Education

Humility is key to career success

Self-confidence and humility are not mutually exclusive characteristics. It's good to be great at what you do, but you also must realize that you don't know everything there is to know.

Self-confidence and humility are not mutually exclusive characteristics. It's good to be great at what you do, but you also must realize that you don't know everything there is to know.

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TechRepublic Senior Editor Sonja Thompson recently interviewed one of our IT Leadership bloggers, John McKee. (Here's the podcast if you want to take a listen.)

One of the questions Sonja asked John was if he'd ever met anyone who was truly unemployable. His response was no, he hadn't. He said that everyone is employable, but that some people just need to accept constructive criticism and incorporate tips for increasing their employability.

That statement tied in with something I read on the Web the other day, that the most important characteristic for career success is humility.

[Humility: A modest opinion or estimate of one's own importance, rank, etc.]

I have to say I agree wholeheartedly with that statement. Now, before you all come charging after me with flaming torches and wooden spikes and yell about how all along I've been spouting the career benefits of self-confidence, let me explain.

First of all, confidence and humility are not mutually exclusive. You can be ultra confident about your skills, but you can also understand that you don't know everything there is to know.

As a hiring manager, I want the most qualified person. But I also want someone who is willing to learn about how things are done in my shop, someone who is willing to listen to reasons for doing things differently than they've been used to. That flexibility or lack thereof could mean the difference between you -- a person at the top of your field -- and someone with less experience but who is humble enough to be open to opinions and ways of doing things differently. I don't want to have to fight a staffer every inch of the way on every project that comes up because he refuses to admit that there is any other way than his way. And most interviewers can sense attitude in a candidate if they sense nothing else.

Years ago, there was a parody song making the rounds called "It's hard to be humble [when you're perfect in every way]." It lampooned the obnoxious people who stick to their self-delusions despite all cues to the contrary. But there are people who take self-confidence to a level that alienates those around them. Don't be one of them.

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About

Toni Bowers is Managing Editor of TechRepublic and is the award-winning blogger of the Career Management blog. She has edited newsletters, books, and web sites pertaining to software, IT career, and IT management issues.

45 comments
Tink!
Tink!

I agree humility really does help. I've learned and grown a little more with each job I've had. I know what I know, and am very confident in what I know, but I know I can ALWAYS know more. :D

boolsea
boolsea

After 40+ years in the industry, I sometimes think I know a bit about computers and computing. Whenever I get this way, I do two things, 1) I read the following (which I have on my wall and carry with me for these (rare and geting rarer) occaisions): Among the innumerable mortifications which waylay human arrogance on every side may well be reckoned our ignorance of the most common objects and effects, a defect of which we become more sensible by every attempt to supply it. Vulgar and inactive minds confound familiarity with knowledge and conceive themselves informed of the whole nature of things when they are shown their form or told their use; but the speculatist, who is not content with superficial views, harasses himself with fruitless curiosity, and still, as he inquires more, perceives only that he knows less. (Samuel Johnson, The Idler, Saturday 25th November, 1758) 2) I talk to my collegues, then I see that I only have part of the jigsaw puzzle, I may have the sky, but others have the trees and landscape. Put them together and we all have a better picture. I look for people who say 'I don't know, but I can find out', not some that give a glib and pre-canned answer that, when you press them, lacks depth and understanding. I am the one that 'asks the stupid questions', because I want, and need, to understand. The aim is to spread understanding not to look cool. Knowledge for its own sake is the ulitmate pleasure. If people think you are stupid for asking questions or admitting that you don't understand, that's their failing not yours. Remember, we were all born knowing nothing and as we learn more we know less.

Old Man on the Mountain
Old Man on the Mountain

In your article you said " ...I also want someone who is willing to learn about how things are done in my shop ..." with MY in italics. Doesn't sound very humble to me. I'd like to see an article written that admonishes management to exercise humility. None of us has a lock on technical or business knowledge. And ditto for handling people or difficult issues. But too often I've seen management demonstrate an arrogance that makes me cringe. Technologists often understand business needs, best technology practices, and how to successfully run a project, yet we are often rebuffed and left to suffer the consequences of managers who believe that power and wisdom are synonymous. So I think the sword cuts both ways, and IT management should swallow a large dose of humility before handing us the bottle.

