Humility – the Foundation of Self Mastery

I used to be a very arrogant person and I actually loved it and took glory in my arrogance (if you can imagine such stupidity). But as I have delved outside my traditional professional interests in to leadership and management education, the more I learn, the more I realize how little I know and right now, even though I am not as humble as I would like to be (like my brother Nanga Tata TAMON or my classmate Nzube Okechukwu for example), I no longer think it is cool to be arrogant and proud and I just wonder – what was it I was, had or knew that made me so arrogant? Essentially, I believe arrogance is the belief that you are better than other people, a side effect (I call it intellectual arrogance) is that you think what you don’t know isn’t important.

 
It is easy to see how the ego is the source of arrogance and pride because anytime you come across someone who is better (by whatever metric you used to judge yourself better) than you, your ego is bruised – you feel inferior to that person and those feelings can spawn anything from envy, jealousy and resentment to outright hatred. Humility is a characteristic of those that have achieved personal mastery because as intelligent (in a whole sense) as they are, they realize how little they know of what abounds. With the realization that I am not the centre of the universe (egocentrism) but a node in its mesh comes the understanding that other nodes (people) in the mesh have a unique perspective of our common reality that is uniquely theirs and that the totality of our perspectives is more accurate than each individual perspective on its own.

 
Much of the pain I have suffered in my life – especially as an employee resulted from pride and arrogance (‘who is he to order me around?’, ‘how dare he ask me to make him tea?!’, ‘hey, I am better at this than Mr X, so why hasn’t this project been assigned to me?’, etc etc). But it is in being humble that one can transcend such pettiness and learn the lessons that every situation in life has to offer. I remember right after university, I worked for this company where I had a big title with very little substance associated with it. For starters, for almost six months, my office was a public corridor where everyone passed on his way to see the CEO – in fact if you came in there and had to describe who I was, ‘Secretary’ or ‘Personal Assistant’ [professions I considered an insult for someone of my intelligence and education, especially personal assistant to some … I’ll spare you the description] was a more apt description. Initially, I resented it but soon lost myself in learning other things that it didn’t matter eventually. I would enter whatever I was doing at that time and thus transcend my immediate environment into a world of beauty, of wisdom, of understanding and insight, free from the vice and pettiness that mar my current reality as perceived through my ego – this world could be in a book I was reading, a presentation I was creating, or even a proposal I was developing. Another slight that I experienced was professional – as an electrical engineer who is very proficient in information technology, I considered it a slight when the management saw my function essentially as that of cloning and repairing computers. To understand why I found this disgusting, you need to understand that I was an expert at these things four years before and I had advanced to wireless network design and Internetworking – thus I found the current jobs at best mundane and something to be done by less competent people (- please note here that the managerial problem of matching the person to the job did exist and I am not making an apology for such a failure, just saying that with enough humility, I could have seen it differently and thus would have borne it more gracefully). Had I not checked my ego, I wouldn’t have lasted in that job and I would have missed the chance to learn all the amazing things I later learned there.

 
In humility, I found the most potent weapon in dealing with megalomaniacs in positions of authority – that has proven to be a lifesaver because I believe we have too many megalomaniacs running institutions from university classrooms (lecturers), departments (HoDs), faculties (Deans) and organizations (CEOs and other managers) and God help us in our homes (parents stuck in ‘during our days’ syndrome)! A truly humble person focuses on the effects of his actions on a system and in terms of his long term goals and not how he is treated in a given moment. I recall once I lectured for about twelve hours in one week for which I knew I wasn’t going to be paid – but I saw it as a service, a sacrifice, a contribution to an organization that needed it then. I remained completely detached from any rewards from the organization and despite working under terrible work conditions; I had fun and presented a wonderful image and delivered immense value to our clients.

 

It is no doubt that humility is a core requirement of both emotional and spiritual intelligence. I can say that learning to be humble increased my knowledge and understanding ten-fold because it enabled me to listen within the speaker’s frame of reference – that way; I gained a better understanding of a common situation by seeing it from a different perspective. Needless to say, I made more friends and even some ‘enemies’ became my friends – genuine humility speaks for itself – people can see it in you and most people just can’t resist it.

 
Being humble means not thinking that we are superior to anyone, when humility drives self mastery, then we get the other part – not feeling inferior to anyone either. Without humility, we can’t practice detachment, we can’t give others the freedom to be themselves (required for good relationships), and we can’t serve, love selflessly or even do charity. Without humility, we can’t respect those less fortunate that we are (by whatever metric we are using) for as someone said (sorry I can’t remember who) “LOVE focuses on giving to others, RESPECT shows a willingness to receive from them. It acknowledges another person’s potential and ability to contribute” – Now you see why so much of charity is not wholesome, it takes humility to accept a gift from a poorer person, from a refugee, or to sit at the feet of someone who isn’t as intelligent as you are to learn – that is the path that leads to self mastery, to excellence and to practical perfection.

 
I remember once after telling some people about how learning to be humble had transformed my life and a director at a former employer told me ‘But Tamon, I think you are still arrogant!’ to which I looked her in the eye, calmly and confidently replied ‘You see ma’am, humility to me is not some goal or target to achieve, it is an endless journey’. And that journey is at the heart and soul of personal mastery, the journey is an end in itself and when you choose to walk it, every step you take, every choice you make, every thought you think, every word you say like every breath you draw is wholesome with live, with love, with understanding, with joy and peace despite failings, disappointments, guilt and other lessons that we misconstrue as failure. Welcome to the path, you don’t need to know where it leads, if it were to end here, your journey would have been worthwhile – because in the final analysis the end (perfection, excellence) and the means (self mastery) are one.