Sometimes I feel like the virtue of humility is in an ever-increasing state of short supply. Don’t get me wrong: I’m not talking about the kind of humility that comes from repeated humiliation—a form of oppression and abuse imposed on someone from the outside: the kind that happens to belittled children, battered spouses, and domineered workers. The kind of humility I value is the precious fruit of hard work—the discipline of being willing to face one’s limitations, own up to one’s weaknesses, and admit room for improvement. It takes the form of giving others credit generously, apologizing when wrong, asking for advice often, and genuinely admiring those who do exactly what you do, except better.
I have been thinking about humility today because I just finished an article in The New Yorker called “Personal Best,” by someone whose writing I have really come to love: the physician Atul Gawande. In addition to being a practicing surgeon, he is also a professor at Harvard Medical School; but what I love most about him is his fabulous writing style—I have read two of his books, Better and Complications, and I never miss a New Yorker article. I don’t have any kind of medical background, but he is interesting, engaging, and raises really compelling ethical and personal issues that are inextricable from the practice of medicine. And, more to the point, he is not afraid of sharing wrong decisions he has made, people he has not been able to “fix,” and problems he has not been able to solve. What surgeon do you know who willingly and publically does that?
To some degree, that is what “Personal Best” is about: he starts the article by talking about how almost all elite athletes have coaches, and many of the world’s best singers and musicians use them, too. “Why don’t we all,” he wonders. So, in the spirit of inquiry, he recruits one for himself, and gives some examples of what happens next. No surprise, the coach noticed some things that Gawande had gotten into the habit of overlooking—the placement of a sheet, the shift of a light, the position of surgical assistants. It was all helpful, constructive criticism. However, what really caught my attention was the last part of the article, in which Gawande describes a genuine “mistake” he makes in full view of his coach. Beginning a routine operation, he rather stubbornly chooses one method of surgery, even when there is evidence to suggest another way might be better; and he persists way too long before giving in and switching. He openly admits to the shame and embarrassment he felt. He writes that he had let his admired colleague “see my judgment fail; I’d let him see that I may not be who I want to be.”
I found this openness, this honesty about not only the mistake itself, but how it made him feel really refreshing, because such talk is rare, in my experience. Instead, we all want to make excuses—explain how something wasn’t our fault, describe the extenuating circumstances, minimalize the damage, or come right out and blame someone, something else. In truth, we ourselves don’t want to admit that we may not be the people we want to be, and so we will go to great lengths to preserve the illusion of perfection, confidence, and success. At another point in the article, Gawande recognizes a reason why the broader use of coaches by professionals may well not catch on, in spite of its clear value: “The greatest difficulty, though, may simply be a profession’s willingness to accept the idea. The prospect of coaching forces awkward questions about how we regard failure.” Here is the rub, as far as I’m concerned. No one wants to admit failure—ever, under any circumstances.
I get this, of course—I don’t want to fail any more than the next over-achiever; but at the same time, I have learned the value of a good mentor. I was offered the prospect of a mentor when I started teaching at Gettysburg, and the experience was really valuable for me. It was hard at first, to share stories from the classroom of things I didn’t think were working, things I knew I could and should be doing better, with someone whom I really admired—both as a person and as a professor—but I found the whole process was amazing. Not only did I learn techniques and tools to help me be a better teacher, scholar and colleague, but I also benefited from the regular practice of talking about my mistakes, asking for help, and realizing I have lots to learn. That’s the practice of humility I was describing earlier, and it doesn’t come easily for me. I don’t think it comes easily for many of us. But, I found that practicing humility in one area of my life made it easier to do in other areas of my life, and I like to think my relationships are better for it. It’s a work in progress.