The Lost Art of Modesty

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.

  • BGT


20 thoughts on “The Lost Art of Modesty

  1. So I guess I should stop comparing my blog to Michelangelo’s David? lol!! Seriously though Byron, another great post and very counter-cultural which is what we need in this “Kardashian” world we live in. Self-promotion has reached epic proportions and it has to stop somewhere. Why not with us?

  2. Quite possibly one of the best posts you’ve written. Of course the sports example is a timely one for the weekend, but sadly, one of countless examples to use. I played several sports through my schooling up until college, yet I watch and follow almost none today.

    Absolutely there are wonderful examples in probably any sport of role models, but it certainly seems that things have changed over the decades. Ironically, perhaps because of their own modesty, many of these role models today may go unnoticed, overshadowed, and drowned out by the bling and extravagance of so many “look at me’s.”

    While not exempt from this infliction, I’m happy to see that Formula 1 racing, one of the few sports I do watch, seems to somehow stay relatively grounded…at least by comparison. Even more ironic since it may well be one of the most expensive sports out there, between the costs of development and racing, not to mention the driver and team salaries.

    Yet the drivers and the teams all still seem to retain a level of decorum and gentlemanly respect for themselves, their teams, their opponents, and fans. Little to no smack talk or physical altercations, and rarely a public display of “how great am I.” Of all the things that change in F1, I truly hope this isn’t one.


    1. Thank you very much, Brian. You’re right about Formula 1. I think it’s the European influence in the sport and the dependence world-famous drivers have on their teams of often-anonymous pit crews. A very good point. – BGT

  3. Another good one, Byron! But I was wondering….after each post, do you stand up from your computer and beat your chest and do a Tarzan roar? Like your plumber scenario, the thought of that just makes me laugh. And this isn’t even your job. You do this writing, I’m not sure why, but I’m really glad you do. Your comments are always all positive, and we who follow your blog love your writing. But I’m quite certain that, while grateful for the comments, you still remain modest and quietly go about your work! You are an inspiration.

    1. Thank you, Bev. You’re very kind. I am very grateful that my writing is appreciated by you and our other visitors. No, the Tarzan roar and chest-thumping are not my style. Maybe one day…probably not. – BGT

    2. Bev said it better than I can. Your posts this year are more philosophical and hit the nail right on the head.
      You’re right that many athletes are over the top and yet some of that may be a cultural difference.Generally, in Black culture ( and not just in the US) self-promotion is not always considered a bad thing and doesn’t mean anything. No one really takes themselves seriously …at least they’re not supposed to. It’s just part of the extrovert side of Black culture;self-expression is encouraged and it’s just good fun when done correctly. Gentle teasing is the cultural antidote for swollen heads and a person who can’t take it lacks humility and self-control ,and is a poor sport to boot.
      But unfortunately ,some folks let fame go to their heads and believe their own hype. Outsized salaries and a narcissistic Facebook/ YouTube interactions combined with a 30 year diet of reality TV nourish an acceptance of scandals and narcissism.
      Almost more than athletes, the inordinate influence of actors on national life is disturbing, especially since many actually believe that they are special and important. Why should an actor get a private audience with the Pope, or heads of state? Why does every act of charity merit an interview?
      Perhaps, the swollen headed ones should all be packed off to see Michaelangelo’s David…or spend the day with your plumber!

  4. That’s probably one of the reasons I have so much more respect for plumbers and other working class people than I do for “professionals” who contribute almost nothing to society, yet live a pampered, entitled life.

  5. It would be wonderful for you to say a few words about Robin Duke.

    I look forward to your blogs and greatly enjoyed and appreciated your first book. The second is on my list.

  6. Although not actually an OMG herself, Robin Duke married Angier Biddle Duke, after whose family Duke University is named and who was an heir to the American Tobacco Company fortune on his father’s side and a descendant, on his mother’s side, of Anthony Joseph Drexel who founded Drexel, Morgan &Co., which is now J.P. Morgan & Co. Robin took to the old money ways like a duck to water. She was a leading figure in women’s rights, especially reproductive rights, and became co-chairwoman of the Draper Fund which provides major funding for International Planned Parenthood. Her husband was ambassador to several countries including Spain and Denmark and she herself became U.S. envoy to Norway. She died last Saturday.

    1. A very interesting lady. I think the life of Robin Duke vs. Doris Duke would make a very interesting compare and contrast. Both ladies kept the Duke name in the public eye for very different reasons …

  7. Discovered your blog today, and, I say, what a joy it has been!
    It’s my fifth month in America, and as a twenty-year-old with grievous misgivings about the ways of today’s world, I am in complete agreement about the appalling lack of modesty these days. I am mostly self-deprecating and modest, but funnily enough people, especially Americans, reach the conclusion that I am incapable, under-qualified, undeserving and what-not. The media and the culture, that is if I generously allow the contemporary garbage to be called culture, has made most people incapable of humility and everything needs to be an ego-carnival.
    Anyhow, people like you exist, blogs like this exist, and all is not lost.

    1. Thank you, Uttam, and welcome! With a little luck and a lot of support, maybe we can turn things around here. “Ego-carnival”…great term. Thanks again. – BGT

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