Humble beginnings: How a little humility ...

Humble beginnings: How a little humility can take you a long way towards success, growth,

Sep 17, 2022

Becoming more confident. It’s a huge topic. You want to be more confident so you can step up, achieve more, make a difference in the world and bring about the change you are passionate about. Without confidence are you destined to keep hesitating, watching others achieve their dreams, and leaving problems unsolved and calls to action unanswered?

Well, recently I’ve been thinking about what can happen if you shift focus from confidence to humility - finding balance between the two. Don't worry, it’s not that I’m worried you’ll be so successful in developing confidence that you’ll become egotistical, narcissistic, and arrogant. It's because there is a lot of research that suggests humility could be a route to success, achievement and wellbeing.

It sounds counter-intuitive, doesn’t it? Surely the last thing you need is humility. Dictionaries define humility as ‘the quality of having a modest or low view of one’s importance’, or similar, and suggest synonyms such as modesty, meekness, unassertiveness. So then why has the quality of ‘humility’ attracted so much attention within Positive Psychology, even being promoted by the founding father of positive psychology himself, Martin Seligman, and considered within the field to be a character strength that could promote human flourishing?

Researchers Weidman, Cheng, and Tracy (2016) presented findings based on studies suggesting that there are 2 different types of humility: “appreciative” and “self-abasing” humility. It is likely that appreciative humility is the type with the benefits that Seligman and other researchers have identified. Appreciative humility is more likely to involve celebrating others and less likely to involve criticising the self. This type of humility involves a shift from a ‘narrow preoccupation with self or other into the broader consideration of self and other’. There is also a distancing from the self and ego which allows a more objective and balanced perspective – of your strengths and weaknesses as they are now, neither exaggerating or dismissing them, as well as those of others, and of your position within the big, big world. Consider this quote:

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Maybe you find this depressing, devaluing. It makes you sound insignificant. Does it give you, 'If everyone is a small worthless speck of dust, what’s the point in anything?' sort of feelings? If so, I suggest you do the following: 1) quickly close your browser, forget about this and go and do something revitalising – this approach might not be what you need today. OR get a change in perspective, by 2) watching this video about emergence and/or 3) reading on.

One new perspective on this new perspective is, you are now freed from the pressure of being big, whilst simultaneously being part of something bigger than yourself, and with great power to achieve amazing dreams.

And, if you have humility, it is likely that you will also have some other wonderful and very useful qualities that will increase your likelihood of success and wellbeing in life.

Research shows that if you have humility you are more likely to also have:

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Wellbeing, success, mastery and growth mindset

Looking at these qualities associated with humility, there’s a few there that remind me of the 5 ways to wellbeing, such as ‘give’, and some that would contribute to a positive mindset. There’s also some that sound a lot like aspects of a growth mindset - a mindset that has been found to predict success. For example, Carol Dweck, whose research is behind the growth mindset concept, highlights some examples of growth mindset thinking and behaviour, such as 'sharing information, collaborating, innovating, seeking feedback, or admitting errors'.

Other research found that 'intellectually humble' high school students had higher mastery behaviors such as seeking challenges and persisting after setbacks on a performance task. Humility is also seen as a key component of success in leadership. David Elrod writes in the Strategic Finance journal, comparing humility to confidence in leaders:

“It undoubtedly takes a certain level of confidence to be a leader; otherwise, no one would follow you. But sometimes confidence can hurt your efforts just as much as it can help. That's why having humility as a leader is just as important as having confidence. Humility allows you to listen, gives you a safe zone to coach and learn in, and builds trust with the team. … Confident yet humble leaders listen and do so consistently