Tony Hopkinson
Tony Hopkinson

Most of the time humility will at least convince others you can't do something, too much of that and you'll start to believe them. Humble people don't get opportunities for enhancement and challenge they get the same 'crap' they were doing yersterday. Sod humble. Believe in yourself, persuade others to believe in you, grasp the opportunities their belief provides, wring success from them and vindicate the trust they have in you and that which you have in yourself. Success breeds success, humility is sterile.

Photogenic Memory
Photogenic Memory

Just imagine if Mighty Jabba was your boss! You definitely couldn't tell him you "didn't" know something. If you did; it might be a one-way trip to the Sarlacc Pitt, LOL!

uberg33k50
uberg33k50

I think that it used to be true but I believe that in this day and age humility will get you left behind, demoted or fired. The only place where being a "nice guy" gets you any where is in the movies. In 2008 most people think they did a good job by coming into work at all. If they actually do something they think they are wonderful and proceed to tell everyone just how wonderful they are and the boss buys it too. They are considered brillant even though they cannot write an intelligent email or solve a simple math problem. Humility on the other hand assures you that you will stay right where you are at the bottom. You will get loads of work dumped on you because you are intelligent and work hard. You will be taken advantage of at every opportunity. You will be working the long late hours while the self proclaimed "superstar" is out having drinks with the boss. So sad it has come to this.

dt_luke
dt_luke

If more business professionals and people in general practiced humility instead of Egoism or the act of being Egotistical so much more could be understood and accomplished. Knowing you are one of the best in your field is a lot different then saying your the best in your field.

patrickkabissel
patrickkabissel

This is just to agree with Toni Bowers by saying in other words that : it is good to have skills for working but it is also important for others to have pleasure to work with you. If you are not humble, most of times it becomes a problem to work in a company unless you are in contact only with machines !!

memman
memman

You have got to be kidding right? The interview is totally separate from the job. HR does not work with you in your department (most of the time). They are out looking for the best candidate for the position they are interviewing for. Not some mamzy pamzy idiot that is willing to sell himslef/herself short. They want the best! On another note... it also depends on the position. In a technical environment respect is everything. I'm not condoning the know-it-all attitude. I'm saying: Management needs to know what they are doing and also needs to present the atmosphere that they know what they are doing sometimes even if they don't. On the other hand, if you are lower in the ranks, you'd be foolish to come off looking like or acting like you know everything and better than the boss. A good manager not only knows that he doesn't know everything, he asks the right questions in a way that doesn't make him look like an idiot to his subordinates and a technician asks the right questions to give the information to the manager so that he doesn't look stupid either (either way). Words are critical. Communication is key. You could say "when I look at you time stands still" or "your face could stop a clock." Both say the same thing but in totally different ways. I think this is one of those areas that it's kind of like "Don't ask, Don't tell." Don't present yourself as if you know everything. But don't talk as if you don't know whats going on or who's in charge.

pmaina2000
pmaina2000

I think a distinction should be made here. Some people expect 100% submission and call that humility. A culture of dominance/submission is a terrible thing in the workplace. When you demand humility, ask yourself if you're really looking for submissiveness! Humility is a virtue - and, as such, it should NOT come at the price of Self-respect. If there is an alternative - those presenting it should be ready to defend it when challenged. The experienced Pro wants to get-it-right-first-time, and move on... unless of course he's mentoring the team in which case its ok to slow down, take risks and try new things. In today's competitive environment, humility must be switched ON and OFF based on circumstances. 1. Dont miss an opportunity to shine and take credit for genuine excellence in tasks assigned solely to you as an *Individual* (no team involved). Make it easy for management to spot the true high flyer - otherwise the "faker" (and there's always one) will shine for you. 2. In teams, always share overall credit with the entire team (some aspect of humility). 3. Also share credit with a few people who probably don't deserve - but who you might need in future. You will of course have already asked them for advice on some non-essential item to make it look like they chipped in i.e. learn the politics of credit (faking humility can be a virtue). 3. Be sensitive to others such that you can back down / slow down a little (even when you are right!)to avoid hurting someone's feelings. Especially your Juniors! e.g. You could play down your abilities when performing group activities so that everyone shines - especially when big bosses are looking. I guess this is where the virtue of genuine humility really shines! My 2 cents :-)

wmlundine
wmlundine

I do not agree. Having spent some time unemployed while raising my child I have spent time in the AFDC offices. Without specificity let me say that, "You have no idea!" Let me assure you that there are some who are not mainstream employable. Moreover; 100% employment is not possible in the US. In some cases humility is not enough and humiliation is counterproductive.

