Words by Simone Law
Society doesn’t often celebrate women who are loud and proud, who back themselves and know their worth.
I have a funny relationship with humility. Humble is a tag I have received many times from those around me, particularly from teachers and family members along my journey through school. To put things into context - I was a high achieving student with an A grade average and finished off Year 12 with great success. Yet, if you had asked me at the time, I would’ve told you not to take any of that seriously; that it didn’t mean anything, that I wasn’t actually how I sounded on paper. Whenever I suggested, despite my grades, that I didn’t know what I was doing, wasn’t sure of myself or felt anxiety about not succeeding, the tag would apply. Unfortunately, the mere label did not do anything to absolve me of the issues of being unsure of myself, anxious or worried about failure. In fact, the humble tag would frustrate me. It suggested that all of the above was merely an act; not something truly felt, but something practiced for an audience - I was choosing to be this way. Whilst I could see that many tasks came more easily to me than some of my classmates, particularly when it came to reading, writing and comprehension, I was unaware most of the time of how I was doing so well. I repeatedly asked my parents and teachers the same question: don’t smart people know that they’re smart? For me, there was no inner assurance when I met a task that all would be okay. Despite the positive feedback my marks afforded me and however irrational, I never felt capable or that I could put my feet up. There were many opportunities to fail and I worked hard to avoid what I felt was the inevitable. I routinely use the following analogy to explain my self-doubt to others: Imagine shooting a basketball into a hoop successfully, every day, for 364 days of the year. Then, on day 365, not being sure you’re going to get it in. You might know this as imposter syndrome. Unfortunately, everyone around me referred to it as the virtue of humility. What could the harm be? Well, apart from going without some much needed support for my self-esteem, I also learnt something very destructive. By continually being marked as humble, almost praised for it, I learnt that my ability to play myself down was commendable - that it made me likeable and any successes I did have, more palatable to others. The humility tag was a winning personality trait, a charming affectation, not only giving tacit approval to my lack of self-esteem but reinforcing it. Six years after high school, when I studied to become a teacher, I encountered Carol Dweck’s work on fixed vs growth mindsets. It spoke directly to the child within me that had spent a lot of time frightened she was going to be found out. I was a fixed mindset kinda kid! The child who was praised for her intelligence and therefore developed a belief this intelligence was a fixed and possibly limited, entity. Because I could not point to the origin of the “smarts” I supposedly possessed, or even feel that I could locate them on demand, I would often stress about looking like an idiot. This is a trait of fixed mindset kids who stress about failing, appearing stupid or embarrassing themselves. Often, as a by-product of this, they also develop a great defence mechanism - the penchant for avoidance and playing it safe. Unlike growth mindset kids, who believe their abilities could progress with diligence, I did not attempt new or unknown tasks. Novel activities presented room for failure, a chance to show that I didn’t know what I was doing, a chance to be found out. The familiar, on the other hand, was safe and allowed me to keep up the “smart” facade. My teachers, family and friends thought this fear of being exposed was humility and so it was never really addressed in any kind of direct way. So when I read Dweck’s work, I felt a delayed resentment toward some of these figures. I couldn’t help it. I know they were trying their best and none of them were trained psychologists but still, I felt cheated. It felt like they wanted to believe my lack of confidence was humility because this neatly aligned with their prevailing idea of the world, rather than what was going on in front of them. It got me thinking about the wider society and how we prefer many of our cultural icons and heroes, those lauded for being great at something, to be quietly confident but “humble” and “down to earth”. If someone is too aware of their talents, they are deemed arrogant or up themselves. In Australia, we take to a tall poppy with a sledge hammer. For me, the humble tag was a Band-Aid placed over the weeping wound that was my low self-esteem. To me, it is unbelievably sad that I had to get to the age of 25 and be halfway to becoming a teacher before I realised that I was actually good at school. I realised what my A’s meant in context. I realised what my ATAR score meant in the state of Victoria. I realised this because I was able to see what I could do, what cognitive skills and academic abilities I had back then that the average student didn’t, because I was able to gain perspective on where my skills sat within a variety of spectrums. It is also unbelievably sad to think about all of the opportunities I have passed up over the years out of the fear that I was not good enough, that I would make an idiot of myself and that I couldn’t risk the failure. I have a messed up relationship with humility because it was a tag I never marked myself with, one which my issues hid behind and one which kept me in my comfort zone.
The humility tag was a winning personality trait, a charming affectation, not only giving tacit approval to my lack of self-esteem but reinforcing it.
