While I was in temple earlier this week, celebrating the Jewish New Year, I was struck by the words of this prayer:
We are stiff-necked and stubborn; teach us to bend before you.
Convinced we’re right, entrenched in our own perspective, we resist Your call to repent.
Convinced we’re self-sufficient, entrenched in the illusion of control, we resist Your call to humility.
Convinced we can have it all, entrenched in the dream of mastering the world, we resist Your call to wake up.
Today You summon us out of our arrogance, out of rigidity, fantasy, shallowness, self-deception.
Teach us to bend our knees, to bow our heads before the Mystery; to realize our frailty and our finitude.
When I think about the big problems our species has created in the world—most notably the climate emergency and mass extinction, but also the entrenched separations and divisions wrought by income inequality, racial injustice, gender discrimination, xenophobia and all of our manufactured fear of the “other”—I can’t help but feel that much of it is summed up by our collective stiff-neckedness and stubbornness.
The illusion of control.
Our dream of having all the answers.
Our desire to master the world.
Humility is a powerful, subtle thing. We often misunderstand it, thinking it cannot coexist with boldness, determination, and an unyielding belief that we can create something better tomorrow than that which exists today. It can.
Humility is the recognition that we know a lot, but we don’t know it all.
That we can control many things but not every thing.
And that, just maybe, mastering the world isn’t the point at all.
At the end of every How I Built This podcast, host Guy Raz asks his guests whether they’d attribute their success in building their business to luck or to skill.
Hearing that question, it’s hard not to think: how would I answer?
Listening to episode after episode, I looked forward to this question. Both answers seemed valid to me. Then, last week, I attended a benefit for Family Services of Westchester, a not-for-profit that supports the community in Westchester County, where I live.
FSW is a wonderful organization that does important work. However, like most non-profits, their benefit followed a familiar script: drinks, a seated dinner at 10-tops, a silent auction, and a litany of speakers all saying how humbled they were to be honored… It’s not fully FSW’s fault. This is what is expected, and meeting people’s expectations is an accepted way to grab attention to raise money and awareness for good causes.
Near the end of the event, it’s time for the guest of honor: Yankee relief pitcher and Hall of Famer Mariano Rivera. I’m not a baseball fan, so I don’t know that Rivera was the first baseball player to be inducted unanimously into the Baseball Hall of Fame. I don’t have any expectations.
But when Rivera starts speaking, the mood shifts. He has a natural charisma that holds the room, an easy smile and a quick wit. Sports marketer Brandon Steiner, who is set to interview Rivera, walks up to the dais and spontaneously asked him if he’d auction off his watch and his tie for the cause. Without missing a beat, Rivera flashes a big smile, says yes, and runs the impromptu auction himself. The room is jovial, relaxed and engaged.
For all his confidence, charm, and sense of humor, Rivera shifts gears when he’s asked about what got him here. In response to how he stayed calm in big situations, where his famous 90+ mile-per-hour cut fastball came from, how he became one of the all-time greats, Rivera’s answer is the same. He is a religious man, and time and again he says, clearly and simply: he had been blessed by G-d, he is just the vehicle for this blessing.
There is something about the clarity and genuineness with which he says this. He isn’t boasting, grandstanding, or prostrating himself. He is speaking his simple truth. As noticeable, he does so in ways that don’t diminish his own struggles, hard work and perseverance. Yet the ultimate message is that he isn’t the hero of his story, he is a vessel for a bigger story.
Whether or not you’re a person of faith, I’d offer that there’s an old lesson to be re-learned here.
The successes that really matter are ones of good health, a loving family, the talents we’ve been given and the opportunities we’re lucky enough to come across. Whatever other successes we might pursue, and achieve, are built upon this foundation of good fortune.
Yet increasingly I worry that we’re living, in the United States at least, through the logical endgame of our national narrative of an individualistic, “meritocratic” society. As religious practice fades, as our communal ties weaken, and as technology feeds us stories that reinforce our worldview, more and more of “successful” people believe, deep down, that we’ve earned our good fortune.
What I saw in Mariano Rivera was the power of faith of any kind, and the truth that if we’re successful by any conventional measure, we probably have been outstandingly, undeservedly lucky. I also saw in the way Rivera told his story that there is no necessary trade-off between gratitude and agency, no need to diminish ourselves as we acknowledge that we are small players in our own story.
The best part is this: the moment we let go of our story of deserving what we have, we find greater ease in connecting with others, in giving thanks, and in doing what we can to rebalance the scales.
Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish new year, was last week. It is followed by the ten Days of Awe, a time for reflection and repentance leading up to Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement.
I always thought it was a particularly Jewish approach to things, to have the biggest day of celebration followed almost immediately by the Day of Atonement, as if to say, “be happy, but not too happy….”
