The Utility of Humility

A year or so ago our middle son took on a role apprenticing to become a heavy duty mechanic with a local logging outfit. He was thrilled getting the hands-on experience working on a wide variety of equipment from his first days at his new job. He was afforded the opportunity to work both at their shop as well as in the field where the logging occurs. One of his peers lives about a half hour from the shop but en route to where their field work was taking place. One afternoon, our son’s peer suggested he take our son’s truck home while our son would drive home a company service truck, fill it up in the morning at a nearby cardlock, and then drive it to pick his peer up where they would travel on together to do some work in the bush. This would save the peer the effort of getting up early to drive to the shop just to turn around and return the same route. My son was excited to have a little responsibility and enjoy driving the service truck. His one responsibility was to get it filled and deliver himself and the truck to his peer’s home at a specific time.

Our son got up and was out the door with plenty of time to spare. Off to the cardlock he went to fill up. As he got out to fill up the truck, he turned the truck off and put keys in the pocket of his coveralls. Unfortunately, the pocket wasn’t a pocket and the keys slid down the inside of his pant leg falling out the cuff, dusting off his work boots, and falling through the metal grating he was standing on by the fuel pump. Instantly he knew there was no retrieving the keys. He stared blankly at the black abyss below the grating as the hopes of accomplishing his first reward of responsibility evaporated. He weighed his options and realized he had but one. Call his peer and get guidance. Maybe the peer had an extra set of keys lying around? Our son wanted the problem to be contained and word not spread back to others at the shop. Fortunately, his peer had a set and made the trip in to rescue his truck and our son while they both sat uselessly clogging up a spot at the cardlock. The experience, though not a disaster, set them back on a smooth and timely start to their day. The one benefit that had been desired from the prior planning had created instead more work and stress to get their day going.

What’s your core responsibility at work? Does it differ from that of others in your organization? Could it be that regardless of our role we all share the same # 1 job responsibility? What would you consider the number one job responsibility to be in your role? Would you believe that the answer to this question is the same regardless of role and independent of industry? Many of us are trying to shine when we put in our time. We’re seeking to excel and stand out. However, first and foremost our responsibility is much humbler. Could it be that we’re like doctors in that our number one task is to “above all, do no harm?”  Across industries, roles, and experience, our primary purpose is to not make things worse. Our presence and contributions should work to be neutral. That’s the start. If we fail to show up, for example, we’ve failed at our primary responsibility. We’ve made things worse. There’s now a hole in the organization which will have to be filled by someone else.

In what other ways do we fail at avoiding making things worse? Where we make mistakes. When we make a mess, the organization is set back and additional efforts are required to put things back on track. If we lose things, for example, keys to our service truck, we set things backwards. Now, assistance is required to find extra keys or get a locksmith to come and help out. We can also send things sideways where we get injured at work. This can be worse than not being able to show up as when injured at work we may need the assistance of others to help us. This draws their attention away from their work further taking the organization backwards. In our zeal to stand out, be seen, and showcase our skills, we too often neglect that true strength is demonstrated by minimizing our impact on others. Avoiding setbacks and being less wrong are paths to being seen as strong.

It’s a tactic that Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield called in his book, An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth, “Being a zero.” Across decades of training and being part of numerous space missions, Hadfield was grateful to learn early on what seemed a counterintuitive lesson. Hadfield came to appreciate that those most respected were not those that had the answers or shined in some way. They weren’t standing out because of all the overt value they were contributing. It was, instead, those that took time to do little things that kept things moving smoothly. Hadfield witnessed leaders with titles doing what seemed like trivial jobs like emptying waste baskets. These small steps, largely unnoticed by others, kept others focused on their jobs which allowed the overall project to make progress. Leaders in Hadfield’s world took time to look for ways to lubricate the gears for their colleagues. It was an external, mission-driven focus that helped these leaders realize that helping others do their jobs well was more important than seeking to add value directly.

In the real world, it’s not about you, it’s about what you do. Can you do your part? That’s what your employer cares about. Author Stephen Pressfield writes in Put Your Ass Where Your Heart Wants to Be about an experience he had when in boot camp for The Marine Corps. Pressfield writes of a drill sergeant that constantly offered what seemed like a heartless response. Recruits were bombarded by the drill sergeant whose name was Watashi with utterances like, “Watashi don’t care how you ‘feel.’” Watashi would sometimes vary his berating offering, “The Marine Corps don’t give a shit how you ‘feel.’ Did the Marine Corps issue you ‘feelings,’ dirtball? Then you ain’t got none.’ All that mattered to Watashi was that you do your job—on time and to the best of your ability—whether you ‘felt’ like it or not.” It was a harsh but helpful lesson for Pressfield. It was useful to know that excuses are just that and do nothing to getting a job squared away. Nobody cares. They care about the task and getting it completed. Better to be quiet and do your job well than to come up with excuses for why things went sideways. Pressfield, like Hatfield, learned that doing one’s job was not about shining and being seen but about quietly going about your affairs in way that didn’t detract from the ability of others to do the same. How we feel and what we want were secondary to those in charge. Pressfield and Hatfield were grateful to learn that their first and foremost responsibility was to not make things worse. It was humbling to not have to worry about standing out and being the center of attention, but also freeing to focus on serving the broader mission.

Let’s consider vaccines for a moment. The primary purpose of taking vaccines like those for flu, measles, or shingles is to reduce the likelihood of getting the ailment we’re being immunized against. In some cases, a vaccine may have what’s referred to as negative efficacy. This is the unfortunate result where taking it makes the recipient more likely to become sick from the disease against which they’re seeking protection. This is not a good thing. In fact, this is the worst possible outcome of taking a vaccine. It puts the recipient in a worst position than doing nothing. Instead, it makes doing nothing, like being a zero, look productive. It’s the same thing in the work place. We, like vaccines, should seek to avoid negative efficacy.

This is the number one responsibility for all of us: Don’t make things worse. We want to avoid getting in others way, slowing things down, or adding work to others by making mistakes. This means chasing straightforward and boring efforts before seeking to distinguish ourselves with superior insights. Things like showing up, being prepared, avoiding getting hurt, not losing things, and not breaking things are our priorities. Our first focus is to channel Chris Hadfield and work on being a zero, not a hero. Embrace the utility of humility and start small before worrying about standing tall. Once we’ve mastered the art of doing our primary part and avoiding making things worse, then we can look to develop our initiative which is the next most valuable trait in a team member.

“The path to wisdom is paved with humility.” Tim Fargo