How to Be Successful: Be Humble

When I was in high school, I was part of a gaming group that included one guy who was arrogant as the day is long.  He thought he was the best thing since sliced bread. Yes, he was intelligent, but he wasn’t attractive or likable, and I couldn’t stand him.  He never treated people as equals– he always seemed to exude an air of “I am better than you.” I think that was the point in my life where I decided I hated arrogance and would fight tooth and nail against it in myself and others.

This became progressively evident to me as I read dozens and dozens of internship application letters.  I could spot arrogant writing from a mile away- I was highly sensitive to it. Whenever I saw an indication of someone who wasn’t humble, I vetoed their application.  After doing many interviews for The Vetducator podcast, humility comes up time and again as an essential part of being a successful veterinarian. Why is humility so important?

  1. Humble people are appreciativeThey realize that any success they achieve is a team effort.  Did you drive to work today? Be appreciative of the people who paved the roads, and the politicians who prioritized infrastructure, and the people who keep the roads safe.  Did a patient have a good outcome? This was due to the receptionist, the technicians, the kennel staff, the doctors, the financiers for the clinic. If you realize you are not the center of the universe, you will appreciate others, and everyone loves to feel appreciated.
  2. Humble people are teachable.  If you believe you already know everything, I can’t teach you anything.  The most humble masters realize they can learn something from the newest apprentice.  I want to teach people who will listen to me, not ignore what I say because they think they know better.  I then need to be humble enough to acknowledge that they may know things that I do not.
  3. Humble people seek help.  I think they are less likely to make mistakes because they consult with their peers, or even subordinates, to come up with a solution to a problem.  There are numerous stories of airplane captains not listening to their first pilot and having a catastrophic accident. The same happens in medicine.  If you think you are the epitome of veterinary medicine, you won’t seek help and I think you will make more mistakes.
  4. Humble people admit mistakes.  This is huge in medicine. Everyone makes mistakes.  The question is: what do you do when you make a mistake?  Do you blame someone else or do you take responsibility for your part?  Humble people tend to do the latter.
  5. Humble people are team players.  The three key characteristics of an ideal team player are a willingness to work hard, emotional intelligence, and humility.  How many times have you heard of a leader or manager doing a terrible job? It’s probably because they aren’t humble. They don’t show appreciation, don’t learn from their mistakes, are inflexible, don’t accept responsibility, and don’t seek help.

At the end of the day, I want to work with someone who displays humility.  They don’t need to be the Dalai Lama, but they need to at least not be arrogant or overconfident.  Almost all the academics with whom I have spoken also speak highly of the value of humility. Practice long, thoughtful self-reflection.  Are you humble? Can you cultivate more humility? If the answer to that last question is “no”, you have failed the humility test. Please don’t apply anywhere I am working.

2 comments on “How to Be Successful: Be Humble

  1. -

    I must disagree with you in that most of the academics in veterinary medicine are incredibly arrogant and foolish. The current ONE HEALTH paradigm being taught in schools seems to place veterinarians as above all other fields of knowledge. This paradigm characterizes veterinarians as knowing more about medicine, food safety, ecosystems and the environment through becoming a veterinarian. Yet , it has been obvious for years that the major shortcoming of veterinary education is the superficial knowledge that comes from trying to cover all of the breadth of the field that fails to adequately prepare veterinarians to know really anything in depth, unless they pursue post-graduate education where they then study a subject in depth for years versus the weeks to months they may have studied it in the DVM program. Wise and humble people tend to understand the scope of what they know and what they do not know. They also have the intellectual humility to learn from others outside their knowledge domains and integrate that knowledge into their domain. Sadly, veterinary medicine is blinded in general by groupthink and illusory superiority that inhibits learning from others with different perspectives that could help solve many of our problems. And despite multiple studies detailing how the profession needs to change and improve since the 1970s, almost no substantial change has occurred in how we train veterinarians other than we get more specialized with post graduate programs for the few rather than improving the training and education of all veterinarians.

    • - Post author

      Thanks for the comment! Veterinary medicine does, indeed, have a long way to go.

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