Humility is the absence of ego.
Humility is not modesty. It is not an act, it is not an etiquette by which you under-sell yourself in order to secretly impress others with how “humble” you are. Attempting to show others how modest you are is an act of your ego, and it is not humility. I have never been modest, and I do not plan to become modest. I seek instead to become free of ego. I have in the past been tortured and consumed by ego; I have hurt others and failed them by believing and acting upon the stories my ego tells. I have had painful failures that were just jarring enough to force me to consider whether I needed my ego to succeed, or whether it was actually holding me back. In my current business, I attempt to role model humility—an absence of ego—sometimes failing and sometimes succeeding.
What is Ego?
What, then, is ego? Ego is simply the part of you that believes a falsehood that you will find fulfillment in getting what your mind thinks it wants. Your mind thinks it wants power, recognition, money, pleasure. The ego shares pictures of you and a curated life on social media, thinking that evoking envy or awe in others will make you happy. It seeks a job title and social status, thinking that by having others think you are better than they are, you will be happy. It seeks to impose your beliefs on others, thinking that by showing others that you are right and they are wrong, you will be better than them, and you will be happy. It seeks to put down or seek revenge on others that slight you, thinking that if you diminish them, you will be happy (and it lies to you, telling you this is “justice”). It seeks titles and honors bestowed upon it by others, because if you have those titles, others will think you are better than they are, and being better than others will make you happy. It seeks to have what others cannot afford, because if you can have something that others cannot, you will be better than them and therefore be happy. It seeks to insist that others put your name—a fleeting pair words—onto what you do so that you can feel important, thinking that feeling important will make you happy.
However, rich people do not tend to be happier than middle-class people. Powerful people are not more comfortable and fulfilled than individual contributors in society, and they have insecurities about all of the other people they worry are more powerful than they are. Famous people are unusually likely to get divorced, require drug rehabilitation, and commit suicide. Those considered beautiful are more likely to have body issues, even as others celebrate their beauty. Why are all these seeming contradictions observably true? It is because getting what you think you want does not make you happy. Getting what you think you want can give you temporary pleasure, but that pleasure will fade. Let us differentiate what we think we want from what we need. Maslow’s hierarchy of needs sums it well: we need food and shelter, safety, human connection and love (which do not come through impressing others), self-esteem (which also does not come through impressing others), and finally self-actualization (which does not come from believing we are better than others). The ego does not pursue needs, it pursues what it thinks it wants.
The ego, therefore, is somewhere between slightly and destructively insane. It compels us to seek out things that do not make us or others happier. It is an addictive entity that seeks continual highs in drugs of thought (“I am better than others”) or drugs of pleasure that all fade, returning us to a base state of happiness or lack thereof, seeking more of the drug over and over until we die, or until we stop letting ourselves believe that what the ego thinks it wants will make us happy. If you have your core needs met but still have problems with anger, low self-esteem, anxiety, frustration, excessive pride, drama, conflict, or other avoidable psychological pains, the ego is the cause. You will be free of these when you set it aside.
To set ego aside, you must first admit that you have a problem and wish to be free of it. The problem is not you, it is not your fault—such judging of yourself is an act of the ego—but it is your responsibility to commit to changing.
What Occurs As Ego is Set Aside?
Humility is the absence of ego. Imagine being free of the seeming-need to impress others, or to be recognized, or to be envied, or to tell yourself that you are better than others. Imagine being free of constant craving or feeling that you need some new toy, piece of clothing, exotic vacation, status symbol, or sexual partner. What could you do if you could feel satisfied with who you are and what you have, as long as what you have meets your real needs? Imagine how powerful you could be if you let go of even a little bit of this cycle of addiction to psychological and experiential self-inflation. Imagine the focus, passion, and quality you could devote to a purpose greater than what your ego thinks it wants.
