False modesty: behavior in which a person pretends to have a low opinion of his or her own abilities or achievements (Cambridge English dictionary)
Have you ever seen a performance that was really, truly amazing, and then you saw the person afterwards and told them so, and they responded with something like:
- You’re just saying that
- Oh, come on, anyone could do that
- Please, X was so much than better than me
But they were good. You know it, and you know that they know it too. And their rejection of your praise/acknowledgement of their accomplishment rings false, and annoys you.
I just finished reading Glennon Doyle’s Untamed, and at one point, she describes having a conversation with Oprah Winfrey (the book does a lot of name-dropping) during which Ms. Doyle downplays her accomplishments as just being lucky and around the right people, to which Oprah (also a bit of a name-dropper) says,
“Don’t do that. Don’t be modest. Dr. Maya Angelou used to say, ‘Modesty is a learned affectation. You don’t want modesty, you want humility. Humility comes from inside out.'” p.286, Untamed
We’re told we should be modest, we shouldn’t brag, but instead credit our success to sheer dumb luck, being in the right place at the right time, etc. .
But that’s a load of hooey.
What is humility? Specifically, what is confident humility? (TBH, I thought it was a term I just made up while writing this, but … I was wrong!) According to Vinita Bansai, in her article on Confident Humility: Paradox of Successful Leadership:
“Confident humility is the confidence in a leader’s ability to make the right decision while acknowledging that they need others to do it right. It’s knowing what they don’t know and having trust in what they do. It’s having faith in their strengths, while also being aware of their weaknesses. It’s accepting that they don’t have the required knowledge, but enough confidence in their ability to acquire that knowledge.”
I strongly recommend reading this article – the 20 traits of a leader with confident humility are truly inspiring. And the word “modesty” isn’t mentioned once.
As performing artists, we need to recognize that we need others – teachers, collaborators, composers, playwrights, the audience – in order to be successful at what we do, but also that we have the strength to do it. (Sounds kind of like, “It takes a village,” doesn’t it?)
We had that confidence when we were children, until people told us not to be so high-and-mighty, too big for our britches, think we’re so special (all of this is being written by me said with a strong Milwaukee accent). When we were children, we thought we could grow up to be:
- An astronaut
- A movie star/celebrity
- A firefighter
- A professional athlete
- A superhero
- President of the United States
And then we set our sights lower as reality sets in (or we realize we’re not good at science, afraid of fire, can’t actually fly or leap tall buildings in a single bound). And maybe we can’t do those things on our own, but we can do variations of them with help from those around us who can, if only metaphorically, leap tall buildings in a single bound. At least in our field.
Know your strengths and your weaknesses. Know who can help you build upon the former and minimize the latter.
Know what you are capable of and what you might be capable of.
Know who you are and take strength in that. There’s nothing wrong with pride – it is a feeling of satisfaction at your achievements.
And when someone tells you that you did a great job, don’t diminish their accolades with false modesty. Just say:
Now go put on that Batman t-shirt.