Humility: Definition, Examples, & Quotes
What is humility? Discover why humility is an important trait and how it can help you be a better leader and live a more fulfilling life.
Perhaps we might find ourselves changing our minds, being more flexible or open, and even more empathetic toward other people and their backgrounds and experiences. How might you achieve all this? Just practice humility.
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What Is Humility? (A Definition)
Perhaps you’ve noticed that our culture places a lot of value on external accomplishments, looks, or status. Humility appears to clash with how we currently see the world, ourselves, and our careers, as sometimes we want attention more than anything. When we focus on external validation and importance, we feed our ego. If, on the other hand, we practice humility, we can see the world as it is and understand our place in it. Humility does not mean we are weak, self-effacing, or submissive. It actually means we have a sense of connectedness with the whole world and other people, enabling us to transcend self-preoccupation and helping us not take everything too seriously.
Although humility sounds like a virtue or a philosophical topic, social scientists are also interested in this trait and have begun to analyze it. According to researchers (Tangney, 2000), humility has several different characteristics:
Even though humility is sometimes equated with low self-esteem, this is not the case. To be humble does not mean to have a low opinion of yourself, but rather to have an accurate one and to put your accomplishments into perspective. For example, it means acknowledging that you are smart but not all-knowing or have power but are not omnipotent. You can also think of humility as knowing your strengths and talents yet understanding that you are one of many people with strengths and talents (Templeton, 1997).
Philosophers’ Definition of Humility
Since ancient times, philosophers have thought of humility as an important value that can help people to freely acknowledge the gaps in their knowledge and to seek answers to address their blind spots. Because humility can help us be wiser, the opposite of humility is something like arrogance. Arrogance is “the belief that we are wiser or better than others. Arrogance promotes separation rather than community. It looms like a brick wall between us and those from whom we could learn.” (Templeton, 1997, p. 163).
Saint Augustine famously placed humility as the foundation of all virtues. Without humility, you might not be able to possess true knowledge or be a good learner. If you don’t know the depths of your knowledge, how can you master what you don’t know?
Humble people don’t want to impress or dominate others or have an exaggerated sense of self-importance. They are more open to ideas or information that does not align with their own view because they feel comfortable admitting that they don’t possess the absolute truth and have limitations themselves (Hill & Laney, 2016).
Humility as “a quiet ego”
You can think of humility as “a quiet ego” (Hill & Laney, 2016). A humble person can remain curious and open-minded; they acknowledge their limits but also seek knowledge; they can even accept critical feedback and change their minds when faced with evidence; they see themselves not as the center of the world but a small part of a large community. As a character strength, humility is related to a compassionate attitude and the lack of arrogance, importance, or pride.
Adopting a more humble mindset can not increase your psychological well-being but may also even help you change the world. Nelson Mandela argues that humility is one of the most important qualities to have, as this is the only way you can bring change in your life and in others’ lives. You can watch Mandela explain why humility is so important in the short video below:
Video: Nelson Mandela Explains the Importance of Humility
What Is Cultural Humility? (A Definition)
Cultural humility started as a tool to educate physicians to work in a multicultural society but it is useful for everyone, regardless of their work environment. As the first researchers to talk about cultural humility, Tervalon and Murray-Garcia (1998) describe cultural humility as “best defined not as a discrete endpoint but as a commitment and active engagement within a lifelong process that individuals enter into on an ongoing basis” (p. 118).
Cultural humility is a lifelong process of self-reflection and self-critique in which you not only learn about another’s culture but also start to examine your beliefs and cultural identities (Tervalon & Murray-Garcia, 1998; Yeager & Bauser-Wu, 2013). This means that you take a look at your own background, social environment, biases, values, and history to examine how these factors shaped your experience. Becoming aware of your own values and beliefs and how different cultures shaped them can help you understand others and be more understanding of their background (Yeager & Bauser-Wu, 2013).
Practicing cultural humility
It’s important to understand that society and culture are dynamic, changing from time to time and from place to place. In a day, we could be part of many different cultures without even realizing it. For example, our family culture is different from the workplace culture, or our school culture is different from our social group culture or religious culture. Other factors can play a role too, such as race, ethnicity, income, sexual orientation, class, or education level.
To practice cultural humility, you keep in mind historical realities, such as the history of violence and oppression against certain groups. In conducting psychological research, scientists keep in mind previous instances when researchers had different morals. One (infamous) example is the Public Health Service’s Syphilis Experiment at Tuskegee, also known as the Tuskegee Syphilis Study. For forty years, researchers conducted an experiment on hundreds of Black men who had late-stage syphilis but were never told what disease they were suffering from and its seriousness. Participants also never actually gave informed consent to participate in the study. By recognizing failures of cultural humility in the past, researchers and clinicians try to help build a better future for a greater diversity of people.
Examples of cultural humility
You might say “Namaste” after a typical yoga class or if you’re part of the Hindu culture or religion. You might curtsey if you happen to meet the Queen of England or if you’re a dancer and want to say a “thank you” to the audience. Dr. Juliana Mosley argues in her TED Talk that cultural humility aims to help us see everyone as a complex multi-dimensional individual who brings to the table their experiences and heritage. You can watch her full TED Talk below:
Video: Cultural Humility
What Is Intellectual Humility? (A Definition)
Intellectual humility means recognizing the limits of one’s own knowledge (Kross & Grossmann, 2012). It also means being open to new ideas and perspectives, as well as being willing to change your mind or be receptive to new sources of knowledge and evidence. For example, research shows that intellectual humility is associated with openness during a disagreement, and an open mindset might increase intellectual humility (Porter & Schumann, 2017) but is also related to being a better learner (Porter et al., 2020).
Intellectual humility can be helpful when talking about delicate topics such as religion and politics, as people who are high in this trait are more likely to be more tolerant toward other religions and less likely to perceive their religious views as superior (Porter & Schumann, 2017; Leary et al., 2017). Similarly, intellectual humility is associated with general knowledge, intelligence, and cognitive flexibility (Zmigrod et al., 2019; Huynh & Senger, 2020)
Intellectual humility is also a sought-after quality in leaders. Google’s VP in charge of hiring said that it is one of the top qualities he looks for in a candidate. He argues that “without humility, you are unable to learn,” which is important when solving any problem because sometimes a person might have to have the “humility to step back and embrace the better ideas of others” (Friedman, 2014). This example highlights not only how intellectual humility can make you a better leader but also how it is, unfortunately, a rare quality.
In this current era of fake news and polarization, it’s crucial to understand how we can protect ourselves against deception. If we want to critically evaluate information without biases we should work on our intellectual humility, as it helps us understand where we come from in terms of biases or judgments.
Pride vs Humility
You can think of pride and humility as opposites. Pride means having an excessively high view of your importance, while humility means a modest view of your importance. If a person is prideful, they might see themselves as superior to others and might disrespect or have low regard for others. However, if a person is humble—and has intellectual or cultural humility—they actually have more respect for different people, their backgrounds, and experiences.
Articles Related to Humility
Here are some more articles to read that can help you improve your humility:
Books Related to Humility
Want to keep learning how to develop humility? Check out these books:
Final Thoughts on Humility
Humility is an important trait to have and fostering it has benefits not only for the workplace but also for your well-being. Intellectual or cultural humility can help you see what your blind spots are and help you address them by seeking knowledge.