It is through humility that you finally become free to meet your ultimate need: self-actualization. Through humility, you can ask, with a clear mind, “what does the world require of me?” And quietly let the world and your heart provide you an answer that is not clouded by what your mind thinks it wants. If you start a business, it will not be in order to see yourself as someone’s boss, see yourself as a successful person, buy a boat, or be pictured in the media so everyone can know how “great” you are: you will start a business to go build something that the world and your heart are telling you the world needs. If you join politics, you will not join it to have power over others, to be lauded as a hero, to be added to the annals of history, or to spread your ideology: you will join politics to help your city or nation or world become a place where more people are free and enabled to meet their own needs. If you enter a romantic relationship, it will not be to use another person to make you feel better about yourself or to give you pleasure: you will enter a romantic relationship to give both you and that person human connection, love, and attention that does not keep score or seek any payment in return.
Humility at Work
Imagine if you go into work every day with a humble heart. Instead of obsessing over, “is someone else taking too much vacation and not pulling their weight?” or asking, “how can I extract the most economic return from this organization through the least amount of effort?” or saying, “if people don’t listen to my ideas or do what I tell them, they are bad and must be put in line,” you will instead go to work every day asking, “how can I use this opportunity at work today to use my unique gifts and talents to make the organization and the industry and the world better, and to help and inspire others to move closer to self-actualization with me?” When there are setbacks, you will not rage, or seek blame, or fall into despair because the setback diminishes the fragile ego: you will ask, “what is the action this situation requires of me now?” In moments of triumph, you will recognize your contribution to the success, and you excitedly celebrate the contributions of others as well: their success does not diminish yours, because your ego is not convincing you to play a game of “who is best?” You recognize that their success is your success and the world’s success, and that by succeeding together you have done more than you could do apart.
And if you find that you are in an organization that discourages or blocks you from using your gifts to improve it and the world, then you will not complain. You will not say, “it’s not fair!” You will ask, “what does the world need of me at this moment?” And you will either attempt to make the best of the situation that you can, change the organization from within, or move to one that will help and enhance your mission.
Humility is also the greatest catalyst to learning, something critical for every successful career or business. When our ego is involved, feedback (regardless of its form) feels threatening. We dread feedback because it is a reminder that we are not omnipotent and omniscient. It reminds us that we have limitations, that we can’t do everything on our own, and that we need one another to truly succeed. Avoiding feedback means that, we resist the opportunity to learn and grow. When we discount feedback, we justify and rationalize our previous actions, presume that the person giving us feedback must be wrong, and choose instead to reject a learning opportunity. But if we lay our egos aside, we are able to recognize that feedback does not threaten us as individuals, but only helps us to grow and enhance our gifts and strengths. If we practice humility, we will be eager to receive feedback, eager to find opportunities to improve, and eager to seek out the people and information that can teach us most. Imagine what power you will have when you have taken away one of the greatest barriers to learning.
Those who have cultivated some humility are less attached to ideas or beliefs. They recognize that they have in the past changed their minds in light of new information, and that far from being a bad thing, it is a wonderful thing: they have not gotten their ego tied up in “being right.” They know that, having changed their minds before, they might change their minds again. This allows them to be more curious and recognize that what they think is true may not be reality. This makes them more able to objectively process new information and incorporate it.
A humble person can learn even from those who give feedback in an unpleasant or harsh way (such as, “you are an idiot”); you will ask, “what was the thing I did that contributed to them reacting in this way?” We do not need to accept fault, feel shame, or internalize negative labels others may impose: these are all games of the ego. In practicing humility, we are free to simply consider the facts, observe and understand what has happened, and archive this datapoint for future interactions.
Humility is the absence of ego, and humility is the path to being liberated from the never-ending cycle of drama and addiction to recognition, “being right,” pleasure, status symbols, and the like. Imagine being free of the terrible burden of constantly chasing after an ever-changing “bar” or goal after which you give yourself permission to have happiness and self-love and peace. Imagine being free of constantly trying to prove to others that you are good enough or better than, in order to feed your ego’s need for external validation. Imagine the liberation that comes when you realize and accept that after all of the accolades, the credit, the standing ovations, the money, the arguments you “won,” the fancy clothes and cars, the news articles, the romantic partners, and the social media likes, you are no happier than you were before. That nothing about you has actually changed. When you realize and accept that none of it really helps you, you stop believing your addictive ego when it tells you that you need it all so badly, just one more time, and then you will finally be okay. You realize that you’re okay now. That you’re not intrinsically more or less worthy or worthwhile than anyone else, and nothing you or anyone can do or say to change that. In that realization, you let go of all of these false promises, and you let go of your ego just a bit more.
