This post is a response to Chris Edgar’s The Trouble with Modesty. It’s a great post that I entirely agree with and that I recommend. I also wanted to add to it and what I want to say I think will be longer than a comment. So here’s my take on the benefits of modesty.

Those of us who are introverts are often drawn to a spirituality that values quiet contentment. When I’m in touch with spirit, fretting drops away. I am absorbed in what I’m doing (writing a post, going for a walk, talking to a friend, whatever . . .).

This is an introverted spirituality. Some people seem to equate introversion with spirituality, I try to resist this. A spirituality that doesn’t engage with the world will be irrelevant to most of our lives. The main way this is discussed in the spiritual traditions is under the heading of ‘compassion’. A spirituality worth the name in my view has a place for compassion – which is about engaging with the world and changing it to the benefit of those people (and other sentient life if you are a Buddhist) in it.

There are other more extraverted spiritualities too. There is the notion of the ‘spiritual warrior’ and some martial arts have a spiritual component.

One of the areas of life that is often ignored by spiritual traditions is business. This can be because it is seen as ‘lower’ or ‘evil’ or as ‘secular’ rather than sacred. However, if we want a spirituality that is not a retreat from life but that can be with us in all areas of our lives, then this won’t do. Especially in the West where it is money that is the driving value we need a spirituality that addresses our business activity too.

This is quite a challenge to the introverted kind of spirituality that is most natural to me. And the biggest challenge in the business part of life to this kind of spirituality is in marketing. Marketing is a decidedly extraverted activity: get out there, toot your own horn, tell people what you can do for them etc. (While adding the disclaimer, in the self development space, that it is all up to them.)

An Example: Anthony Robbins
Doing the rounds at the moment is a video (it chews HEAPS of bandwidth and doesn’t have much new to say, though the old stuff it does say is good in many ways) of Tony talking with Frank Kern and John Reese about making money. This is well worth paying attention to: they have all of them made a very great deal of money. Here is my summary of what are the very valuable points made: it is experience that leads people to know they can do more than they previously thought. As you try out some things you can learn, small step by small step, that you can be far more than you thought you were capable of. Step by step you can come to a place of freedom in your life.

It is easy for introverts like me to dismiss this kind of thing as only superficial. [The negative side also comes out when Tony goes into a rant against sceptics and how they lack courage. Well Tony, us sceptics can do rants too – about how it takes courage to face the points made by your critics and not just dismiss them.] But this is too easy. Tony does have content in back of what he says. And those of us who are introverts aren’t exactly averse to rants either. The great value of Tony’s stuff is the place he gives to modelling (copying others). This is the best way to learn any complex behaviour, so long as the person you are modelling can communicate what they are doing. (Tony got this from NLP but Bandura was there first.)

It is not surprising that those who promote marketing (on the internet and elsewhere) are extraverts – and often pretty manic ones. And it is not surprising that the spirituality of these people is an extraverted one. Their values are abundance and possibility and going beyond limits. Negative thinking is disesteemed. All of these are positive values I think. (Though I think the way to move beyond the negative is to embrace it not judge it, but that is a different view to most introverted spiritualities too).

What I want a place for is quiet contentment. Going beyond limits, in the marketing spirituality, is endless, a perpetually unsatisfied ambition. It can even value dissatisfaction. This aspect of this tradition I don’t find at all attractive. This tradition has little place for renunciation (I think it appears as ‘prioritising’ and ‘focus’ – renouncing what doesn’t fit with the first priority; it can be a very reductionist spirituality (as can introverted spiritualities of course), and in the West this means often enough means reduction to money – success = lots of money).

How do I integrate an introvert’s spirituality into an extraverted activity like marketing? My answer is probably an infuriating one: I don’t know, yet. For the last two decades of my life I have been pre-occupied with the question: How do I make my income doing what I love? So far, I haven’t managed to do so. One of my core values is authenticity and there are people who advise being authentic in marketing (I suspect this advice works easily for extraverts, for me it is a bit more complicated).

