Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Humility from the front

The man had just finished one of the best colloquium talks of the year. He stood at the bottom of dozens of rows of amphitheater seating with a 40-foot projection screen behind him. His presentation had finished as impressively as the rest of it had been. He had done his job really well! And he was humble.

As much as I enjoyed his presentation, I was struck most by what he said when he was finished. "I would be happy to take questions, if I am allowed." A few speakers in the same situation may not have even been open for questions. Almost every other speaker would have assumed that questions were "allowed" and in fact something to which they were entitled. But this speaker did not take that chance for granted.

In a research office, expressions of humility are not necessarily common. Every once in a while, a colleague may light-heartedly defer credit on a project or insist with a laugh that someone else is "doing the real work." But on the whole, the standard is to assert one's capabilities and accomplishments, even in comparison with another.

The nature itself of the work makes bearing humility all the more difficult. In fact, there may even be practical impediments. In order to be effective as a researcher, one must to an extent exercise a competitive spirit, seeking to find solutions that are better than the solutions that have been uncovered before. But it does not seem that this paradigm excuses an absence of humility.

This speaker, therefore, was all the more inspiring, as he displayed genuine humility. I was challenged to consider: In my office and in my work, how can I too exhibit subtle but genuine humility?

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