Bryan Caplan  

Does Humility Really Walk on Water?

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I just filled out a recommendation form that asked me to rate a student's "humility." Every other attribute I was asked to evaluate - e.g. "Intellectual Ability" and "Integrity" - was positive, so apparently humility is supposed to be positive as well. But what's so great about humility?

I'm very much in favor of accurate self-perception. But humility and accurate self-perception are hardly the same. If Einstein said, "I'm only average in physics," he'd be humble, but deluded. On the other hand, you can be humble but still overrate yourself. Think of the saying that "He is a very humble person who has a lot to be humble about."

Well, maybe humble people are just easier to work with? It depends on the kind of work. If your job is just to follow orders, humility is a big plus. But what if you need to work independently, or even competitively? Is it easier to work with a humble lawyer? Maybe if you're his secretary, but not if you're his client.

Now you could say that I'm just rationalizing. People have been complaining about my lack of humility for as long as I can remember. Literally. Nevertheless, at least in the career niche I've found, humility looks like a serious negative. It takes more than a bit of arrogance to think "I've got an important new idea, and I'm going to share it with the world." And if even you don't believe that, why should anyone else?


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COMMENTS (16 to date)
Matthew c writes:

Maybe because if you think you already know everything, you can't learn anything. . .

Bryan Caplan writes:
Maybe because if you think you already know everything, you can't learn anything.

Yes, but if you think you're good at learning stuff, you're more likely to try. In my experience, egomaniacs are unusually likely to suddenly decide to master a new field.

Tex writes:

Compare Feynman with Gell-mann. Feynmann was humble, Gell-mann is not. Who would you rather hang with?

Al T writes:

"But humility and accurate self-perception are hardly the same."

I think I would disagree. And you since you made the "Walk on Water" reference I'll use the religious definition of humility to disagree. From the Catholic encyclopedia at newadvent.org: "Neither does humility require us in our own estimation to think less of the natural gifts we possess than of similar, or of inferior, gifts in our neighbours; otherwise, as St. Thomas teaches, it would behove everyone to consider himself a greater sinner or a greater fool than his neighbour."

John Goes writes:

Bryan, have you ever considered the recurring bias under the surface of Overcoming Bias and posts like this? The whole project is ironic.

Al T writes:

In fact I would say that you exercise humility every time you say, "I don't know, let me ask this person or this book." The true ego maniac would not even make that inquiry. Why should he, he already knows everything. You're probably going to find that kind of ego maniac has a job as a talking head on TV.

Allen K. writes:

If Einstein said, "I'm only average in physics," he'd be humble, but deluded.

No, he said "Do not worry about your difficulties in Mathematics. I can assure you mine are still greater." As if!

Hollywood_Freaks writes:

This topic surfaced in a conversation today I had with a friend. It's really quite bizarre.

I was telling him that I'm a better than average writer since blogging, and he said "way to be humble!" I replied, "and honest!"

As you can see, I completely agree with you.

John writes:

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Jason writes:

Being humble introduces in others my favorite bigotry, the bigotry of low expectations. Makes my life a lot easier.

Adam writes:

I prefer a slightly different definition of humility. I would say that humility is not denigrating yourself, certainly not inaccurately denigrating yourself (that's just low self-esteem), but rather not praising yourself (especially not excessively). You could still have much that is praiseworthy about you, and be well aware of it, but that does not mean that you need to boast about it.

Steve writes:

One can be outwardly humble, but privately have an accurate assessment of one's abilities. Being outwardly humble, or at the very least, talking little about oneself, is an important social skill.

Matthew c writes:

In my experience, egomaniacs are unusually likely to suddenly decide to master a new field.

I don't think the issue I'm describing is about looking into new fields, but rather the presumption that one has mastered the areas already invested in, or in dismissing other areas because one already "knows" those areas are not worth investigating.

If we look at the barriers to new knowledge, they are almost invariably those things we think we know that just ain't so. . .

tps12 writes:

I wouldn't presume to argue with you, my own opinion being in all likelihood unworthy of consideration. I do find Jesus's thoughts on humility and the humble life enlightening, but they may be of less help to those of even average intelligence and maturity.

Heather writes:

I think an appropriate definition of humility is not assuming you know everything and being willing to listen to others. While I think I am very good at what I do, my assumption should never be that others are not equally good. I can make this evaluation based on the information they give me, but to assume I am better than everyone else is a quality that is inappropriate and unhelpful.

Mary writes:

I don't know if humility walks on water and don't much care. But I'm grateful that I do have enough arrogance to say, "I've got an important new idea, and I'm going to share it with the world." I do believe it; my challenge is to get the world to believe it, too. And I won't give up; too much is at stake.

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