HAL 9000
HAL 9000

Works the other way too Toni. I can remember one person who applied for a job at a place where I was working at the time and because they openly said that they didn't know something the person from HR shelved their application. I guess here it really depends on who is running the interview going through the motions of sorting who they think that the person who has the Finial Say on who gets employed will want. Personally I totally agree with you as those who come off knowing it all are from my limited experience fresh out of school and are the ones who know very little [b]Real World Things[/b] where as those who admit to not knowing it all are the better experienced ones who I want to have working in my department. Col

Project Manager
Project Manager

Yes i'm talking about those HR/Senior managers who would ask an interviewee that how would they rate themself for certain skill on a scale of 1-5. If answer is anything below 5 they'll make a mental note (or may say out loud) "Oh you are not confident about your skills", Or may think "If this guy can't rate himself high enough, why should we". Similarly that "Give your 3 weaknesses question" is always mis-interpreted and IF you are actually open and honest about your mistakes, they'll simply screw you up!!! :(

jmgarvin
jmgarvin

You can be confident AND humble. Tell me Tony, do you know everything about every IT you may possibly encounter? Now, to add to that, could you LEARN a new app if it were presented to you? Confident and Humble: Answer No and yes. Humble and a door mat: Answer no and mumble like Milton Confident and cocky: Answer yes and act like the person is stupid for asking

Tony Hopkinson
Tony Hopkinson

when you don't know something Simply add yet to it. Course if that's how a for loop works and you got taken on as coder. :p

bamyclouse
bamyclouse

Fakers have mastered the art of making the boss think they are indispensable while contributing nothing of real value to the organization. But they contribute to the self esteem of the boss somehow. They stay, the intelligent, hard worker gets the shaft and often is shown the door - often from being blamed for the faker's errors. The faker is generally not terribly intelligent at the work - or if they are, they prefer to scam someone instead of working. They're a sort of Einstein of emotional and social intelligence and work the boss. By the time the boss realizes he or she has been played (if they ever catch on at all), they are too ashamed to just fire the faker and admit that listening to them was a bad idea, so nothing changes. Think about it: There are CONTESTS for the worst boss! But how many GOOD boss stories do you hear? When you do hear about a good boss, what do you hear? How quickly they moved on to a different position, voluntarily or not.

Dr_Zinj
Dr_Zinj

They say that 80% of success is just showing up. They also say that genius is 90% perspiration, and 10% inspiration. They also say the squeaky wheel gets the grease. There isn't a man or woman on the planet that can know it all and do it all when it comes to I.T. It IS however, possible to have some knowledge of all areas. Which is why I'm a stong advocate of higher education, and technical courses. What counts is if you have the ability to quickly pickup the essential skills for the current job in a short time. You have to prime the pump before you can get it to work. There isn't a single aspect of I.T. that I can't learn to do in a week, and do well in a couple more. I got my last job by walking into the interview and telling the interviewer that with the task set for the job description it was unlikely for them to ever find anyone with all of the requirements. I told them what I could do, pointed out the couple of areas I wasn't familiar with, and gave them an estimate of how long it would take me to get proficient in them. Since the proficiency time was considerably less than the time they could expect to find a "perfect" candidate (and much shorter than they'd already been searching), I got hired and the rest was history.

jmgarvin
jmgarvin

I admit, I can be a noobcakes sometimes. I can also over think problems. A prime example comes to mind. The other day I needed to create a database with the same schema, but not the data, as another db. I realized I hadn't the slightest how to do the task without making a huge chore of it. So, I walked over a couple of cubes and said: "Hey, how do I make a copy of a db structure and not the data to another db?" Not only did I get the answer in less than a minute, but I was able to do my job and be more efficient because I ASKED SOMEONE. This: A) Makes more look more intelligent when I'm able to solve hard problems B) Makes me more efficient C) Makes people realize that if I'm not afraid to look like a noobie, then they can come to me and ask stupid questions as well. It's a virtuous circle!