Humility is the path by which you may seek self-actualization, as by putting aside the obsession with all of the petty things you think you want, you are left with only one question at every moment and forever: “what does this situation and the world require of me right now?” Or, stated differently, “what can I do at this moment to share my greatest gifts with the world?”
Humility is the path to unlocking our greatest power: through humility, we stop worrying about who is best at what, and we can objectively consider our strengths and gifts, as well as others’, in service to the greater need we have chosen together to fulfill. In this way, we can align our strengths and others’ to whatever the moment does require of us. We quit the games of “who gets credit,” and spend less time wondering how big our bank accounts will become, or when we’ll be featured on Forbes, or whether we’ll be envied or awed or remembered for what we do, and much more time and energy thinking of the impact of our actions on our own needs, the needs of others, and the needs of the moment, the person, the business, the industry, the world.
And indeed, are not the people living in such a way happier than those that are chasing scraps of pleasure and ego satisfaction?
How Can I Cultivate Humility?
Any leader seeking the power of humility in their workplace or organization must absolutely cultivate humility in themselves first: it will never take root if we leaders do not first learn to model it. If this is not yet a regular practice, it will initially feel painful. In order to find the power and liberation that comes from humility, we must commit to feeling the pain that comes from seeing how our egos have hurt ourselves and others in the past. We will need to confront and question how we have used our time and energy previously and recognize that much of it was not truly in pursuit of what we or the world actually need. We may need to seek feedback about our mindset and behavior from others around us, and that feedback will likely feel threatening to the ego. We will need to accept that feedback—though not necessarily always correct, is usually valid and helpful. We will need to, repeatedly, feel the defensiveness and resistance of our egos well up in us, and the carving of new patterns will cause psychological pain.
I cannot pretend to have a clear answer for any individual person about how to cultivate humility, and I will not pretend that I am fully free of my own ego, but I can share a bit of my story. I believe that very public failure and the pain of my reaction to it, as well as very direct feedback from some wise mentors, were catalysts for investing the time and energy to begin learning about ego and humility. This might be called “The Way of the Cross,” and I certainly hope others can take alternative paths to making the choice to understand ego and humility.
When I had made that choice, my understanding of both ego and humility came from a whole lot of reading. Not everyone has time for a lot of reading. I rely on audiobooks when doing laundry, cooking, driving, taking a train, and the like. If the reading resonates with you, then you will over time begin to seek out experiences and people that help you to recognize your ego and, action by action, moment by moment, recognize when it is creeping up.
You can begin to ask yourself questions. When you want to get in an argument, you can ask, “how does this really help me?” When you crave recognition or credit, or a status symbol, or a public display of showing you are better than others, you can ask again, “how does this really help me?” Your ego will try very hard to give you an answer. If you are on the fence when that answer comes, ask again: “but why do I need that?” And if the craving is from the ego, it will run out of answers. You will find, in that moment, you don’t need to act out its addictive compulsions. Every time you see the ego for what it is, and choose not to be part of its games you have struck an incredible victory. You have become a bit more humble, more free, more powerful.
Reading That Has Influenced My Exploration of Ego and Humility, For Those Curious
In no particular order, I fear. These are a motley crew of books and different ones will speak to different people differently. I suggest beginning with the book that speaks to you most when you read the blurb.
- Carol Dweck, Mindset
- Kaley Klemp, Diana Chapman, Jim Detmer, The 15 Commitments of Conscious Leadership
- The Dalai Lama and Paul Ekman, Emotional Awareness
- Eckhart Tolle, The Power of Now and A New Earth
- Seneca, Letters
- Marcus Aurelius, Meditations
- Viktor Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning
- Martin Seligman, Flourish
- Michel Eyquem de Montaigne, Essays
- Aldous Huxley, Island
- Brene Brown, Braving the Wilderness
- Sinclair Lewis, Babbit
- W. Somerset Maugham, The Razor’s Edge
- The teachings of Jesus of Nazareth in the New Testament (whether or not you are religiously inclined)