Arrogance + Disaster = Humility
Some of us are lucky to be born with a sense of humility. The rest of us learn humility through anguish.
Becoming humble is worth the pain. Why? Because it’s a sacred virtue that draws people to you, where arrogance pushes people away. I write this because my three sons and I continue to be beaten by the humility stick.
I love Chip Conley’s book, “Emotional Equations.” He teaches you what they are and challenges you to create your own equations that illustrate the math behind your emotions.
Here’s one of mine: Arrogance + Disaster = Humility
My 18-year old son Gabriel inspired me to shed light on this equation when he recited his poem that captured his bittersweet feelings of graduating high school.
Gabriel, 6’1 wearing full western wear (making his Texan Mama proud) brought us to tears with his humble words encapsulating four difficult years, the story of a brilliant boy who accomplished nothing of note…
Out Not with a Bang
Out not with a bang, nor a whimper.
Out the same way it always ended. Should we have expected more?
Are we as naive as we always were? Or just ever so slightly less so?
A small chisel to a large stone. A task so large its completion marked only by our own.
And what of what we left behind? Never fully knowing the impression and its depth our stamp made.
Or is the only thing we carry away, ourselves? Molded by those who past us by in the hallways for years.
Out not with a bang, nor a whimper. Out with regime, only just accustomed to.
In with uncertainty, followed by indecision. Already fading experiences we thought to be crystal clear forever.
Emptying new space, a vacuum around the corner. We are fresh with old regret, yet overwhelmed with new paths to lead us away from it all.
Where I am headed, I have no clue.
Perhaps this time, I will head in with a whisper, and out with bang.
Gabriel Jacobs, June 2017
A hush fell over our family as we applauded in tearful silence. My son’s poem embodied humility and hope.
Throughout high school, his hubris about his intellect and artistic talents repeatedly slammed him down. He graduated high school without ever having a girlfriend or a best friend. I never saw him invited to a party, ever. The only art opening featuring his work, was the one I organized. It broke my heart that my son had so much to give, and no one wanted to receive it.
Last year his Father, who is a psychiatrist, and I asked his school, High Tech High, a globally renowned charter school, to evaluate his intellect and emotional state. Was he autistic? Was there a reason he was so alone? A team of psychologists and experts evaluated him for weeks. The results: in 17 years, Gabriel was the most brilliant student they’d ever had academically, but also the loneliest. They didn’t know why. Duh! Tell me something I don’t know!
Gabriel almost got expelled because of how he tormented his 10th grade math teacher. He bullied her because there was nothing she could teach him. He taught himself three years of high school math in a few hours. Only because he wrote his math teacher this amazing letter of apology where he had a flash of sincere humility, did they allow him to continue.
In relation to learning, Judaism values humility and scorns arrogance. A scholar should never boast about what they know. This means if you’re smart you should not feel superior because of what you’ve learned, you should only feel there is more to know. Sadly, humility was one of the Jewish values that didn’t stick after I sent Gabriel to Orthodox Jewish private day school for his first 11 years. Ugh!
Gabriel’s dance with disaster and humility continued as he evolved from a mechanical and software engineer to become a fine art photographer. On his first artist statement on his website, he said he started shooting as a way to avoid the marital strife at home watching his parents’ marriage crumble before his eyes.
To escape and be a thrill seeker, Gabriel became a rooftopper. He broke into buildings and climbed to their roofs to take extreme thrill self portraits. His tool kit included caution tape, safety cones, an orange safety vest, construction helmet, hacksaw, a bag of random tools and of course duct tape. He arrogantly thought he’d never get caught, and more so, he’d never die. Watching my son’s posts on Instagram gave me a nightly heart attack!
Only when he was caught and threatened with arrest, did he stop breaking the law to create art. The impending disaster of a police record redirected his photography off the roofs and into the streets.
Call me a horrible mother, but every time his lesson in humility came from someone handing his ass to him, I thanked G-d. I wasn’t wishing my son to screw up, but I was grateful each time he did, because he was forced to eat humble pie.
I’m not the only parent who thinks this. Chief Justice John Roberts never said the word humility at the recent commencement speech he gave at his son’s school, but he wanted those privileged boys to taste the bitter pill of failure.
“From time to time in the years to come, I hope you will be treated unfairly so that you will come to know the value of justice. I hope that you will suffer betrayal because that will teach you the importance of loyalty. Sorry to say, but I hope you will be lonely from time to time so that you don’t take friends for granted. I wish you bad luck, again, from time to time so that you will be conscious of the role of chance in life and understand that your success is not completely deserved and that the failure of others is not completely deserved either.”
Chief Justice Roberts is right to wish those boys the bumps in the road to smooth out their journey. We all should embrace the bumps in our roads as gifts.
Yet, here’s the paradox I’ve had to get over.
I thought being humble means you’re not driven to succeed, you don’t believe in yourself or you feel unworthy of success. But that’s not the case.
Humility means your confidence comes from divine inspiration; a personal mission to create something amazing, to solve a problem or make a difference in a person’s life or to better the world. Think Moses leading the Jews out of Egypt. Now, he’s humble.
To see yourself as worthless is not humility; that’s being ungrateful. G‑d has blessed each of us with unique qualities, and we should know what they are. In fact, only when we’re aware of our self-worth can we be humble. We are humbled when we ask ourselves, “I have been given the potential for greatness — have I used this gift?”
Ryan Holiday, author of “The Obstacle Is the Way: The Timeless Art of Turning Trials into Triumph” says, Your potential, the absolute best you’re capable of — that’s the metric to measure yourself against. Your standards are. Winning is not enough. People can get lucky and win. People can be assholes and win. Anyone can win. But not everyone is the best possible version of themselves.”
I seek this type of humility, striving to reach your potential, in the entrepreneurs I support, the friends I bring close and the men I date. The ones that are born humble, I immediately adore, the ones who are still learning it, I relate to more.
So whether we’re born with it or we earn it through surviving life’s disasters, humility is a virtue to value. In the end, we both come to the same conclusion: it’s not us that matters, but how we use our gifts to impact our world.
And that’s humility.