Islam: Day 12 – Does humility signal strength?

I’m rereading Nassim Taleb’s book, Antifragile (one of the books that inspired this project) and I came across a passage particularly relevant to this month of my project:

Marketing is bad manners— and I rely on my naturalistic and ecological instincts. Say you run into a person during a boat cruise. What would you do if he started boasting of his   accomplishments, telling you how great, rich, tall, impressive, skilled, famous, muscular, well educated, efficient, and good in bed he is, plus other attributes? You would certainly run away (or put him in contact with another talkative bore to get rid of both of them). It is clearly much better if others (preferably someone other than his mother) are the ones saying good things about him, and it would be nice if he acted with some personal humility. 

It is ironic that someone trying to signal confidence will actually signal the opposite, weakness.

This made me wonder if acting humble will have the effect of signaling confidence and competence.

For example, part of being humble is acknowledging that many things are outside of your control, both in the immediate, day-to-day sense, and in the cosmic sense of your impact relative to the history of the universe. In many cases, what you can affect is limited.

Once you adopt this attitude, you would act unperturbed in the face of a crisis that you can’t control. Say you are traveling with someone and your flight is late, which means you’ll miss your connecting flight, which means your itinerary for your Paris vacation will be in complete disarray.

If you humbly acknowledge that there’s little you can do in this situation, that your fate is in the hand of God, fate, or airline scheduling software, you can maintain your sense of tranquility. You will understand that ultimately, your plans aren’t that important, that you will die some day, and that the only thing to do in this case is act in a dignified manner.

Your traveling companion on the other hand, who believes her travel plans are of the utmost importance and that she has some mystical power that allows her to will planes to arrive on time, will be in a panicked and or overly excited state. Her over-confidence will lead her to call airline customer service, plead with gate agents, or nervously pace about the terminal.

Islam (and most religions) emphasize that things will happen to you that are outside of your will and control. The word Islam means “submission,” which suggests humility is one of the most important virtues one can have.

Let’s use another example. Say you are at a job interview and the interviewer asks you the famous and dreaded question, “what’s your greatest weakness?”

If your response is of the “my greatest weakness is also my greatest strength” variety, you will likely be labeled as an incompetent.

Watch this clip from The Office, when Michael Scott is being interviewed for a corporate job:

Now, if you respond with a more humble answer that acknowledges a true weakness and you explain how you’ve attempted to correct for that deficiency, the interviewer will think you’re a star!

Say you don’t like to collaborate but you’re interviewing for a job that requires significant teamwork, You’d say something like:

 “In the past I held jobs that required me to work solo for most projects. I really loved it, but this started hurting the company as the projects became more complex and required other people to get involved. To ensure this doesn’t happen, I now solicit input from at least 2 other co-workers before I start a project. This increases the odds that the project will likely be successful.”

The interviewer will believe you’re honest, because most people try to bluster through with a Michael Scott type answer, and will also believe you are competent, because you took concrete steps to correct your weakness.

I wonder if the ancients knew that humility was actually a more effective way to proceed in the world, that it had benefits beyond the spiritual and psychological.

  • Arushi

    This is so true : I was once introduced to someone by a mutual friend and that person when asked me about myself I told him about my studies and bit of work , a few lines and when I asked him the same he replied with a 10 minute long reply of all his achievements as if they prove his competence or intelligence.
    then recently, my plans started to go awry. It took me almost 10 odd days to finally comprehend that whatever the high power wills shall come. And in other few days something (maybe even as a consolation, but almost equally worthy) did come along. And I can’t be thankful enough.

    • Funny how things work out sometimes. Even if something else didn’t come along, it still pays to be humble in the face of circumstances you can’t control