David Elrod, Strategic Finance

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Humility and confidence

Why do we seek confidence? To feel better and happier maybe. But not just that, or you might aspire to have joy or peace instead. Usually it is confidence so that you can do something: to step forward, achieve your goals, be successful, make a change. Perhaps humility is as important as confidence to support you to achieve these outcomes. So if you are stuck on the confidence part, why not divert your attention to growing humility for a while? It may help you move towards your goals, and you may find that when it’s not feeling the weight of your scrutiny, your confidence starts to grow anyway. Sometimes we think of humility as being associated with low confidence but in reality that is far from a given. As Jack Coulehan writes in Annals of Internal Medicine 'Countercultural though it is, humility need not suggest weakness or lack of self-confidence. On the contrary, humility requires toughness and emotional resilience. Humility in medicine manifests itself as unflinching self-awareness; empathic openness to others; and a keen appreciation of, and gratitude for, the privilege of caring for sick persons. Justified pride in medicine’s accomplishments should neither rule out nor diminish our humility as healers'.

So if you feel like you’re being held back from success because of your lack of confidence, consider focussing on your humility instead because:

  • Humility contributes to a growth mindset, and people with a growth mindset tend to achieve more.

  • Humility and confidence complement each other and can be grown together in balance.

  • Humility often comes with all sorts of other helpful qualities that contribute to wellbeing and success.

  • Humility could lead to confidence and self-assurance

4 ways to cultivate humility

Ok so now you are sold on humility and probably wondering, 'How can I get some of this?' Try these:

  1. Practice gratitude - research has found that gratitude and humility mutually reinforce each other in 'an upward spiral'. One study found that writing a gratitude letter increased humility compared to people who were given a neutral activity in the research study.

  2. Writing therapy - research has found that there is a difference in the way that people with high versus low humility write in response to prompts about their relationships, for example to the universe, the environment and fellow human beings. As a result of research like this, writing therapy designed to increase humility has been trialled. Try journalling on this yourself, and aim to use 'language designed to break down boundaries/ hierarchies, maintain equality, and emphasize connection'.

  3. Keep curious - studies show if you label yourself as an expert you might have a greater tendency towards closed-minded thinking, or to 'process information in ways that reinforce prior opinions or expectations' (even if you are wrong). This is unlikely to support developing humility or a growth mindset. Instead, try celebrating and acknowledging your knowledge and experience whilst also expressing an interest and curiosity in what else there is to learn, and willingness to consider new ideas. This can reduce a pressure to 'be right'.

  4. Empathy - Humility involves reduced focus on yourself and increased focus on others. The risk with focussing more on others is that you start to compare and see all the ways that they have it all sorted and you do not. It can be easy to see other people's successes and not see the obstacles, failures and effort that they went through to get there. Empathy can be your friend here. Look beyond the glossy image of perfection you see presented, and imagine what life is really like for them. What complex feelings and insecurities might they have (considering they are human after all), and what realistically will they have been through to get to the position they are in now? This might help to celebrate and acknowledge others qualities and achievements genuinely, without criticising or comparing to yourself.

Which one will you try? Let me know in the comments - and I'd love to get an update on how you get on!

Humble little ants can achieve great things. Image by Prabir Kashyap - Unsplash


Even with low or not-high-enough confidence, the ego can make you overly aware of your own expectations and others’ judgements. You compare yourself to others, you can’t see your own strengths and weakness clearly. You fluctuate between confident and not confident, depending on a multitude of factors or as the wind blows. With humility you are more able to manage your ego, celebrate others, and feel respectful empathy towards others. You can get some distance and objectivity, a perspective of being one of many, all bringing your own unique value in a massive, interconnected world. You are free from obsessing over results, achievement and being right, and more appreciative of growth, learning and connection. You appreciate others' journey, and move forward with your own.

From this grounded place you can achieve more, have better wellbeing and feel more self-assured and confident in yourself.

So let me know, is humility something you have thought much about before? Is it something you've worked on before? Reading this, does it sound too much like putting others first and putting yourself down, or a quality that will help you step into the world and contribute? Let me know.

There are many, many research studies and references behind this blog post - please ask if you are interested to know more.

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