Years ago, I sat down for lunch, next to a young villager in India. As usual, I closed my eyes for a moment of gratitude before eating. As I opened them, I saw the most unusual thing — this boy was preparing a bite from my plate. My plate! Seeing my confusion, he kindly explained, “I wanted a piece of your prayer, and so I figured the best thing was to be of service to it right now.” Saying this, he offered me that bite. Imagine hearing these words, and receiving that gesture from someone you’ve only just met. I was touched.
Curious to know more about him, I asked him about his work. He smiled and said, “Well, it’s hard to describe. It’s a bit like the sparrow in that fable. As the story goes, the sky is falling down and all the creatures are fleeing. The sparrow thinks to itself, ‘I want to help. But what can I do? I’m just a sparrow.’ Then, the sparrow has a flash of brilliance — it lies on its back and points it two feets towards the sky. ‘What are you doing, Little Sparrow?’ others ask. ‘Well, I’ve heard the sky is falling, and so I’m doing my little bit to hold it up.’” After a pause, my new friend adds, “That’s what I try to do too.”
Small, subtle, silent. And humble.
The world we live in is almost the polar opposite — grandiose, mundane, loud. We moved from We to Me.
The archetype of today’s hero is a go-getter, with a nice-guys-finish-last mindset. Our systems are designed to privilege power, where respect is calibrated by our titles and bank balances. As business cards lead our handshakes and hugs, our daily lives have morphed into a relay of commercial intentions. In a rat-race to pad our resumes, we’ve condensed our nuanced experiences into elevator pitches. We’re primed to “speak up”, and to favor ambition over surrender.
The question is no longer if we can afford our humility, but rather can we really afford our own arrogance?
Without humility, our overblown sense of entitlement disconnects us. It increases narcissism and reduces empathy. That may be good for the economy but certainly not for societal well-being. We are more self-centered than ever, and less happy and healthy for it. With humility, though, we can give birth to a whole new story.
In the late 70s, two Buddhist monks — Rev. Heng Sure and Heng Chau — began a mind-blowing bowing pilgrimage along the California coastline. For 900 miles, they would walk three steps and take one full bow to the ground. Their practice was to meet everything as a reflection of their mind and rebound it with a heart of love.
One day, crossing through a rough neighborhood in LA, they found themselves surrounded by a bunch of gang members. One of them threw down a trash can, removed the rod connecting the can with its lid, threateningly started screeching that rod around the side of the trash can. Sluzzzz, slussssh, as if sharpening his blade and signaling the impending fate of the monk’s head. Other friends egged him on with a menacing chant. As Rev. Heng Sure would later write in his journals, “All the hair of my body stood up in fear.” Yet his commitment was to unconditional compassion: no matter what you bring to this moment, I bow to the goodness in you. May you be blessed. And so he humbly went for that final bow at the teenager’s feet. His would-be attacker’s fist was raised in the air poised to strike, but he froze. Completely froze. Others around him fell silent. Imagine if you’re about to pummel someone and he bows to you with great compassion. The monks continued bowing right past the dumbstruck gang.
Humility is seen as a sign of weakness, in today’s culture, when, in reality, it is the gateway for an unparalleled and profound strength.
We see examples of this across all wisdom traditions. In Sikhism, Guru Arjan Dev, the fifth of their ten gurus, offered this credo to all the warriors: “Humility is my mace; becoming the dust of everybody’s feet is my sword. No evil can withstand that.” Jesus Christ washed the feet of his disciples, the 12 apostles, and then adds, “Know ye what I have? I have given you an example.” At another point, he explicitly states, “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth. For whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted.” In Jainism, as you all know, there is the powerful practice of Micchami Dukkadam on the last day of the holy Paryushan period, where Jains actively seek and offer forgiveness: “If I have caused you offense in any way, knowingly or unknowingly, in thought, word or deed, then I seek your forgiveness.” Every year, on this day, I receive many such emails from Jain friends. Simply being on the receiving end is such a humbling feeling, that I can only imagine what it means to be on the other end.
