Does Humility Have a Place at Work?

Sticker that says "wag more bark less"

I looked up from my screen and people were leaving me. It was late morning, and my grumbling stomach distracted me from my workflow just in time to see my neighbors and teammates stand up from their desks, put notebooks in the crooks of their arms, throw a sweater over a shoulder, grab a water bottle and start walking away.

The year was 1999; the place was the Exchange building on first avenue in Seattle, a high-ceiling open environment with short pine dividers between desks and a long line of windows that faced over Puget Sound and the Olympics. Everyone had a modicum of privacy but you could swivel in your chair to talk to anyone in a pinch, and it was easy to see what was going on around you—which I really like. (Let’s not get into the eavesdropping heaven.)

I remember the moment so clearly. My neck stretched up so see over my divider as a stream of bodies entered the main conference room.

“What’s going on Tatyana?” That was Andrew, our accountant, the one person in my vicinity who wasn’t going into this meeting. He sat directly opposite me and witnessed the neck stretching, the wild eyes.

“Where’s everyone going? What’s everyone doing?” I asked. I stretched my neck up further until I was half standing. My thoughts were buzzing in all kinds of directions.

“Who knows, just another meeting,” Andrew shrugged. He couldn’t have cared less. I, on the other hand, cared a lot.

“Yeah, whatever,” I lied, and sat back down. As the sole writer in another job where I was the lone writer at a software company, I had developed a shoulder-chip about being left out of meetings where ideas were formed that I then had to write about—and if I had been in the meeting I could have provided helpful and necessary information. So many oversights good GOD why did the imbeciles continue to omit a bright mind like mine from important creative meetings?

But today was the day I was set free. Maybe it was having my panic witnessed, but after the neck stretch, after Andrew shrugged his shoulders, I saw it: I saw that my being-in-the-right-meeting anxiety could be released from this moment forward.

Was that Humility that landed like a sweet bird on my shoulder?

Sweet Patagonian penguin. Left out of another meeting, happy as can be.

Sweet Patagonian penguin. Left out of another meeting, happy as can be.

It felt like one of those moments of grace where the wise person in you drops in for a visit and gets heard. On this day, I heard that wise voice. She told me I could retire my mind from spending mental energy on a certain type of career positioning that is filled with worrying, wondering and posturing—to be in the right meetings, to have my ideas heard, to make sure I wasn’t forgotten.

Let go, let go, let go! Um, OK. What a relief.

Humility and comparing

What does humility really mean?

And can we live without it in the big-fierce world of career?

Today I reconnected with a former client, and the subject of humility came up. He connected “being humble” with his own personal experience of hearing about someone else’s accomplishment and then feeling envy. (I was trying not to overdo the head nod.)

This wise gentleman sees his envy and then reminds himself that he has his own path and story and way of being; he has his own world-offering delivery system that is custom made for him. Being humble is simply staying away from the comparison game.

His story reminded me of something I heard easily 15 years ago that made an impression.

“Humility means I don’t compare myself to others.”

I don’t remember who said this but it might have been in an AA meeting, where the topic of humility comes up all the time.

What I love about this description of humility is it’s so simple, I can grasp it. Because it showed me HOW to do humility. Comparing myself to others is something I GET. If they gave graduate degrees in comparing-self-to-others, I’d be on an international speaking tour right now!

Humility at work, humility in life

As my former client stated, it’s easy to get behind the idea of something, like humility, but then not practice it. It’s especially easy to forget about some of the higher-virtue values when we’re in the weather system of work and corporate politics. There are deadlines and dramas; there are too many meetings, reorgs ad infinitum and a general complaint culture that rips through many organizations and their teams—not because people actively want these ways and things, but these ways and things are becoming our communal habit.

Try this:
What if you gave yourself a break from comparing yourself to others--just see what it's like? Every time you’re tempted to compare and every time you do compare—just be aware of it. Then remember you don’t have to continue down that story line. Remember that you don’t even have to sink into the story of yourself. You don’t have to ask yourself: “How am I doing?” “How am I feeling?” Imagine swinging from the tree limb of yourself away from all your self doubt and out into the world.

Find someone, anyone, who might benefit from your presence. A question you can ask; an offering you can make; a joke you can tell, a coffee you can buy.

Humility at work means accepting you as your own unique self, with your own story and path and gifts—and accepting all of it even when you have a low mood or a bad day. Even when you're in Comparison mode. It's OK. That will pass—so don’t make more of it than you need to.

Life is an act of creation—every second of the day. Being lost in the comparison game takes you out of it. And if you get tempted that’s ok too. We’re all just being human every step of the way. Aren’t we so goddamn cute?  

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