We live in an age of overreaching self-promotion. The digital age has hatched self-proclaimed experts in every field imaginable.We list our accomplishments brazenly on social media. We don airs of confidence and promises of performance that may or may not exceed our competence. To paraphrase an old saying, our mouths often write checks that our abilities may not be able to cash.
The current culture pervading sports is one of pomp and pose: every time a tackle is made on the football field or a basket is made from outside the 3-point line, chest thumping and warrior-like cries of triumph are sure to follow. I remember a time when athletes simply did their job on the field or court and kept their focus on winning the game.
I often amuse myself imagining the dance that a plumber would do in my kitchen if he celebrated unclogging the sink (which is, you know, his job) the way that so many modern-day athletes and entertainers do, congratulating themselves with more enthusiasm, sometimes, than their fans. It is, after all, their job, what they are paid to do. Of course, they’re passionate about it, but applause, approval, and adulation are usually things that come from the audience. It’s a little odd, it seems to me, to give them to yourself.
It makes my like my plumber more because he just comes in, does his work, and leaves me to congratulate him for a job well done, and enjoy a sink that doesn’t leak.
So where does this overly-extroverted, hyper-competitive world leave the concept of modesty? Is there still a place for it?
I believe there is, but it may not be a place you arrive at easily. First, you’ll have to be very confident with yourself and your abilities. That may seem ironic, but the reality is that the more you can do and the better you can do it, the more modest you’ll probably become. Your work will speak for itself and the world will, many times, beat a the proverbial path to your door. This is not to say that your efforts will be totally lacking in elements of self-promotion, but these efforts will be secondary to the actual work you do.
The reputation you get for being someone who is simply very good at what you do or, more rarely, the best at what you do, will speak volumes on your behalf. Coming from others in the form of referrals or repeat business, it will also speak more loudly, as actions often do.
Another thing you can do to remain modest is to gain some perspective. You’ll want to read the works of Shakespeare and understand what he’s really saying sometimes. You may need a professor or a professional actor or director to explain some of the more profound passages to you. That should take you down a peg.
If that doesn’t work, I recommend you go to Florence or Rome. In Florence, you can take a look at Michelangelo’s David. The statue is 17 feet tall. Despite its scale, you can see the tendons and veins in David’s hand. If that doesn’t impress you sufficiently, you can take the train down to Rome and visit the Villa d’Este. Bernini carved the sculpture of a Greek god, struggling with a fishing net as it falls around his head. You can see through the holes in the net, just like you can if you hold a real fishing net above your head. You can see the life-like strain in his muscles and the pressing of the flesh. The only difference is that, like Michelangelo’s David, the statue was carved from a single piece of marble, several centuries ago. And we still marvel at these masterpieces today.
So if you think students and scholars will stand in awe of your accomplishments four or five hundred years from today, feel free to be arrogant. Otherwise, let’s let modesty guide our dress, speech, and manner. If there are accolades to be presented, that’s for others to decide.