We have so many contemporary examples as well. Mother Teresa called humility the “mother of all virtues”and reminded us, “We can do no great things. Only small things with great love.” And, of course, we have Gandhi. When he died, with less than 9 possessions to his name, journalist Edwin Murrow read this across the radio waves: “Man without wealth, without property, without official title or office. Mahatma Gandhi was not a commander of great armies nor ruler of vast lands. He could boast no scientific achievements or artistic gift. Yet men, governments and dignitaries from all over the world have joined hands today to pay homage to this little brown man in the loincloth who led his country to freedom.”
I want to share three progressive doorways of power that humility opens up.
The first doorway is the power of many.
In the absence of humility, we forget the shoulders that we stand on, and foolishly begin to take singular credit for what we’re doing. I remember my mom telling me a parable from the Mahabharata. A dog is traveling on Krishna’s chariot, and lo and behold, when the dog wagged its tail to the right, the chariot turned to the right. And when he wagged it left, the chariot turned to the left. It was an example of correlation, not causation, and it would have been nothing short of ludicrous for the dog to actually believe it was controlling the chariot with its tail. Yet, that is precisely how our arrogance deceives us. We forget that behind each one of us lies an invisible stream of conditions that supports our every move.
Growing up, I had certainly forgotten that wisdom. I started out doing all the “right things”: did well in high school, got into UC Berkeley, landed a prestigious job in Silicon Valley. Then, in my early twenties I left the corporate world, and started ServiceSpace. My television debut was a half an hour interview on CNN. People celebrated my accomplishments, and initially I believed I deserved the credit. But over time, I realized that I was just a dog on the chariot. The ego is ever-ready to build a story around our exclusive special-ness. Whether it’s about worldly achievement or even service, pride comes in one flavor. And our world, unfortunately, encourages this. Slowly, though, I started seeing the long series of cascading conditions that had to conspire even just for me to stand here today. How could I possibly think that this is all my doing?
We have a greater impact on each other than we think. The strongest influence on someone’s behavior is — their friend’s behavior. Happiness loves company — it spreads virally, in a network. So does obesity, cancer, and even divorce. If you have a divorced friend, you are 147% more likely to divorce yourself. So if you want to stay married, we have to work on strengthening your friend’s marriages. And it works the same way for philanthropy, kindness, and good news too. Everything we do ripples out and affects each strand in the web of our connections.
With this understanding, a significant insight emerges: everyone matters, and everyone has something to give. And if we organize around leveraging people’s gifts we begin to create breakthrough possibilities.
I recently met a guy named V. R. Ferose. He had turned around a Fortune 500 company’s R&D department, and by age 36, had 5000 employees working for him. He married his college sweetheart, became a father and one devastating day, he and his wife learned that their son, Vivaan was on the autism spectrum. They were shattered by the news, but in the crucible of their despair, Ferose and his wife forged their lifes’ calling. As Ferose succinctly put it, “I want to change the world for Vivaan, and my wife wants to change Vivaan for the world.”
Soon after, they launched many successful projects. Ferose looked deeply into the unique gifts of the autistic population. Well, if you’re autistic, you are never bored, and you never lie. Ferose looked at those traits, and then took a revolutionary leap — he hired 5 autistic staff at his Fortune 500 Company, and then matched them with roles that allowed their gifts to shine. It was a huge success. The new staffers excelled at their jobs. News of their contributions reached the CEO of the company and he was so moved that he announced that, by 2020, 1% of their 65 thousand world-wide staff would be people on the autism spectrum. “That day a friend came into my office and said, Vivaan has just created 650 jobs. I had tears in my eyes,” Ferose remembers. Now, the UN is exploring a mandate to inspire other Fortune 500 countries to do the same.
All this transpired because Ferose understood that the best way to support his special child, was to help create a world that supports the specialness of others, and to build a community that thrives on the belief that everybody is good at something.
Tapping into people’s gifts can’t be done by brute force or authority. It takes a heart of humility. It takes deeply trusting the synergy of our inter-connections, and understanding the power of many.