To know that you do not know is the best. To think you know when you do not is a disease. Recognising this disease as a disease is to be free of it.
Stop, stop. Do not speak. The ultimate truth is not even to think.
Blessed are the meek: For they shall inherit the earth.
The idea of humility being the uppermost virtue in human affairs is one that’s recurred endlessly throughout history. Almost all enduring religions and a great many practical philosophies end up here — all different paths with seemingly the same destination.
This idea was acknowledged by the Dali Lama on one of his visits to Britain, when he encouraged people not to convert to Buddhism, but to stay with their own religion; as they are simply different cultural vehicles with which to communicate the same essential idea.
Of course, humility remains a highly regarded trait in modern secular society — and yet I would argue that, for the most part, we don’t in fact “get it”.
We see humility, first and foremost, as a sort of brand of “niceness”. An appealing way to behave, and perhaps an emotionally healthy way to think, but not something with obvious practical benefits.
This is an error. Humility is not an “aww shucks” process of deflecting praise, or system of giving others their due. Humility is in fact a model of behaviour which can materially influence our actions in every path of human endeavour. A person who operates according to the principles of humility is not simply a “nicer” version of other people. They are rather a person who does different things; who operates by a different playbook.
In short humility is not an attitude, but a strategy.
And I would go so far as to suggest that, at root, it’s the only strategy.
To distinguish strategic humility of Lao Tzu and co from the garden variety “attitudinal humility”, I am going to refer to it as “radical humility” — humility that spills over into radical behaviour.
I first noticed the usefulness of radical humility in my own strategic practice with Basic Arts, where I help set the strategic direction for companies to follow in the market.
What I discovered here was that effective strategies were not “created” by me or the other individuals involved in the business. Instead they were “chosen” by the actual business itself, and that our job was simply to realise what direction it was that the business “wanted” to take, and then to get out of its way.
This might sound a bit woo-woo, but all it means is that when you release a product into a market it will always try and follow the path of least resistance to success — and this path might be one very different to the one you anticipated. For example people might use it in a different way than you expected; it might perform better in some distribution channels than others; it might appeal to a different audience than intended; certain product variants may succeed and certain ones may fail — etc. etc.
A good strategy is one which looks at these tendencies and rather than fighting them, embraces them. You wanted to make a cereal which appealed to young professionals but in reality you’re doing better with families? Just go with it. It’s not fundamentally up to you; it is instead a function of an infinite number of factors coming together and leading to a natural “fit” for the business where it performs most effectively.
Once you’ve found your strategy in this way (and it’s always found, not created), then you can adjust the business so it can follow that path more deliberately. This is summarised by that Dolly Parton quote I’m so fond of “find out who you are, and then do it on purpose”. She did not say “decide who you want to be, and then be it”. That’s not how it works — the decision is not up to you because it’s informed by infinite variables that are outside your control.
This process demonstrates radical humility in action.
You do not choose the right path, the right path is already set by circumstance. Your job is simply to accept it and walk it. If you choose not to accept it, and follow a different path which you prefer, then you will fail, because it is not possible to understand or control all the different variables which will determine what works and what doesn’t. A founder who works “at odds” with their business (an extremely common occurrence) will at best act as an anchor on their business’ progress, or more likely sink it all together. Such behaviour represents hubris, the opposite of radical humility.
Now of course those ancient thinkers weren’t talking about business when they spoke of humility; they were talking about people, and how we conduct our own lives. And here the rules of radical humility are much the same.
Just as we do not choose what is right for a business, so too do we not choose what is right for ourselves.
We are adapted (evolutionarily, by design, however you want to put it) to fit into nature in a prescribed way, just like every other animal.
All wild animals operate according to a certain species-appropriate “template”, from which they do not deviate provided they are left untampered with by humans. Bees collect honey, wolves run in packs, moles dig — and none of them ever question or deviate from these behaviours because, ultimately, they don’t have the ability to do so. They are operating on the natural “auto-pilot”, and as a reward for doing so are blessed with optimal functioning, and fulfilment of their essential nature.
