Like most people with internet access, I spend an inordinate amount of time online for work and for play. While I generally love web-mediated convenience and connection, I notice that the internet feels crowded to me lately. It often feels like being in a virtual airport shopping mall in which everyone is aggressively selling cheap imitations of genuine experience while waiting for their flights.
These days, the internet is littered with social networking wanna-be stars plying their shares in hopes of generating enough publicity to join the contagion of instant celebrities who are curiously celebrated and rewarded for the least notable of talents—merely being famous. There are those who publish every event (however mundane) and every opinion, (however inane) under the impression (however deluded) that everything they share will undoubtedly interest their audiences (however limited).
Others are more strategic in their attention-seeking efforts. As intent on becoming household brands as their corporate counterparts, they relentlessly promote themselves, indulging in every opportunity to garner attention measured in fans, followers, fame and fortune amidst pop-ups, paywalls, and subscriptions.
Like me. Share me. Try me. Buy me.
Perhaps it’s not surprising that a population spoon-fed dollops of self-esteem might be overly enamored with their personage, and prone to suffering delusions of grandeur in which celebrity is a credible, even laudable, profession achievable to every special, gifted person in the land of especially gifted persons. However, this trend isn't limited to those still weaning from regrettable social conditioning. It seems that everyone is clamoring for attention from an audience clamoring for attention.
The allure of celebrity status in the age of personal, portable multi-media has led to online broadcasting behavior that could be characterized as an epidemic of exhibitionism. Even mature adults habitually publish posts to be liked and shared, while simultaneously following the fanfares of others like amateur paparazzi.
Thumbs up, like, fanned and faved. Positive reinforcement and a few hits of dopamine, and we’re hooked. We could do this all day—and some of us do.
Self-commodification and personal branding are all the rage. Self-referencing memes are the ads du jour. Confidence is the new competence. Now that every Tom, Dick, and Harriet can produce, direct, and star in their own reality shows to be broadcast in real-time, world-wide, every activity is potentially noteworthy. You, too, can become a YouTube sensation.
In a global economy supported by accessible technology in which making an appearance is easier than making a living, many rush to stake their claims online in hopes that maybe, with a little luck and a whole lot of likes, dreams can go viral. Unfortunately, the democratization of fame hasn’t led to the democratization of fortune. Popularity doesn't automatically convert to profitability.
Despite our ability to extend our reach online, professional opportunities and incomes for many are rapidly shrinking. Thus, many make do with make-believe, crafting palatable, if not profitable, online realities while the world beyond the screen crumbles. In a culture of celebrity, publicity often boosts egos more than incomes, and pretense is the consolation prize for undiscovered, fading, and fallen stars.
As a human being, I empathize with the need to belong—to be seen, heard, and loved. I suspect that this inherently human need for acceptance and approval, whether we realize it or not, underlies much of our attention-seeking behavior on and offline. Moreover as a small business owner, I am intimately acquainted with the need to promote oneself and one's offerings online.
There's nothing necessarily wrong with attention-seeking and self-promotion, but if that's all we do, even if we do it well, our efforts are likely to earn more condemnation than admiration. After all, the "look-at-me" attention-seeking debatably cute at age three is generally unappealing thereafter.
The quality I notice that consistently separates admirable attention-seeking from insufferable attention-seeking is humility. Humility is the unassuming quality that supports genuine connection and honors the deep interrelatedness beyond our delusions of separation and self-interest. There's a mutuality in humility that is absent in the exclusivity of celebrity. Humility, in my experience, is a mark of maturity and wisdom.
Humble people are self-possessed, not self-enamored. They balance their attention-seeking with attention-giving. Whereas the attention-seeking of celebrity culture screams arrogant insecurity, humble people exude the appealing confidence of those who pay attention to something greater than themselves. While celebrity gives the appearance of greatness, humility is the presence of greatness.
Unfortunately, humility is often absent in public places, virtual or otherwise. Maybe it's a bit quaint in this culture of self-promoting, self-absorbed, self-proclaimed celebrities. Yet, in my experience, the presence of humility is an excellent indicator of whether or not a person is worth my time and attention.
All the best, most interesting and inspiring human beings are humble. Some become celebrities (I think of Audrey Hepburn or John Stewart), but often, humble human beings are relatively unknown, overlooked or overshadowed by their attention-seeking counterparts. Humble people, though rarely rewarded with fame, contribute to a world of goodness and leave a legacy of goodwill that's so much more rewarding and more reward-worthy than mere celebrity.
If you're interested in cultivating a bit more humility, here are seven things I've noticed that humble people do:
Say thank you. Often. Aloud. In public.
Humble people express gratitude. They count their blessings and bless others with their appreciation.
Ask for help.
Humble people understand that no one succeeds without help. If we're lucky, we don't have to ask for the help we receive, but sometimes, we need to ask.
Humble people give credit where credit is due. They acknowledge others for their contributions. They recognize that we're all in this together, and that we don't do it alone.
When I repost a thought or an image on Facebook, I always credit the source or the person who shared the content with me. A friend of mine asked me once why I bother to do so when FB automatically shares that this post is "via" whomever when I share it. My crediting is indeed redundant. However, consciously crediting a person, even on things that seem small, reinforces a personal habit and a collective culture of acknowledgement and appreciation that I would like to foster.
Ask before assuming.
Humble people ask questions without assuming that they have all the answers. As Felix Unger demonstrated quite emphatically in this classic clip from that seventies show (no, not that one), The Odd Couple, “when you ASSUME, you make an ASS out of U and ME."
If we must assume, let's assume that everyone has a valuable perspective, and ask others what they think. Let's ask what, what if, why, how, and why not? Let's ask anyone and everyone---and not just those who support our point of view.
Listen and learn. Be curious.
Humble people are equal opportunity learners. They listen to what people say with the intent to understand and learn. They listen to people even when they don't agree or like what they hear.
If we’re not learning from the people around us, we’re either stupid or perfect. Since most of us are not the latter, let's be smart. Genuine listening is about being interested enough to learn from another person’s perspective and experience. It’s about being open to the possibility that someone might know something that we don’t, and having the courage to change our minds based on what we heard.
Admit you don't know.
Humble people realize that they know something without thinking that they know everything.
Somewhere along the way, I have heard it said that we graduate from college when we think we know everything. We get a master's when we realize that we know something, and we get a doctorate when we realize that we don't know anything and neither does anyone else.
It's ok not to know, and it's more than ok to admit it when we don't.
Say you're sorry.
Admit mistakes. Acknowledge when you harm others. To err is human, and humble people are deeply aware of their humanity.
I once received an apology from a friend. It was a greeting card with an adorable donkey on the front. The message inside began with something like, 'Sorry, I was an ass' followed by a heartfelt, handwritten note enclosed. I don't even remember what she did, but I've never forgotten how I felt when I received that card. I was in awe of her ability to admit her mistake and turn an apology into a funny, witty, wonderful event. We're still great friends.
Cultivating humility won't make us famous, but I suspect that our attention-seeking efforts will be more rewarding and rewarded with a little more humility, and if we do become famous along the way, we'll be famous for something worthy of our attention. I, for one, will like, applaud, and support your humble efforts.