When I became a teacher, I was determined that my students would be made aware of what they were capable of, their strengths and limitations and how they could build upon these. I was determined to do this for all of them, from the lowest achieving to the highest. I became obsessed with how I gave feedback, how to give them a healthy perspective on their progress and where their skills lay. I am not sure whether I succeeded in this. The reality of the high school classroom makes for a dense curriculum and limited time to make sure the penny drops for every single student in the specific way that they need. One thing I know I never did was assume that any child telling me they did not believe in themselves was merely putting on a show of humility - no matter what their grade average was. My resentment toward my teachers and family members who didn’t pick up on the real thing going on with me was fleeting, I should add. Becoming a teacher myself, I could see just how easy it is to miss things when your attention is divided across the 140 students you teach in a week. No one intended to contribute to this problem; no one knew they were. We don’t usually think to worry about the students who are ticking all the boxes and kicking all the goals, do we? As I’ve gotten older I have begun to see how humility can also be a role cast predominantly for females. Society doesn’t often celebrate women who are loud and proud, who back themselves and know their worth. These women are bossy, divas, aggressive or unpleasant. Women who excel and who do not play themselves down are intimidating and, best of all, might be scaring off a potential male partner uncomfortable being the less successful one in a relationship. It comes back to women being perceived as nice - modesty is a female virtue, confidence, a masculine one. As a society we do not often teach our girls to back themselves. It is the reason statistics show that girls raise their hand more and wait their turn to speak in class, while boys are more likely to just speak out. It is also one of the reasons that as women pursuing careers, they accept less money than men performing the same role, or do not vie for promotions or apply for jobs they may be more than qualified for. Regardless of gender, what my journey with the word humility has shown me is the need for humans to listen to each other more profoundly than we do. We need to develop the ability to hear people, not through our understanding of the world or the way we wish to tell the story, but through the lens of their perspective - no matter how flawed or inaccurate we may feel their perception is. If someone had heard me and spent the time addressing that scared and anxious brain of mine, my life may have been very different.
Humility becomes devoid of ego or self-assessment and instead becomes about your ability to step away from yourself and surrender.
While humility might be the morally estimable position, it is undeniable just how many successful people do not rely on it. UFC fighter Conor McGregor is the cockiest man on earth - loved for it - and he ascended to the top of his game most likely because of it. Most famously, Donald Trump did not get to the Oval Office by playing small. It has been his hubris, rather than a sense of humility, that has taken him places. However, confidence does not necessarily suggest competence. In fact, we often find it’s the most competent among us who doubt themselves the most. Perhaps this is why, more than ever, we need to do away with our idea of humility as being quiet about your successes and capabilities. If the competent souls among us spoke a little louder and prouder of themselves, perhaps the incompetent would not find it so easy to rise to the top. The truth is, we are in as much danger when people overrate themselves as when people underrate themselves. Both outcomes are just as harmful and unproductive, and often result in the wrong people ending up at the wheel. I think we need to re-brand humility. There is a quote, often misattributed to CS Lewis, that I swear by: humility is not thinking less of yourself, it’s thinking of yourself less. Whoever said it, got it right in my mind. By this definition, humility becomes devoid of ego or self-assessment and instead becomes about your ability to step away from yourself and surrender. It becomes about having a regulated sense of self, alongside a disposition focused on those around you and your external world. There is no lowering of the self, denial, ignorance or self-deception and no risk or danger to one’s self-efficacy. You can be quietly aware of your strengths and weaknesses without being overly invested in attaching meaning to these. If we all exercised this idea of humility, we would not be so concerned with comparing our feats or our worth to others, nor would we find ourselves standing in admiration of those who belittle their own achievements for the sake of our comfort or esteem. We wouldn’t be able to stomach that in others, nor would we ever be at risk of needing to. In this sense, humility is about knowing you are enough as you are, regardless of personal aptitudes or traits. As in all things, we need a healthy balance of self-awareness, as well as the ability not to get too wrapped up in ourselves in the first place; a paradox on the surface, but an equilibrium that can be reached. The truly humble soul will not compare itself to others, it will know it is more than the things it can or cannot do, those things which it knows or does not know, has or does not have, and it will know that to be true of others too.
'Simone Law is a 28 year old writer from Melbourne. She wouldn’t usually call herself a writer (that’s probably why she got the humble tag) but she’s trying on the label. She has a BA majoring in English, a minor in Creative Writing and a Masters in Secondary Teaching. Though, her greatest achievements are learning to drive and perfecting the moonwalk. When Simone is not dreaming up stories in her head, she’s working in the radio industry, tutoring high school students in English, and taking notes for the VCAA Literature text selection panel. She’s also trying to Marie Kondo her wardrobe via ebay. Simone would really like some people to write interesting things for, or alongside, so feel free to hit her up on the email address she made when she was nine: email@example.com'
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