As I was sitting in temple during the Rosh Hashanah service, I found myself reflecting on conversations I’ve had with Jewish friends in the past few weeks about Judaism as an identity and culture versus Judaism as a religion. These friends spoke proudly of their Jewish identity, while also expressing skepticism of the role that Jewish religious practice plays, or should play, as a core part of that identity.
It turns out that these friends represent a broader trend: according to a 2015 Pew study, while the Jewish population as a whole is stable, it is also thinning out in the middle: there’s growth in highly observant Orthodox Jews and growth in people who consider themselves Jewish but who are non-religious.
This got me thinking about whether we can fully untangle Jewish (or other religions’) identity from the religious practice of Judaism. What role do the prayers themselves, and the act of going to temple, play in my own sense of identity, as a Jew and as a human being?
I don’t have any simple answers. What I know is that I personally have contradictory experiences when I go to temple: each individual moment, and each individual prayer, don’t make complete sense to me, but overall I get a feeling of warmth, of belonging, of reflection, of community, and of meaning-making that feel foundational to who I am and how I show up in the world.
What struck me in particular this year was that going to services is a great way to stock up on humility.
Whatever your belief in a specific divine presence, there is wonder and awe and beauty in the world that is much bigger than any one of us. The words of nearly every prayer are successive reminders that there are much bigger forces at work than me, a single small human being. Whether that “something bigger” is a divine presence, the laws of nature, or simply the millions of years of life on this planet that came before I showed up, the prayers are a heck of a reminder for all of us not to get too big for our britches, not to think too highly of our own lives, and not to give ourselves too much credit for our roles in the things we have accomplished. They are also a reminder of wisdom passed down through the generations: about right and wrong, about asking for forgiveness, about remembering to bow our heads to forces bigger than us.
Whether we need religious practice itself to remind us of these things is a separate question. But it cannot be a bad thing, for all of us who care about our ongoing development as leaders, to have ritualized, sacred practices through which we are reminded to be humble.
This past weekend I was the chaperone for my son and 24 of his friends for a go kart racing birthday party. The boys raced in groups of eight for the first hour or so, and then a few of them started to drop out or take breaks, so I raised my hand to jump in to one of the groups.
After I finished my race, an old friend who was on sidelines laughed as he chided me, “Wow, you really crushed those 13 year olds!”
It’s true, my competitive instincts had mingled with the smell of gasoline and the purring of the kart’s 25hp engine, and I’d driven to win. And win I did.
As I was bantering with my son and his buddies about my old man driving skills, a few of them quipped that Kart #7, which I had raced, was “much faster than all the other karts.”
(That may be, I thought, but that doesn’t explain why I kept lapping them. I’m just a much more experienced and better driver).
Near the end of the party, the last race rolled around and there was one empty kart left. By that point, my son, the birthday boy, had switched to Kart #7. As I buckled myself into another kart, I smiled at him jokingly and said, “Now you’ll see that it’s all about my driving skills!”
It’s true, I did win race #2. By a little bit. In the first race I’d finished nearly two laps to each one of theirs, while in the second race I might have passed everyone once.
But if you’d asked me after Race 1, I would have said that most of my success was due of my driving skill, and that Kart #7 might be a tiny bit faster. What I learned after Race #2 was that most of the difference was because Kart #7 was a lot faster, and I’m a tiny bit of a better driver than a bunch of 13 year olds.
I can’t help but wonder the extent to which many of the differences in the ways we see the world result from misattribution of the credit we deserve for our own successes. It’s nearly impossible not to overestimate the roles our intelligence, hard work and skill play in the results we achieve: a success happens, we were smart and tough and hard-working…so it must be that the primary cause of that success were our smarts, our toughness and our hard work.
The truth is that the veil of our own privilege is one of the the hardest veils to remove. Privilege is not something we can see all at once, and sometimes I wonder if we ever have enough perspective to see it fully.
Harder still, once we spot it, is to figure out what to do with it: the world neither needs us to apologize for all that we have been given nor to pretend that it doesn’t exist. Rather our job is to see ourselves – and others – as fully as we can, and then to use all our abilities and good luck and the gifts we have been given to make manifest the better, more just world in which we so deeply believe.
You might have noticed that apologies don’t need to happen just once.
The first time, the words can catch in your throat. You might sound a bit defensive, even reluctant, a bit like the little kid who looks at the ground, mumbling almost unintelligibly as his parent nudges him forward to say “sorry.” What’s going on is either that you don’t fully believe your own words, or you sense that the person you’re speaking to isn’t totally ready to hear you.
