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Can You Be Both Confident and Humble? The Road to Success, Character, and Happiness

How do we avoid the road to arrogance but at the same time enjoy our accomplishments? How do we practice humility to practice happiness? I have three suggestions.
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By: Stacy Kim

David Brooks has written several op-ed pieces for The New York Times, coinciding with the launch of his new book The Road to Character. (You can find one here and another here.) Of the three I have read thus far, I found myself thinking about The Moral Bucket List the most. In it, Brooks suggests that we tend to spend more time and energy building our "résumé virtues" -- on the road to career success -- than building our "eulogy virtues" -- on the road to developing our character -- even though we know it should be the opposite way around.

In particular, I've been thinking a lot about what Brooks calls the "humility shift":

"We live in the culture of the Big Me. The meritocracy wants you to promote yourself. Social media wants you to broadcast a highlight reel of your life. Your parents and teachers were always telling you how wonderful you were."

"But all the people I've ever deeply admired are profoundly honest about their own weaknesses. ... They have achieved a profound humility, which has best been defined as an intense self-awareness from a position of other-centeredness."

While we all see growing evidence of "Big Me" culture, it strikes me that a lot of women I know personally and professionally are already avoiding or dissociating themselves from it. The smart, talented women I know shun showing off in any way. They are very careful not to appear to brag about their accomplishments anywhere, be it at the office or on Facebook.

In fact, more often than not, the smart, caring women who are my clients are not promoting themselves professionally as well as they could be. And in their personal lives, many moms are hesitant -- as the women in this broadcast are -- to celebrate their parenting triumphs openly for fear of making other moms feel badly. They are certainly not doing a post-touchdown victory dance in the end zone!

Women often come to me because they are stuck -- unable to figure out what the next phase of their lives should be. This often happens because they can't see their hidden talents, let alone showcase them. Rather, they are too busy helping other people (their children, spouses, bosses, and coworkers) and propping them up.

Some women, unfortunately, focus only on their weaknesses, even exaggerating them to a point at which they lose their sense of worthiness.

It has occurred to me that we often associate humility with weakness, passivity, lack of self-esteem, and lack of confidence. Maybe it's because humility is too similar to humiliation.

In fact, humility both promotes and requires strength of character and can be an ingredient for happiness. Matthieu Ricard, a scientist-turned-Buddhist monk and author of Happiness: A Guide to Developing Life's Most Important Skill, believes happiness is neither an emotional state nor an end goal but a skill that needs to be practiced every day.

About humility, he writes:

"The arrogant and the narcissistic fuel themselves on illusions that come into continuous conflict with reality. The inevitable disillusionment that follows can generate self hatred ... and a feeling of inner emptiness. Humility avoids such unnecessary distress."

"... The humble person makes decisions on the basis of what he believes to be right and sticks by them without concern for his own image or the opinions of others."

So what to do with all this? How do we avoid the road to arrogance but at the same time enjoy our accomplishments? How do we practice humility to practice happiness? I have three suggestions:

1. We need to be able to truthfully and confidently state our talents, abilities, strengths, and worthiness. We should be able to enjoy our accomplishments without feeling guilt and without downplaying them.

2. At the same time, we need to be able to recognize that we still have much to learn and more ways to grow. This isn't about marking where we are in our progress or comparing ourselves with others; it's about appreciating the journey and focusing on the process of growth.

3. Similarly, we need to remember that each person is one small element in a vast, interconnected universe ... we are not alone on these roads. We need connections. We need to rely on others, and others need to rely on us.

Putting it all together, the better we are at figuring out what our talents are, how to nurture and apply them, and how to make our corner of the world a little better than how we found it--in small bits and every day -- the better equipped we will be to forge ahead on a single road to character, success, and happiness.

Stacy S. Kim, Ph.D. is the author of The Lighthouse Method: How Busy, Overloaded Moms Can get Unstuck and Figure Out What To Do With Their Lives. She is a certified life and career coach helping high-achieving, deeply caring women and parents balance their ambitions, passions, and energy for the people they love. You can find her at and follow her on twitter: @stacyskim