if it’s floating above the sea, as it melts unevenly at the edges and starts to rise. And sometimes when the top gets too heavy and too big, then it flips, without warning, in a violent and dangerous manner.

So if an iceberg gets too big above the surface, it is in its own nature to self-correct and restore its balance, such that 90% of its volume remains beneath the surface.

After the tour, I went on my way and felt inspired from learning more about icebergs and the science behind them. And while journaling later that day, I realized that icebergs can be a metaphor for humility in my life.

To be like an iceberg is to practice humility in all walks of life. A reminder to stay beneath the surface and not let pride overtake, distract or disorient me. Otherwise a flip may occur.

Experiencing humility in a modern world

I’ve felt a special connection with icebergs for 10 years now. When we started our business, our first company logo was an iceberg, meant to symbolize more beneath the surface. Even though we were right out of school and it was a time when very few young people started businesses, our skills, passion and energy provided a depth to us that was not evident at the surface. Just like an iceberg.

About 15 months into our business full-time, we ran out of cash, and missed payroll for the first (and only) time in our history. With a team of 14 people, it was a stressful experience. I was over confident about collecting receivables from big customers (who I now know are slow to pay!). That was a flipping-of-the-iceberg moment for me.

Reflecting back, I feel grateful for that experience, as it taught me a valuable lesson and has given me the conviction to always run a healthy business (which is profitable now), with no chance of running out of cash!

Running a business in digital media is a continuous lesson in humility. It is an industry that changes rapidly, is very competitive and faces macro economic forces out of my direct control or influence (kind of like the weather). As an entrepreneur who puts a lot of energy into my business, I sometimes find myself feeling entitled to things going my way. But if a competitor launches a shiny new feature, or if a customer decides they are taking their business elsewhere, or if a new deal takes just a little longer than expected to sign, I am reminded to be like an iceberg and practice humility.

Last month, I got onto a stronger yoga kick than normal, taking classes or practicing on my own daily. Although it felt really good at the time, while on a hike during my Iceland adventure, I had a flipping-of-the-iceberg moment when my left knee started to experience pain. I realized I may have overdone it over the past few weeks.

Taking the practice of humility forward

My connection with humility is weak when I may be feeling lost, confused, FOMO (fear of missing out) or generally ungrateful. I know that in these moments, remembering to be like an iceberg will change how I feel.

Humility for me is knowing who I am, accepting myself and reality as it is. It is knowing what I stand for and being comfortable in my own skin. It is not lowering myself or thinking of myself as worth less in any way and it is not seeking the admiration of others. It is remembering to stay beneath the surface and that if the top gets too big, everything may flip without warning.

I feel humility is a state, of mind, of being, of presence. It is not something to be achieved, but something to be cultivated. And remembering to be like an iceberg is how I intend to continue to do so.

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Kunal Gupta is the Founder & CEO of Polar. Follow his leadership blog at findfocus.today. At Polar, Kunal leads a talented team transforming the media publishing industry with technology. He is passionate about leadership and finding focus in a modern era. Connect with him on LinkedIn, Medium or Twitter.