A Word About Modesty

Dear reader,

When I was in England, I ran across the expression “blowing your own horn/trumpet”. The phrase was used in training courses as a chance for a client to say it out loud what they were good at and what their strong points were. For many people this was an extremely difficult task.

This statement has caused me lots of troubles, as I’m confused about its helpfulness. In my experience, people who would blow their own trumpets easily and without embarrassment, often turned out to be shallow, as there wasn’t much to blow about, really. On the opposite, people who had it difficult to blow their own horns, had in fact very much they could use as a melody. For example, sometimes I read all sorts of students CV’s and as I see them live in an interview, many times it turns out there is so much bullshit written and is not actually true. Or is presented in a glorious way, where in reality is just average stuff and in my opinion not even relevant to mention. On the other hand, I know students who are really modest about their achievements and don’t see it as a “big deal”.

That’s all fine somewhat, except that the “quiet” students may be missed or overlooked because of the “loud” ones who are better at persuasion. Also, it may be unjust to have two students of each kind competing for one position. You can do the math who has better chances of winning. But to understand the two opposite spectrums, it is useful to know where you’re at.

I must confess, I’ve never been a very modest person, I had to be the best, the quickest, had to be right and so on, but at the same time I was really quiet and shy and sometimes even a true coward when it comes to expressing your opinion in front of the others or raise your voice or even just talk about what you did well when others asked. I always thought others had much more to say and I don’t. And others were right, so if I speak up, I’ll make a fool of myself. It happened so many times that I didn’t say anything, but someone else did, and he had similar ideas I did, so consequently I felt sorry for not speaking up, because it would get us where we wanted to go quicker. At first glance, you may take this as a gesture of modesty, but it’s not, It is plain raw low confidence. I realized that, because on the other hand, when I really had to do something and it was expected from me that I do it well (like lead a project, make a presentation, negotiate a meeting and so on) I sought comfort in some external factors that would grant me confidence. For example persuading myself that Mensa proved my IQ was higher than 96% of the world population (hence probaby higher than most people’s in the room as well) and I’ll be fine. That may be all right, if it wouldn’t be used to put the others in a lower position (placing myself higher, because my IQ is over 140). That’s narcissism, even though my IQ is a fact, but is used as a means of exclusion. From that superior position, I could even be rude to someone who “didn’t get” it or couldn’t do it the way I wanted them to or just didn’t understand what I was talking about. Sometimes this is very frustrating for both sides – one being angry and disappointed by the incompetence of the other and the other frustrated or rampant because he’s been treated poorly. Either or, the work cannot be done this way, nor can the knowledge be spread. Not to mention satisfaction. I wasn’t happy about that.

So how to manage blowing your own trumpet when you should and be modest about it at the same time? For me, the key was self-withdrawal. Making it less personal in terms of “what will that say about me and how will others judge me” and focusing towards “what difference will this idea/suggestion/whatever action I did, make that we could all have benefit from”. So it was about being focused towards the task, not my performance. Thus trusting my abilities in terms of having the tools at disposal for doing something and not tools to comfort my low confidence. And the shy part was replaced by curiosity. I don’t have to be loud if I don’t feel comfortable this way. But I can step out of my shell and show interest in others. That includes asking questions, sharing viewpoints, opinions, beliefs, values, etc. Again self-withdrawal. Maybe to be modest about your achievements actually means great strength in terms that others will eventually recognize it anyway and you don’t have to advertise it. If it’s there, people will notice the results, not the words. If it’s not there, the words won’t be very helpful by making an impression in a long run.

So guess blowing a trumpet is good and helpful. Very good indeed, as long as it’s used for noticing illuminating what qualities you have. Not what other’s don’t and you do, hence you’ll feel better because you are superior. I really like the statement “we’re only humans”. Mostly, this is used to pinpoint it’s all right to make mistakes. I like to add “we’re nothing less than humans”. It means we’re all in this together and no one is worth more than you are. Or less.



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