Learning, Humility, and Confidence

When starting a new job we are tasked with spending a lot of time with Learning. We learn new people, new routines, new procedures, new policies, and new skills. On the one hand, Learning beckons enticingly, welcoming adventure and exploration. On the other hand, Learning repeatedly nudges us in the ribs, uncomfortably reminding us of the limits of our knowledge.

If you and I are anything alike, we want to enter a new job with something in our hands. We want to appear confident and capable. We want to contribute, to be a part of and benefit the team, to offer something new and compelling and fresh. With a desire like that, Learning can seem like an adversary, constantly stopping us and saying, “Excuse me. You can go no further here; you don’t have any of the background information to tackle that project. You’re walking out on thin air!” When facing this antagonistic version of Learning, I tend to step backward, my confidence shaken, looking around to see who else saw Learning put me at bay. Recently, our Morrison team volunteered with Habitat for Humanity, a nonprofit organization that helps provide affordable housing to families in need. Our team had the privilege of painting the inside of a newly-constructed house for a local family to one day call home. I’ve painted houses before; it isn’t terribly complicated. But as we began, our project manager paused me several times to give me tips on how to cover the roller in the paint and which direction to roll along the wall. I confess: my initial reaction included irritation at being directed on so simple a task and humiliation for not performing perfectly. I smiled, nodded, and said thank you, but on the inside my confidence was threatening to take a hike. How can I learn if my confidence keeps getting pulled out from under me?

Thankfully, one of my favorite Bible verses came to mind. Colossians 3:12 urges us to “put on a heart of compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience.” While this verse has brought me many truths at different times, this time the word “humility” stood out to me. What if, I wondered, humility is not the opposite of confidence? What if true confidence starts with humility?

In her article “The Paradox of Leadership: Displaying Humility Alongside Confidence,” Dr. Orly Maravankin says, “Asking for help takes confidence and courage. It is both a display of humility and an act that reinforces humility.” True confidence—teachable confidence, we might call it—starts with the humility of stepping down and saying, “My knowledge is limited; I don’t have all the answers.” But it doesn’t stop there. Teachable confidence takes the next step of embracing Learning and filling in that gap of knowledge, allowing someone else to share their expertise or taking the time to research an unfamiliar topic. If I have confidence without humility, I will plough headlong into all sorts of mistakes, wreaking havoc and probably bogging my team down as I do. But if, as Learning humbles me, I can use that humility to recognize my growth areas and step into them with a teachable outlook, I will become a better asset to my team and, I expect, actually grow my confidence. After all, those painting tips did the trick. Our team had a great time, and by the end of the day the home sparkled with fresh, clean paint. It truly helps to listen to the expert.

Dr. Maravankin defines humility as “not merely a ‘nice to have’ skill, but rather a must have quality for leaders in the 21st century.” We need that balance of humility and confidence. You may or may not consider yourself a leader, but I would expand Dr. Maravankin’s definition to include “all people in the 21st century.” We all want confidence. We all need humility. And we all live in a world of infinite learning potential.

If you’re a veteran in your given field, how can you encourage your new recruits to see Learning as a friend, not an adversary? Can you share a story from your first days on the job? Can you applaud a small task done well? If you’re starting a new venture, can reminding yourself confidence comes after humility help you push forward? Today, give yourself permission to see Learning in her best light, inviting you to greater heights.


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