Humility’s a Ponzi Scheme

Humility’s a Ponzi Scheme

Some interesting news trickled into the Slachthuisbuurt last week. Haarlem is following the lead of a number of other Dutch cities and towns facing issues with an overabundance of tourists. Instead of going for quantity, officials here say they will attempt to attract more “quality” tourists.

“Details of what exactly constitutes a tourist of quality are,” as I used to say in the news business, “sketchy at best.” Here’s what we know (shoot me): Segway tours and those multi-person roving beer-cycles have already been banned. But what next? A newly formed squad of Tourism Police (Quality Division) to meet every train coming into town? Will those deemed unworthy get sent to City Hall for a lethal dose of that famous Dutch directness. “Sorry, sir. You simply do not possess enough quality for Haarlem. Return the raw herring sandwich and leave immediately for Hoofddorp. Or Almere.”

That would be humbling, which is exactly where I want to go in this week’s sketch.

I have nothing against humility. In fact, I grew up wallowing in it. I’m not talking about the Augustinian type that supposedly brings you closer to God. Mine was more the Calvinist sort that begins, if I may use a bit of Dutch, with“Hoogmoed komt voor de val.” Pride comes before the fall. In other words, don’t climb too high because someone, most likely yourself, will end up taking you down a peg or two. Better to mute every celebration, and internalize every failure as a glaring personal fault.  

When I got older and began a career in journalism, I brought this along with me. Do the work, do it well, and keep your mouth shut about it. That attitude ensured that very few of the hundreds of pieces I wrote and produced over the years ever left me with a sense of pride, at least one I wanted to share. “Good enough” was as good as I ever let it get. The support structures were the notion that “the work is its own reward,” and the minor league baseball player’s false hope that “this will be my year.”

Eventually, when I moved into management, this became “this will be our year.” The principles of good leadership advise you to put even more pressure on yourself. Now it’s on you to inspire an entire team to do the work and do it well. If a show succeeds, you brush personal praise aside, play down your own role, and give all the credit to others. Failure, however, you should absorb like a sponge until you are soaked clean through, day in and day out. My fault, my fault, always my fault, until you can’t possibly wring it out. That, we are told, is what good leaders do.

“Yeah, I’ll eat that shit sandwich.” Toward the end of my career, that was something I found myself saying multiple times a day. It was an exercise in near constant self-flagellation, made worse by the intense paranoia created in those few moments when someone told me I was actually doing a pretty good job. I couldn’t, I wouldn’t believe it for a second. I couldn’t see any way to incorporate the pride I felt into my own story without making it seem like I was selfish and arrogant. So, I deflected all praise, usually with brutally self-denigrating humor. The truth is that I didn’t take good care of myself, personally or professionally, in those years. And when I left, it didn’t feel like a victory at all, but rather just the absence of a slow-drip poison. 

Many of our notions center on the worldly, and otherworldly, values of remaining humble. Apparently, it makes everything from your basketball team to your church elders incredibly good people. It can automatically bring you closer to both the Hall of Fame and Heaven. But it was something that architect Frank Lloyd Wright said that that really grabbed me: “Early in life I had to choose between honest arrogance and hypocritical humility. I chose the former and have seen no reason to change.”  

I think he was onto something. He figured out that humility, as it is practiced and preached today in many settings, is nothing but a Ponzi scheme. Those above you on your team, or in your church, or in your so-called managerial chain love it when you drink the humility Kool-Aid. It ensures that they don’t have to, and can instead spend their time watching you wallow in your self-flagellating despair while they take credit for your good work. You sponge up all the blame, leaving them plenty of time to humblebrag to their higher-ups. For good measure, they’ll rely on you to preach humility on down the chain, in an effort to keep the entire pyramid from crumbling. A big part of my decision to leave the journalism business entirely was that I had begun to see all this for exactly what it was—an intensely self-destructive doom loop. 

I think that’s why, on my last day in the newsroom, the only thing that occurred to me to say was something very off-brand journalism in general, and me in particular. “Be kind. Be generous. To yourself and everyone else in the newsroom.”  More than a year later, I’m still trying to walk that walk myself. I remind myself constantly that this is, once again, probably not my year, but that’s hardly a reason to beat myself up. I’m trying to accept praise a bit better and to stop making myself the butt of every joke I make. Is the work its own reward? I hope so, because I’m sure as hell not getting paid for writing these sketches. Oh, and yes: I’m officially done eating shit sandwiches. 

I may not be quite ready for honest arrogance, but it’s a start. It seems that I may consider myself a man of quality after all. Maybe, just maybe, they’ll let me stay.

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