How to Master the Virtue of Humility in a World That Tells Us to Be Proud

‘Self-praise is poor recommendation.’
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‘Self-praise is poor recommendation.’

Editor’s Note: Verily is teaming with the Ben Franklin Circles project to highlight the virtues we can embrace in everyday life. Circles, modeled after the founding father’s “clubs of mutual improvement,” meet regularly across the country, using Ben Franklin’s classic thirteen virtues to spark discussion about members’ goals and aspirations—who they want to be and what they want to contribute to the world. Join us as we explore in this piece Franklin’s virtue of humility. Reprinted with permission.

My grandmother used to say, “Self-praise is poor recommendation.”


Apparently, she was adopting a Latin proverb to tell me that I was being arrogant and that it did not become me. It hurt, but it was true.

Modesty is hard. Good mental health requires a strong sense of self-worth but it can be difficult to find a balance between confidence and conceit. Now, imagine that you have just completed a three-month course on achieving moral perfection. Self-praise may be almost inevitable. Franklin, through the intervention of a friend, recognized this and added to his virtues:

"My list of virtues contained at first but twelve; but a Quaker friend having kindly informed me that I was generally thought proud; that my pride show’d itself frequently in conversation; that I was not content with being in the right when discussing any point, but was overbearing, and rather insolent, of which he convinced me by mentioning several instances; I determined endeavoring to cure myself, if I could, of this vice or folly among the rest, and I added Humility to my list."

Having added humility to his list, Franklin recognized that it was likely a virtue ever to elude him:

"In reality, there is, perhaps, no one of our natural passions so hard to subdue as pride. Disguise it, struggle with it, beat it down, stifle it, mortify it as much as one pleases, it is still alive, and will every now and then peep out and show itself; you will see it, perhaps, often in this history; for, even if I could conceive that I had completely overcome it, I should probably be proud of my humility."

So if Ben cannot overcome hubris in favor of humility, who amongst us can? Certainly, modesty seems a bit out of fashion. We are encouraged to be self-promotional in education, business, sports and life. We value and reward a healthy amount of pride and ambition. How, in this context, does one achieve the virtue of humility?

In my pursuit of the virtue I, as I had done with the others, sought the help of professionals. I took counsel on the meaning of humility, looked for guidance on issues of faith, and called an old professor to see how I might imitate Socrates. Ultimately, because of these inquiries, I decided I needed to reach into my past for a symmetrical, symbolic ending to a virtue that had long been my undoing.

I decided that this course of virtues, and particularly this virtue, needed to end with gratitude.

In my senior year in high school, my favorite teacher, Bob Gillis, took me aside and said, “Cameron, you like yourself too much.” Bob was a great teacher who cared about his students. His intervention was a shock to me and had a lasting impact. Despite his good intentions and my affection for him, however, I carried on in my ego-centric manner for the next half century. Now, compelled to acknowledge and seek humility, it was time to recognize my failure and to express my thanks.

I looked up Bob’s telephone number and got him on the first try. I had not spoken with him in years but when I heard his voice I was transported back to grade twelve. After some small talk, I got to the purpose of my call. “Do you remember,” I asked, “taking me aside and telling me that I needed to be more humble?”

There was only the briefest of pauses before he replied, “No, not really.”

I could remember everything about that meeting twenty-five years before. I could remember where we were standing, his exact words and how they made me feel at the time. I assumed, in my own hubris, that they had been equally as significant to him. I thought that this instant in a school hallway was as important a moment in his life as it had been in mine. Now, however, I began to realize that my epiphany was, for him, just a day on the job.

“Bob, did you give these little gems of advice to a lot of students?”

“Oh, sure,” he replied. “Sometimes I would see someone who needed a little kick in the pants and so I’d tell them what was what. Adults don’t tell kids what they need to hear enough.”

I felt the hand of Ben reaching across the centuries and slapping me in the face. As I sought humility, it was delivered with a stinging smack. My self-centeredness had allowed me to believe that Bob’s intervention was some priceless counsel passed to a favorite student.

In truth, it was just one bit of friendly advice among many from a caring teacher. That was a real lesson in humility.

I don’t know what makes us more humble. The passage of time and, with it, a waning of our sense of immortality certainly helps, but I think if one is to seek humility some recognition that others have helped us along the way is important.

An expression of gratitude is an expression of humility.

Just don’t be shocked if the recipient of your praise does not remember what they did to deserve it. In fact, if it happens, embrace that as another lesson in humility. On this virtue you just might outdo Ben.

Photo Credit: Eleanor Rask