We, on the other hand, being conscious, do have the ability to deviate from our template, as demonstrated by the huge inconsistency of behaviour across our species. Some of us sleep in the day, some sleep at night. Some eat meat, some don’t. Some live in families, some live alone. Some are urban, some are rural. Essentially we do what we like, experimenting with different ways of living which often veer wildly “off-template”, and produce “civilisation” (the opposite of nature) as a by-product.
Radical humility would dictate not rebelling against our nature, but accepting it, and behaving in accordance with its template, just like every other animal.
Animals of course don’t need humility in this way, because it is their default setting; they’re capable of nothing else. Only for humans does humility apply, as it involves laying aside our own plans and pretensions, and accepting what is intended for us — by nature, God, whatever. One could even say that the goal of much ancient and religious thought is for us to reject this independent, conscious, innovative, hubristic side of ourselves, and to return to our “Edenic” animal state.
On a practical level then, this would mean acting — so far as possible — in accordance with the template of this animal. Needless to say doing this perfectly would be impossible, because 1) we all live in environments that are radically removed from our original natural habitat, and 2) in many cases we don’t know precisely what that behaviour would entail.
However in many cases it is quite obvious.
It is clear, for instance, that we are by nature a diurnal animal rather than a nocturnal one. Therefore we can say confidently that we will operate better sleeping by night, and that to do so would be behaviour recommenced by the radical humility strategy. Sure enough, the health drawbacks of doing the opposite are well established so, hey presto, in this instance the strategy stacks up.
In more complex fields the same thing applies. Take diet for instance. On a very basic level we can say that to eat highly processed food (i.e. highly interfered with by humans) is hubristic, and thus goes against radical humility. And, once again, the health drawbacks of such hubris are well established. But, getting less obvious, we could say the same thing about eating three meals per day. Clearly this is a cultural convention of civilisation, not a templated behaviour, and therefore we can assume that it is not the optimal way to eat. Right on cue, a great deal of evidence is currently accumulating which outlines the benefits of intermittent fasting — going for long stretches of time between eating. This is hardly a new discovery as it happens — the Romans considered eating more than one meal a day to be a form of gluttony — but nonetheless acts as a good example of how radical humility operates as an effective strategic principle.
Pushing this example to its logical conclusion (and accepting that we do not know the precise details of templated human eating habits), we might assume that we should be eating sporadically, in fairly large volumes, and only “single ingredient meals” in order to mimic the manner in which we would have found food for most of our evolutionary history.
I am not proposing this as a recommendation; I simply wish to illustrate how radical humility is a practical strategy which can lead to specific ideas, not simply an attitude.
Needless to say, non-humble hubristic strategies can often yield incredible results when viewed in isolation — but they always do so at the cost of various unanticipated side effects. For example you can grow stronger through steroid use than you can in any natural manner, but it will damage you elsewhere. As a business if you have enough money you can probably force through a poor strategy by brute force, but it will damage the balance of the market you operate in and your own company in the long run (most large corporates do this and as such have surprisingly short lifespans). As a society, we can radically increase the volume of food we produce through techniques which compromise our health and that of the environment. There are always hubristic ways to achieve specific outcomes, but they will always come with a price — that is of course the very definition of hubris.
If on the other hand you want the optimal strategy — the one which gets results, and does so without blowing back at you in some unexpected manner — then radical humility is the root that unlocks them all.
There is a reason it has been returned to again and again, across centuries, cultures, and continents. And that is because it is a way of addressing our fundamental, existential flaw as a species: our addiction to acting without understanding the whole picture.
With radical humility, we don’t need to understand the whole picture. It is a shortcut to omnipotent knowledge, with the only caveat being that we won’t know how or why our decisions work — we just know that they will.
If you enjoyed this then I will be exploring specific implications of radical humility via my strategy newsletter “The Way”, which you can subscribe to here: https://mailchi.mp/53e8061f1686/basicarts