Staying Humble

staying-humble-particle-acceleratorHumility isn't Modesty

Nobody has ever wondered if I lacked confidence, so I'm sure as you read this title, you wondered a bit. What would this guy have to say about humility. But don't confuse humility with modesty. I'm not modest. I won't belittle my skills or talents simply to have you praise me. It's a waste of both our times.

No, I'm not modest. But I hope I don't forget to stay humble. And how do I do that? How can you do that?

I find it comes from being completely aware of reality with a capital R.

Reality with a Capital R

One of my first jobs was working at a government research facility, Berkeley Lab. I was working in a decommissioned cyclotron. You know, a particle accelerator. If that doesn't say much to you, that's ok, when I was 23 it meant nothing to me either.

It still had all the warning signs up because the cement shielding was still mildly radioactive (though we weren't close enough to worry).

So early in my time there, I walked into the men's bathroom and stood at at the urinal. I was wearing sandals, shorts and a t-shirt – because I was young and all I was doing was database work.  Then, all of a sudden, the Lab's laser safety officer (who I'd met a few times already) opened the bathroom door and said, look down, do you see what you're standing in? That's not water – it's radioactive. Wait here!

I freaked. I thought it had been just water. So I stood there. And stood there. And stood there. Until I realized I'd been punked. By the time I returned to the office, he was sitting there with my boss, cracking up.

Whenever I talk about humility with folks I start with that story. Not just because it's funny. But because it highlights how little any of us really know.

  • Would you know how to tell the difference between water and radioactive liquids? I didn't.
  • Can you explain the role of concrete in a particle accelerator? I couldn't.
  • Honestly, how many of you even knew what a particle accelerator was? I didn't.

The reality, with a capital R, is that there are tons of things that we can't explain or don't even understand. We're just not that smart. And because we're not that smart, it's easy to stay humble.

Humility is the result of realizing how little we know and how little control we have over things.

The Benefits of Staying Humble

There are several real benefits to staying humble – here are three of my favorites.

It keeps you in your sweet spot

If I know what I actually do know, and actually do understand (and all things I don't), then I'm likely to stay in my sweet spot, so that I know I can add value.

People who aren't aware of how little they know tend to think they can do everything. Then they never learn to say no to anything.

It keeps your eyes open for rising stars

One of my favorite by-products of staying humble is that you're not blinding by your own aura. And that helps you keep your eyes out for the up and comers.

Here's what I know, and what I suggest to people my age: Invest in young folks with drive and talent so that their road is a bit easier than our own has been.

That's why I'm such a fan of all the young talent in the WordPress community. They're game changers – the bunch of them!

It keeps you from making ridiculously stupid mistakes

Lastly, there's a real benefit to being honest with yourself about where you sit in the universe. It helps you stay clear of really stupid ideas that you might otherwise talk yourself into.

This past weekend I heard about a gal who decided to work on her boyfriend's car. Now this is true and happened literally last week. And clearly to someone who didn't realize what they didn't know.

So she takes a candle out to the car and jacks it up to work on it – in the parking spot under the apartment building. If you're asking why a candle and not a flashlight – you won't be the first to wonder. But she's out there at night, working on the car.

And she somehow disconnects the fuel line, which has fuel run down to the candle. And she just barely gets out of the way in time. But then the car (not her's but her boyfriend's) explodes. And that, in turn, burns the entire apartment complex down – in one shot.

Yes. It happened. Because someone didn't know what they didn't know.

So you've heard people say “Stay classy San Diego” but today I want to tell you, “Stay humble San Diego; stay humble.”