Forum Surfer
Forum Surfer

I've been advancing in my career throughout my entire life. I've never been cocky nor arrogant. I always do my best to remain humble while retaining self confidence. I have no problem asking questions, asking for help or admitting I may or may not be up to speed on a particular subject. Even if it doesn't get me anywhere in my career, I feel humility is a virtue in both your professioal and personal life. If you aren't humble, you are either arrogant or emo. There is no middle ground. No one likes arrogant people other than other arrogant people. If someone feels otherwise, it is a free country! I could care less. But cockiness and arrogance will make a difference on people around you. As for me, I'll keep my humility and the ability to look at myself in the mirror when I get home tonight.

jmgarvin
jmgarvin

I'm tired of interviewing candidates that are clueless, but talk big smack. I'm tired of the concept that you have to know it all. It's irritating. I know I'm good at what I do. I also know that I don't know everything...

pmaina2000
pmaina2000

I have been in plenty of meetings where everone is afraid of "looking stupid". Such meetings are hilarious. It takes more time to idnetify the problem - because everyone wants to ask "intelligent sounding questions" rather than the real issues on hand. Then resolution had to gound in circles - everyone trying to show that they are "not stupid" and do not need to learn anything new. Most of the time it takes more than twice the effort to get a simple task done - and usually the "intelligent sounding problem" rather than the REAL problem is resolved. Ultimately no one wants to own up that something is amiss (lest they look stupid). So the Emperor keeps walking around NAKED! (what emperor? Google it)

makkh
makkh

I agreed. My previous team lead (now become assistant Manager) does carried such characteristic who willing to listen to other input, allow junior to try & decide, most importantly he's willing to share the honor with all team members during compliments from superior.

cmaritz
cmaritz

... an important distinction, pmaina, thanks for bringing it up. I like your points, particularly the last 2 which are perhaps counter-intuitive, but still important and, to my mind at least, define the real leaders - that ability to just let other people get the credit ... sometimes even if they don't totally deserve it as you say ... humility AND grace ... imagine THAT ...

toni.bowers_b
toni.bowers_b

You are absolutely right. There is a time and place for humility AND to much of either confidence or humility can get you in trouble. I should have emphasized that point. Too much humility can give people the impression that you don't have any skills necessary. In other words, they believe your "PR."

bobbycornetto
bobbycornetto

While I agree that 100% submission is ridiculous, submission is still an important act of humility. Example: I make suggestions for network infrastructure changes including necessary hardware. My boss asks whether we could go with a less expensive router. I explain that we could, but the one suggested is the least expensive option that will fully support the predetermined requirements and that going with the less expensive option will have performance consequences. He chooses the less expensive path. I've disagreed, stated my case, and now I submit to my boss and implement what he has decided on. The one thing I'll say about scenarios like this is to document them via email! "You never told me that!" is something I hate hearing in such a circumstance.

choco_mamma99
choco_mamma99

Well I must be the odd one then! I just graduated and I KNOW that I DON'T KNOW everything. I can tell you what areas I am strong in and what I'm not but I would not assume to know everything.

JamesRL
JamesRL

I'm nowhere near cocky, its not in my nature. I am fairly self confident, but not boastful. About 6 years ago, I was interviewing for a psoition I was well qualified for. Out of 400 applicants, 4 of us were interviewed. I thought I had the job. I didn't. When I spoke with one of the interviewers and asked for feedback, she said, "you were very qualified, and the test we gave you scored well. If there hadn't been an exceptional candidate, you would have been a fine fit in our organization. YOU COULD SELL YOURSELF A LITTLE MORE." In my current job, I find a little humility goes a long way. My company sells a huge software application, and I dont' know all the ins and outs. I have a broad knowledge. Its is easier to admit I need help than to pretend I know more than I do. I am also happy to amdit that I'm not perfect. My boss seems to appreciate the honesty as do most of the staff. James

411
411

I think one of the tricks to career success is that you have work very hard to live up to your ego and at the same time work equally hard at being humble so people like you.