The second time you apologize, you’ve gotten past the noise in your head (“I’m not the only one who did something wrong!”) and the self-congratulations (“I’m such a martyr”) and started to get in touch with real feelings. As these feelings of remorse start to be visible, you begin to build an emotional bridge between you and another person.
And the third time, well, the third time you are fully grounded in the truth of the wrong you’ve done, the hurt you’ve inflicted, the unnecessary slight, and you can match those feelings to the words you say and to how you say them. When that comes out, you can truly apologize and begin to set things right.
Of course there’s nothing special about apologies. This is the way it goes with any communication that has real, challenging emotional content, including expressions of humility, gratitude, requests for help, even communicating the joy and hopeful enthusiasm you have for a job you want, joy that is often buried beneath layers of seemingly-appropriate responses.
There are no shortcuts to expressing your emotional truth. There’s just the progressive work of discovering it, and then having the courage to reveal it.
Yesterday, I had the chance to catch up with the inimitable Sidra Qasim and Waqas Ali, Acumen Pakistan Fellows and co-founders of Markhor. For those of you who don’t know, Markhor is startup that is crafting some of the world’s most beautiful men’s shoes, reviving a waning craft in Pakistan and making a major splash globally.
Markhor ran by far the most successful Kickstarter campaign out of Pakistan, raising more than $107,000, and Sidra and Waqas are now part of the select few high-potential startups in Y-Combinator – an unlikely turn for a shoe company in the midst of a bunch of tech startups.
So, what do we have to learn from a pair that has their sights set on building a $1 billion-plus company selling luxury, made-in-Pakistan shoes to the world? A lot about a lot of things, but I was struck in particular by some lessons about tenacity and humility.
I asked them what they’ve learned at Y-Combinator so far, and Sidra shared, “one of the great things about the program are the mentors. How it works is that, if you set up time with a mentor, you get 20 minutes, no more. And when you meet with a mentor, they ask you three questions: ‘What did you do last week?’ ‘What are you doing next week?’ and ‘How can I help?’ You have to be ready! And what I like about that is that it communicates that their time is valuable, and that your time is valuable.”
Waqas took the point further as we started to talk about how to teach people how to use networks well. “You know, when I reach out to someone, whether a mentor or someone else I’m trying to connect with, you have to know how to write that email in a way that is clear and respectful and gets to the point. And you have to know how to handle that communication. Especially if I’m in Pakistan, I know that I might have to be available at 4AM to take a phone call. And I am. Sidra and I will be taking 4AM phone calls for years to come. That’s OK.”
For me this connected back to Tuesday’s post about the power of humility. What I hear Waqas and Sidra saying is that, as they are reaching out to the far edges of their networks, they have to do that with a certain posture. If someone is willing to take a bet by giving their time to help, it’s Waqas and Sidra’s job as to mirror that respect back – in this case by accommodating that person’s schedule at crazy hours. Their power in this moment comes from putting their ego aside, choosing not to frame that interaction as one with lots of power dynamics, and simply doing what it takes to make the connection they are trying to make – in this case by being ready to jump calls at 4AM, again and again.
The equation is flipped because, in taking this stance, Sidra and Waqas are essentially unstoppable. No behavior, whether a rejection or a slow reply or someone asking them to twist themselves into knots to meet their timing, can stop their forward trajectory.
Whether you’re an entrepreneur running a startup, a leader of a nonprofit, or a fundraiser of any stripe, the biggest trap is to allow each interaction to become a measurement of your worth, to take it all far too personally. What Waqas and Sidra model is the power of an unshakable commitment to mission: when the goal becomes our purpose, when we exist to achieve that goal, then we do what we have to in service of that mission – no questions asked.
Every great company has a story, and Markhor’s is a beautiful one that’s still being written. It is a different story coming out of Pakistan, it is the craftsmanship of Pakistani artisans, and it is some really beautiful shoes. It’s also an unfolding story of two amazing entrepreneurs who dream big and back up every dream with a willingness to show up and work harder and smarter every day.
In reflecting on where they are in their journey, Waqas shared, with a twinkle in his eye: “In our first month, we sold seven pairs of shoes. And we lost money on each pair we sold! Now we are selling thirteen pairs a day. And that number keeps going up.”
Today I’d like to surface an unpopular virtue, one that’s fallen out of favor in a time of selfies and relentless status updates. The virtue of humility. We live in an era that believes it can no longer afford to be humble.
The power in Nipun’s talk comes through the stories of people he meets in his travels, and others who have walked this path before him – a nameless boy in a village in rural India who tells the story of a sparrow trying to hold up the sky; two Buddhist monks, Rev. Heng Sure and Heng Chau, who walked 900 miles up the California coast bowing their heads to the ground every three feet; the 96-year-old Suffi saint Dada Vaswani who speaks to Nipun about the power of being small, simple nobodies. And then Nipun slams you over the head with facts that put the rising tide of our collective narcissism in stark relief: according to the Google database of 5.2 million books published from 1960 to 2008, “individualistic words increasingly overshadowed communal ones. The usage of ‘kindness’ and ‘helpfulness’ dropped by 56%, even as ‘modesty’ and ‘humbleness’ dropped by 52%.” Ouch.
