Taking Pride in Humility

How creatives and artists can have it both ways

Recently, the global discussion theme for the international creativity lecture series Creative Mornings was Humility. In cities from Budapest, to Bangalore, to Bogotá, 110 very different people who are in some way connected to the larger creative industry thought a lot about humility and then led a lecture and group discussion on the theme. Here in Salt Lake City, that person was me.

Here’s the journey my mind took last week down the rabbit hole of humility. Well, humility and its mirror quality of pride. Because you can’t talk about humility without talking about pride.

The Paradox of Pride

Pride has to be the most contentious of the seven deadly sins. Seen through one lens, it’s more virtue than vice. Pride is like cholesterol — there’s the good kind and the bad kind. As far back as the Bible we hear warnings like “Pride goeth before destruction,” and yet we want to take pride in our work, be proud of our loved ones, raise our children with a sense of pride in themselves.

My daughter, heading for the horizon. Photo by me.

I have a six-year old daughter and it’s really tricky to figure out how to teach her to trust her intuition and have confidence in her ideas, while not overinflating her sense of self. Because while she’s obviously really important to me, in the grand scheme of things, she’s totally insignificant. I think it’s so tricky to balance this as a parent because most of us — certainly I included — don’t think we’ve figured out that balance in our own selves. And for creative people whose work is so enmeshed with our egos and our souls, it’s even harder.

On one hand we all know that excessive pride can be pretty despicable. We learn to disdain the haughty, the smug, the vainglorious. But then our cultural obsession with celebrity and personal branding shows this very public collective worship of excessive pride. We celebrate the size of Kim Kardashian’s spectacular ego as much as we celebrate the size of her spectacular ass.

Bad Pride

It’s no wonder our feelings about pride and humility get very confused. The unlikely word pairing of this pride synonym — vainglory — shows the complex relationship between this bad kind of pride and insecurity. And of course insecurity often gets muddled up with humility.

A cowboy named Cody in Escalante, Utah who made my question my tightly held assumptions about the culture of the West and the nature of our relationship with the land. Photo by me.

I’ve been reading this book of beautiful essays by Teresa Jordan that examines Benjamin Franklin’s now famous list of virtues. In the essay on pride, she sites the national obsession of the past few decades with overcoming low self-esteem, which people had hoped would cure everything from bullying and teen pregnancy to pollution and domestic violence. Jordan reminds us that those of you who grew up in the 90’s, that decade of “everyone’s a winner!” and controversial grade inflation, may have been taught as preschoolers to sing “I am special, I am special, look at me” to the tune of Freré Jacques. Or maybe you remember looking in a school bathroom mirror that was engraved with the words “I am the most special person in the world.”

But it turns out that all those efforts to raise self-esteem didn’t cure any of society’s ills. They didn’t lead to higher grades or less bullying or better behavior. All they did was make people more prideful.

This kind of bad pride, this overconfidence can be very limiting to us as creative people, as well as just to us as people-people. It can also be very lonely. It prevents us from listening to anything but our own booming inner voice, so that we can’t actually hear other people’s feedback, or stories, or ideas, or wisdom. This lack of humility becomes increasingly isolating.

Good Pride

But then there’s the other kind of pride — a moving through the world with self-confidence, grace and dignity, maintaining a deep appreciation and satisfaction in your own work. This is something we almost universally admire. And certainly something that artists and creatives strive for.

A grueling bike trip across the Scottish Highlands that dramatically reshaped my ego. And my legs. Photo by me.

I mean, consider the irony: “pride” is one of the seven deadly sins, and at the same time, Jordan’s essay reminded me that that Aristotle listed pride as the crown of all virtues. His name for this type of pride was megalopsuchia, which translates to “magnanimity” or “greatness of the soul”. Which is starting to sound awfully familiar to where we started.

Because implicit in magnanimity is the notion of humility. You can’t have that buoyant generosity of spirit of this good kind of pride — that nobility of feeling that rises above pettiness — you can’t have any of that without humility.

The Paradox of Humility

Here’s what humility is not: it’s not thinking: Oh, all these other writers or designers or filmmakers are so much more talented than I am. I’ll just stay over here in the shadows. It’s not thinking, surely that guy’s idea is much better than mine. I’ll minimize my own creative ownership of the project and we’ll just go with his idea. That’s not humility. You know what that is? That’s bullshit. That’s just insecurity playing dress-up. If humility is about being open to others, insecurity is really about focusing on yourself.

Production still from DISTANCE, a film by Anson Fogel and me about the power of place and the nature of power.

The former Archbishop of Canterbury William Temple once said, “Humility does not mean thinking less of yourself than of other people, nor does it mean having a low opinion of your own gifts. It means freedom from thinking about yourself at all.”

Or as wise Queen Bey puts it: “Your self-worth is determined by you.” Perhaps true humility involves an absence of both arrogance and insecurity, an absence of narcissistic entitlement. It incorporates sensitive honesty with self and sensitive honesty with others.

When I was a little girl, I remember my mother telling me that shyness was a form of selfishness. Which I noisily protested. But she said shyness is self-consciousness, which means you’re entirely worried about yourself and how others will perceive you. I would argue that it’s pretty much the same thing with insecurity.

Harvard Business School did this study where they asked all the business students to describe the most humble person they knew. And here’s what came out of it: the one characteristic that stood out was that all of these humble people had a high level of self-esteem. They knew who they were and they felt good about who they were, they felt proud. Jordan the essayist says, “humility then, is not defined by self-deprecating behavior or attitudes, but by the esteem with which you regard others.”

Cultivating Humility

Like a lot of women, my default has been to swing too heavily into the lack of self-confidence camp. I’m clearly in good company here, as Amy Schumer’s recent comedy sketch on over-apologizing makes clear. But as I’ve been working on cultivating more self-confidence, I of course want to be sure that I’m also continuing to cultivate humility. Because that’s the funny thing about this pride/humility complex. It seems like all of us are always swinging too far one way or another. It’s a moving target, and will probably be my entire life’s work.

The dancers of our client, RDT Dance, rehearsing a piece about the elemental human gestures of desire, disgust, pride, love, grace. Photo by me.

So this week I’ve been asking pretty much everyone I encounter how they go about cultivating humility in their own lives. And really they all said the same thing: that the people they know who most embody humility have a humble eagerness to learn something from everybody. As artists and creatives, they have empathy for their audience, their subjects and their clients. They have a deep curiosity about the stories of other people — not just the people that they perceive to be smarter or more experienced — but everyone.

In my own experience, I can start to get there by listening. Listening is something I can actively force myself to do — and sometimes for a talkative person like me it does feel forced. Not passive listening, but the deep, active listening to others that involves the body, mind and heart, as well as just the ears. Listening without simultaneously working in my head on my own response to what the other person is saying. And by showing these others the esteem I have for them by listening to them, I can also show myself esteem by listening to my own ideas and fears and stories.

As a creative and an artist, it is critical for me to have a strong opinion, to argue passionately for it and sometimes to be uncompromising about it. But when I can balance that with listening to those around me, to holding their opinions in the highest esteem — appreciating and respecting them with grace, with graciousness — then that starts to feel a lot like humility.