.Martin.
.Martin.

what if your three weaknesses are actually something good for the company e.g., work too hard

Tony Hopkinson
Tony Hopkinson

unless you've already claimed you don't need to. I'm very careful about what I put myself forward for. If it was a coding job and I had a concrete description of the requirement. IE it wasn't invent an AI, control a matter transporter, or make windows secure then yes. I do firmly believe I know enough to get the job done. Including those places where I'm definitley going to have to ask. Bumping into my own ignorance is not a new thing for me. Sometimes I know I don't know, sometimes I find out I didn't know after all If you don't know you don't know, or you won't admit at least to yourself you don't know, you can't learn. However I see no value in walking around letting people know how much I don't know, they don't pay me for that.... So 'privately' I'm humble, especially seeing as those who are humble in public tend to be very arrogant about it.... I know for a fact, if I went to an interview and answered lots of questions with I don't know, or maybe. I would never have got the jobs I've had. All IT people are experts to the non-technical, it's a rule.

Tony Hopkinson
Tony Hopkinson

isn't arrogance, it's just dumb. Knowing enough to believe you can learn the rest is not arrogance. Appreciation of your own ignorance is not humility. I'm sure I come across as arrogant, perhaps even cocky. I certainly don't have a problem looking in my mirror of a morning. That's a frightening experience not an embarassing one. If you and I were going for a task that we were both self confident enough to believe we could do. I say yes, you say maybe... Who's going to get the opportunity to prove themself? Humility is often percieved as weakness. So know you have to learn but assume you can, is my maxim.

Forum Surfer
Forum Surfer

I can't STAND working with people that are cocky. I'm the first to admit when I enter into unknown territory and I could use some help or consultation. I currently have an employee working in a position subordinate to myself that insists on telling me how he could do his job better and more efficiently if I did things differently. I've tried to explain that he doesn't get to see "the big picture" from his perspective. I explained that if things were different I would agree with him 100%. Of course this guy also doesn't understand why I don't incorporate the room number into the last octet of the ip address. If I did do that I'm still unsure what to do about cubicles (127.0.0.1 & 1/2?)and room 255. :)

dtrnelson
dtrnelson

Years ago a lady wrote in Readers' Digest that she was heading home from work and found herself in a lonnnng line of cars on a 4-lane. As she pulled out to pass the 10 or so cars, she pretty quickly saw a highway patrol car leading the pack. She double-and-triple-checked her speed, and decided that she ~could~ pass him at Just the speed limit which she did. And just as she cleared his front end, the lights came on and he pulled her over. The smug looks of the "submissive" (to use a word from other posts) were almost unbearable. However, the officer walked up to her car with a grocery bag and asked if she was headed home. When she said "Yes," he asked if she would mind taking along the ice cream he'd bought for his family just before he got called to do a second shift. She happily agreed. He said, "I decided to give it to the first person with guts enough to pass me..." Obligatory to add: YMMV.

toni.bowers_b
toni.bowers_b

Oh my gosh, that "afraid to look stupid" phenomenon is the bane of my existence. I've been in meetings where someone will ask a question that they don't even want an answer to just to show that they are "invested." What a complete waste of time.

memman
memman

Better to be thought a fool than to open your mouth and remove all doubt. If asked directly it may be best to answer by asking a question to clarify. You can always say something like "I'd like to hear what (pick someone you think would have the answer) would say on this subject." OR If it's your boss... "I'm more interested in your view sir! It's a "Kiss up" I know, but, it works. I like what the other writer said about turning it off and on. It is necessary!

JamesRL
JamesRL

I know some senior managers who play dumb. They act like they don't understand the technical details or the background of the issue, and they ask the staff to explain it to them. That usually results in a more rationale disucssion than a confrontation. James

pmaina2000
pmaina2000

So what are your 3 major weaknesses? This is one of those "please lie to me" interview questions. You put a candidate in a corner expecting him/her to disqualify himself or herself. Not gonna happen! One alternative: Simply ask the candidate to tell you stories of past projects / experiences, or ask for their view on how to resolve solve certain problem scenarios. If you are good at listening, you will get the list of weaknesses without asking a "please lie to me" question.

