On staying humble amidst success

Humility is one of those characteristics that seems to divide people. In some ways, traditional business seems to train us to be boisterous and proud. At the risk of conforming to stereotypes, the image of a successful business person tends to be a city-dwelling male with a flash car, the latest gadgets, and – lets face it – a bit of an abrasive personality.

We’re all grown up enough to realise that this, as with all stereotypes, is misleading. And yet the image prevails. Even the heroes of literature can on occasion scorn humility as a trait. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes, to take one example, famously held a distaste for modesty, saying: “to underestimate one’s self is as much a departure from truth as to exaggerate one’s own powers”.

Humility is seen as a character flaw, not a trait, and so being humble doesn’t come naturally to a lot of people. Even the word ‘humility’ sounds like a bad thing. It sounds weak, and who wants to be seen as weak in business?

So before I offer suggestions as to how to stay humble, I suppose it might first be prudent to explain why humility is even a good thing.

Firstly, it is important to define humility, or being humble, in the right way. Much of the negative connotation of the word comes from is near-homophone ‘humiliation’. But despite the similarity of the words, humility and humiliation are not the same thing. True, they do both share the same root – the Latin ‘humilis’ which roughly translates as ‘from the earth’ or, as we might say now, ‘grounded’. But while the root word is the same, ‘humiliation’ as we use it is a verb – to put someone down – compared with the noun ‘humble’, which is to be down to earth. The latter is a character trait, whilst the former is a derogative action.

So with that mini lesson out of the way, what is so good about being humble?

Well while Sherlock Holmes is one example of a fiction character scorning humility, literature also has its fair share of humble heroes and accounts of humility as an aspiration. Even the ancient Greeks, who are seen by many experts as pretty clever, recognised its importance. The Iliad – Homer’s epic poem, widely regarded as one of the oldest surviving works of Western literature, recounts the final weeks of the Trojan War. The entire account is a warning against Pride – the antithesis of Humility. And that was a message strong enough to warrant a film starring Brad Pitt and Orlando Bloom.

So humility is a good thing. But how do you stay humble? It’s the easiest, most natural thing in the world to want to share your success with others – and you should be proud! But there are a few things to bear in mind. Here are just a few:

Don’t take criticism personally.

As far as being humble goes, this is pretty early on in the rulebook – and it doesn’t just apply when you’re working your way up to success. Once you’re at the top, you’ll still receive your fair share of criticism. Whether its people who are genuinely trying to help, or if its people who are bitter and just trying to knock you down, you need to be mindful of how you react.

Don’t constantly name drop, or otherwise show off.

Of course, if the reference is relevant, or you are bringing the name up for a legitimate reason, then that’s fine. But doing it for the sake of it is definitely not in the spirit of humility.

You’ll have noticed that in this article, I’ve referenced a famous author, a classic Greek poem, and given a micro-lesson in Latin. Now on the surface this could just be to give as full an account of the idea of humility as possible. But the cynical amongst you will question whether all of that was necessary – why not just give a simple dictionary definition and move on? Was I perhaps just trying to show off how clever I am? It’s a fine line – and if you tread the wrong side of it you’ll go from being that helpful guy with good connections and knowledge, to that smarmy guy who is just trying to show up everyone who hasn’t read The Iliad.

Know that your success is rarely down to you alone.

However successful you are, in whatever field you’re in, nobody can make it to the top alone. And when you get there, you’d do well to thank the people whose shoulders you’re stood on. From the massive cash injection your business received from a sponsor, right down to those little words of encouragement from a friend at 3am from when it looked like it was all going to fall apart, so many people have an impact on what you do. Make sure you thank as many of them as possible – they will appreciate that you’ve remembered them in your time of glory.

Talk about your route to success, not the success itself.

Its easy to be caught up in the hype of being awesome – and at first people will be happy for you and may even allow to you brag a little. But if you keep talking just about the present – how rich you are, how well respected you are in your circle, whatever it might be – your listeners will quickly get bored and may even start to resent you.

Instead, talk about how you got there. People love a success story – so make sure its the whole story, not just the last chapter, that you talk about. You may even act as an inspiration to others, as you prove success is achievable. (Really, that’s a win-win – you still get to talk about yourself, and you get to inspire others!)

Don’t forget why you went into business in the first place.

Every business has the aim of making money – and there is no shame in that. But simply making money isn’t the be all and end all of what you’re company should be about (unless you work for the Royal Mint…).

Even Apple – a company famously richer than the United States of America – admit that money isn’t everything. Jonathan Ive, has said that: “[Apple’s] goal isn’t to make money… Our goal and what makes us excited is to make great products.” He goes on to say that if they make great products, they will be a success. Because business success is so often measured by its bottom line, its easy to become obsessed by the money. Remembering why your business exists in the first place can help keep you grounded.

And as we learned from our little Latin lesson earlier, being grounded is what being humble is all about.

See – I wasn’t just showing off.