Humility

Subtitle: Get over yourself. Great business ideas are usually created by others. Are you ready to receive them?

Humility

(Source: Flickr)

IF you counsel a young child (or grown adult) on the merits of humility, we will not raise an eyebrow. Humility is an admirable quality and has an endearing appeal, much like a puppy dog or a baby in a bassinet.

We approve, and quickly move on.

The lip service paid to the benefits of humility is widespread, and is not just a product of a secular market-based economy. When your author was in high school, his headmaster (a religious fellow) expounded the virtues of pride in oneself and pride in the school. This could have been taken as a friendly suggestion but, hold on a minute Father, “isn’t pride one of the 7 deadly sins?” 

When challenged on his teachings the cleric promptly clarified that by pride he merely meant “self-respect”, even though the word “pride” is more commonly understood to mean “a feeling of special pleasure in one’s own achievements and the achievements of ones close associates”.

So what!?, you might be thinking, what is so bad about deriving special pleasure from your achievements and the achievements of colleagues?

The problem is a subtle one, easily missed, and if you are a business leader or an entrepreneur it could prove costly over the course of a long life.

The reality is that the world now contains more than 7 billion people and, as a result, more likely than not, the really great ideas that will be able to transform your life and your business will be invented by complete strangers.

Harbouring a special pleasure for your own ideas or the ideas of your firm is problematic because it goes hand in hand with an aversion to the ideas of other people, you know, the other 6.999 billion of them.

A disdain for “foreign breakthroughs” is a prevalent trait, so much so that behavioral economists like Dan Ariely have given it a name. They call it “the not invented here bias”.

The problem is that people become attached to their own inventions, and are therefore inclined to disregard the work of others. This happened to Thomas Edison when he disregarded Nikola Tesla’s invention of alternating current as a form of electrical power.

It can also happen to you.

In an apparent response to this problem, prolific blogger Seth Godin has encouraged people to steal his ideas. He says that he is fine with people taking his ideas because if you adopt the good ones and build on them then you will be better off, he won’t be worse off, and so society will be richer overall.

His appeal is both helpful and at the same time problematic.

It is helpful in the sense that when you encounter a good idea you should adopt it. You should remain open to good ideas and when you have the good fortune to find one, try to have the good sense to know it. As we learnt last week, it is entirely natural for people and organisations to learn from experience.

At the same time, his request for us to steal his ideas is problematic.

We have two objections.

Firstly, by encouraging people to “steal his ideas” Seth is implying that the ideas he shares are a form of property, his property. While it is true that his form of words are protected by copyright, and rightly so, the ideas that those words convey are not. Ideas are not property, and they are certainly not his.

A good idea is freely available to anyone who has the good judgement to see it and the humility to take it up.

He then further muddies the water by asking us to “steal his ideas”. In doing so he is making the same mistake that we are specifically trying to avoid. Namely, attachment to our ideas based merely on the fact that we came up with them.

Great ideas can come from anywhere, and they invariably do: young children, taxi drivers, grand parents, or fierce industry rivals.

Some of Seth’s ideas are great, but others of them are less so.

By fostering a sense of balanced humility we can ready ourselves to receive good ideas, rather than basing our fondness for a new idea on our affinity for the person who came up with it.

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