Tony Hopkinson
Tony Hopkinson

stupid question Some times I get so busy I forget to eat. :p

Tony Hopkinson
Tony Hopkinson

The falling down point of being a cocky know it all, is at some point people are going to discover that you shouldn't be cocky because you don't. If that happens instead of tempering your own arrogance with a bit of humility, people will do it for you. Every confident claim you spout gets suffixed with well he lied his ass off last time. Being overly humble means you suffix every claim you make with , but I may be wrong. Now it would be nice if the non technical understood what being wrong meant, how wrong, how long will it take to find out if your are, what will be the impact, how can we approach the task to reduce the risk.... You know the at least internal dialog anyone but an arrogant fool would hold. Will externalising that dialog no matter the 'answers' be used to stop you right in your tracks is the question. Being too humble means opportunities will be snatched from your grasp and probably given to the arrogant fool who says confidently "Oh that's easy" I'd tell you "I haven't a clue",I'll tell a good manager. Not HR though. A good hiring manager, well the pitch is everything in that situation. My own policy,is to get them to talk about how they would approach the problem. If the answer indicates they haven't really thought about it, then I'd err towards arrogant given I was feeling confident.

jmgarvin
jmgarvin

If I went into an interview with a lot of "I don't knows," then I'm not qualified. However, if I was asked something that I did't know out of a laundry list...Then I am qualified, but I don't know.

Tony Hopkinson
Tony Hopkinson

If you do weaken and decide to give him a kicking put one in for me. Usually that problem is only works with IE, which is just as cowardly from an intellectual point of view, but at last you get a bigger audience and can justify it on those terms.

Forum Surfer
Forum Surfer

Management requesting you to be humble sounds like an over bearing act. I agree, sounds as if he or she is asking for submission. Sometimes it's easy to be mistaken as an arrogant person, especially if you are helpful. Some people I've worked with simply don't have it in them to work with a project openly, especially if they are clueless. Just offering help or guidance to some people makes them feel belittled because they like to think they've already been there or done that. You ended up getting bogged down in choosing from a variety of means to get to the same end. Ah yes, the recruiter type you speak of. I have a developer that refuses to make any app work outside of firefox. With over 3000 pc's/laptops inside and 100's of outside vpn clients I don't think it's too much to ask to make it work with firefox, safari and IE6/7. But every single time I remind him of the sheer number of clients, he actually calls me an arrogant m$ fanboy and a management wannabe. I swallow my pride and work with the guy regardless of the fact that I'd like to beat with a puffin, make him swallow an ipod and leave him unconcious wearing a vista hat. Maybe that's a bit extreme but his sarcastic, arrogant comments on my non-coding skills and programming iignorance gets to me. I'm not a programmer, my badge says network specialist/project management and I always admit that I know jack about coding, but I'll do whatever it takes to make things go as smooth as possible....short of forcing one single browser across my entire network.

Tony Hopkinson
Tony Hopkinson

But a management head saying I need to be humble usually means I need to be submissive. When I say humility is percived as weakness, essentially I mean you could easily end up doing a poor job of selling yourself. What to you and I is a perfectly acceptable proviso, can look like no can do to the non technical. Like the recruiter types who think because you haven't used version 5 of so an so you are a complete newbie.

Forum Surfer
Forum Surfer

I can agree with that statement and everything else in your post. That doesn't sound like arrogance. I always give a positive affirmation that I can handle the task at hand. Suppose we were working together on a project. Let us assume I'm unfamiliar with the subject matter. Let's say I waste the first 3 days familiarizing myself with the subject matter and avoiding you instead of just having a discussion and moving foward in a matter ofminutes or maybe just a couple of hours. That seems more like arrogance to me. Not knowing everything and realizing that fact displays a degree of humility, while knowing that you can learn it displays confidence. Both are great and admirable qualities. That guy with all 27 of his accreditations in his 3 page email signature is usually arrogant. :) I've never ran across a competent manager that viewed humility as a weakness. There's a fine line between humility and submissiveness. It is possible to be humble and confident. If you're saying you're arrogant you need to try a little harder at it, lol. And for the record, basking at my reflection is no walk in the park either! :)