Nipun’s talk flips the notion of humility on its head, challenging us to recognize that in becoming small, in becoming humble, we become powerful and great. He reminds us of the words of Sikh guru Arjan Dev who offered this credo to his warriors: “Humility is my mace; becoming the dust of everybody’s feet is my sword. No evil can withstand that.”
In a world obsessed by power, in a world where even philanthropy (the act of giving!) is so often infused with perverse power dynamics – whether between the philanthropist and the receiving charity, or between the charity and the beneficiary – Nipun’s is a radical voice. And while the humble man does not need, or want, to be celebrated, the trait of humility need more advocates and more practitioners. It should not be rare hear someone extol the virtues of bearing witness, of expressing gratitude, of making ourselves smaller so we can really, truly shine a light on others.
We underestimate how what we do affects those around us. Indeed, there’s a growing body of research showing the power our behavior has on others. As Nipun reminds us, happiness spreads virally, through personal networks, and so does obesity, cancer, and even divorce rates. We are apparently 2.5 times as likely to get divorced if we have divorced friends!
We should see these facts as a radical call to action. How do we make change? We start with ourselves. Through our attitudes, our own practice of humility, our own daily ritual of appreciation and generosity, we can see others, lift them up, and, in the process, transform them.
I hope you are as touched by Nipun’s words as I was, and that Nipun’s practice inspires you as it has inspired me. Thank you Nipun, as always, for your words of inspiration.
There’s a chance, in each passing interaction with someone, to say “thank you.”
Not a “thank you for this thing you’ve just done” (gotten me a coffee, given me my ticket to board this flight) said automatically. Rather, a chance to look someone squarely in the eye and acknowledge in a deeper way that you see that person, that they see you, and that we have a shared humanity in this crazy world we live in.
Most people get into nonprofit work because they want – in some way, big or small – to change the world. This spirit of service defines our missions, which are not vague platitudes about “delighting customers” or delivering “superior results to our stakeholders,” but are real, tangible, and laudable: end malarial deaths in Africa by 2015, feed the hungry in New York City, make the foster care system work for kids, enable every kid in Harlem to go to college.
And yet we get busy with “the job,” and it can become more real and more palpable than the mission. We sit at desks day after day looking at spreadsheets or writing yet another report, and though we hear the echo of why we’re there, this original purpose can morph – not immediately, but eventually – into background noise.
We’re wired, fundamentally, only to experience fully the reality in front of us. And because our daily interactions, the stresses of life, the honest considerations about our own goals and aspirations, dominate our experience, there’s the risk that this day-to-day reality gets decoupled from the spirit of service we expect to pervade our work. And so, like at any job, there are high points and low points, successes and disappointments, days when our contributions are recognized and days when someone (peer, boss, donor, board member) is careless in how they speak to us. We, too, have highs and lows.
Unless we take every opportunity to stoke the fire that burns within – for ourselves and for our peers.
Unless we look for chances to keep that flame lit, by giving our employees, our volunteers, our donors a chance to feel, breathe, see and touch the service that is at the core of what we do.
Unless we create space to swap stories, whether close by or far away, of people whose lives have been transformed by our work.
Unless we find moments, hours, days, to pull back from the frenzy that pervades our days (how could it not? The problems are so big, our urgency so great) to reconnect to the original sense of what we’re here to do.
We are blessed to have the privilege to serve others. And it is a privilege. There is no higher calling.
From that kernel of truth, I’ve no choice but to wonder: is it naïve to think that we might conceptualize our professional lives differently? Is it possible that the question “what’s best for me, for my career, for my life?” should pale in comparison to the question “am I doing the most good I can possibly do?”
Because I do believe that one has a different orientation when one says, “I’m here to make a change in the world” (goal-oriented, and with it ego) and when one says, “I’m here to serve.” To be sure, if we, our employees, our volunteers, our donors do not feel nourished, respected, honored, and challenged, then there is no way we can serve others effectively. But are careers dedicated to service fundamentally different? What is the right balance here?
I arrived in India yesterday. There’s nothing like landing in a big, populous, mostly poor country to remind us how much is handed to us – in terms of access and opportunities.
And if we remember that most of what we have has been given to us, it is so much easier to see that the only real choice we have is to keep on giving – so that we in turn can serve others who, for no reason at all, have been given less. It is really the only way to show our gratitude and our humility.