Insight often arises from simultaneously holding two seemingly contradictory notions — and then allowing a deeper understanding to develop. Take, for example, David R. Hawkins’ idea that, “A universal characteristic of genius is humility.” Generally we don’t equate genius with being humble. If anything, we expect the opposite, and are pleasantly surprised when we find a counterexample. But this presumption is actually relatively modern. The writer Elizabeth Gilbert talksabout how ancient Romans believed that a genius was actually an invisible, divine entity who would assist a person in a creative work. In effect, this view positions a person as an instrument of their work, as opposed to the supreme creator of it; built-in to this perspective was a way of fostering humility within the gift of extraordinary capability.
In today’s increasingly connected world, humility becomes relevant not only for us as individuals, but also for groups. A recent study at Carnegie Mellon University showed that collective intelligence had little to do with the IQs of individuals in that group. So even if you bring together the smartest people, there is no guarantee of better team performance; in fact, it’s been shown that team outcomes have much more to do with how skillfully people collaborate. Individual motivations for actively engaging in a group effort lie at the heart of effective collaboration. Such motivation is rooted in how much value we ascribe outside of ourselves. A key aspect of this is humility: it motivates a right-sized assessment of our own abilities and an awareness of our limitations. A self-view that recognizes its limitations is vital in order for real synergy to occur. This is what allows us to be receptive to other people’s contributions, knowing that they often augment our own. In a group, the more that people are rooted in a mindset of humility, the greater the potential synergy.
It works in the other direction as well: the more we experience synergy, the more we recognize our interdependence, and the more likely we are to reinforce a sense of self-value that is real. An inflated self-valuation is clearly problematic, but so is a faltering sense of self-worth; both extremes feed into an insecurity that becomes more vested in proving value rather than simply adding it.
A conscious humility, one in which we accurately know our boundaries, makes us explicitly aware of what we do have to offer. This appreciation of our abilities is important, and yet, there’s a significant distinction between strengthening a known and limited self — and growing beyond it. As columnist David Brooks recently articulated in his encouraging survey of recent psychological research on humility, “Self-affirmation is about being proud and powerful and in control. Self-transcendence is about being engaged in activities in which the self is melded into a task or a relationship.” Viewed in this light, the problem isn’t in having a sense of self, but rather in being identified with its limitations, and therefore being unable to go beyond them. When we have a static and inflexible identity, what we experience becomes filtered and severely reduced. A repeated affirmation of this limited self is ego — and its fuel is habituated thought. We are what we think.
To soften the boundaries of identity, we must first become aware of our thoughts, and then recognize how certain thought patterns color our perception. It’s a flavor of what psychologists call inattentional blindness. In the classic Invisible Gorilla experiment, study participants are asked to watch a group of people pass a ball around. As they watch the video, a man in a gorilla suit walks across the screen, and yet half of the people don’t notice it. There is a similar but subtler inattentional blindness at the level of our thoughts, and this is where deepening in awareness is crucial. It allows us to tune in to the totality of our dynamic present experience. We then have more conscious choices in what we engage with and a greater freedom to choose our own responses — internal and external.
While thoughts may be hard to tune in to in a vacuum, in reality, the mind and body are inextricably connected. What we actually sense on the body-level tends to be much more tangible. Sensations within the body tug us firmly back into the moment and serve as a proxy for mindfulness. When someone says something that we perceive as a threat to our ego, we can actually sensitize ourselves to the physical sensations associated with that emotion. Anxiety often translates to a sinking feeling in the pit of the stomach, and with anger we feel red-hot. It all happens in a split second. But if we are mindful of our thoughts and sensations, we then have a lever to stop the flow of previously subconscious reactivity, and we actually discover space.
Perhaps that’s what humility really comes down to — space around our perception of the world, as well as our own selves. Space to hold conflicting information, take in other people’s views and, to borrow Bruce Lee’s words, take the shape of the container we find ourselves in. Humility gives us permission to withhold conclusion and realize that what we are is always still emerging. And this is good.