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.

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