For me modesty and quiet contentment are valuable. Thinking you are the absolute best in the world is likely wrong (except at being yourself – which may be what is most important). Having a sense of what you aren’t good at can save embarrassment and costly mistakes, and can lead to fruitful win-win collaborations. So I think that modesty has many benefits.

Here are some ideas to about getting more modesty into your experience.
Ask some people who know you well, what you are good at. Thank them; whatever they say (they have taken the time and effort to give you feedback). Then see if what they say fits for you. Focus on your behaviour not your intentions: if you need help with this ask some people who know you well in a variety of situations.

Ask some people who know you well, what they can rely on you for. Thank them, whatever they say. [Don’t dismiss what they say because it is not what you care about most – as I have done. I care about ideas, changing the world, compassion – I was distinctly underwhelmed to hear that people valued my reliability. It took me a while to value the plodding and stubborn part of myself – I now realise that thoroughness may not be the be all and end all, but it can be decidedly useful.]

Ask some people who know you well, what you aren’t so good at. Thank them, whatever they say. Reactions to the feedback can range from, “Well, d’uh! I couldn’t care less about that.” to “But they just don’t get it.” In evaluating this feedback it is especially important to focus on your behaviour not your intentions.

Are there times in your life when you experience contentment? If not, would you like to?

Are you ambitious? Has ambition helped you or brought you misery? Perhaps both. What role would you like ambition to play in your life?

Have you found that modesty has been a friend to you or something that has blocked life for you? I would love to hear your experiences in the comments.

Would you like to feel less stressed?
Could you do with more joy in your life?

The answer is living authentically. Buy the book or sign up for the course now from my Living Authentically website.

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10 Comments to “The Benefits of Modesty”

  1. Evan

    I really like how you distinguish introvert and extrovert spirituality. Not something I’ve considered before.

    Don’t you think that, although one or the other may be dominant, we have both extrovert and introvert in all of us? I tend to think we can access the resources and positive qualities of both rather than having to rely only on the dominant dimension.

    And as for modesty … I wonder if there are two faces. The face we show ourselves and the face we show the world. I believe it’s healthy to have a clear and accurate picture of our strengths and weaknesses. It may not always be appropriate to communicate those to the rest of the world though!

  2. Hi Evan — thanks for this piece. I definitely resonated with what you said about a lot of marketing, and maybe ambition generally, coming from a place of shame or lack — thinking “there’s something wrong with me, and I need to achieve something out in the world to fix it.” And, like I say in my article, I think a lot of “modesty” comes from that place as well — from the assumption that “there’s something wrong with me, and I need to stay quiet and withdrawn so people don’t see it,” or “I need others to see how humble I am for me to be okay.”

    I wonder: what if it’s possible to come from a place of contentment — of “rest” as the Gestalt therapists would say — and for our business activities to be a natural expression of that contentment, as opposed to an attempt to fix our brokenness? If that’s possible, then we can have what you call the introverted spiritual ideal — being content and at rest — and maybe make some money too. What do you think?

  3. Evan says:

    Hi Ian, I agree. We all live in both the outer and inner worlds. Both make up a joyous life. We can’t neglect one and have a satisfactory life in my view. My approach is to be clear about what is dominant for us so that we can then address our problems (mine being dealing with the exterior world – I really could be happy living on a mountain top with a few friends).

    As to modesty. This post was written in response to Chris’s so it is probably is a bit one sided. I am in favour of secrets, I don’t think it is always helpful to let our vulnerabilities be known – though in a supportive environment where we trust this can deepen our relationships.

    Welcome to the blog – I think this is your first comment. And I hope for many more from you – you certainly add value. Thanks.

  4. Evan says:

    Thanks Chris. I guess my last couple of decades of trying to make my living doing what I love is a quest to answer that question. [I see the Gestalt Police jumping on the word “try” in that last sentence!] So much of the business stuff I read (especially from the US) presumes that ambition and discontent are good things (it may be that I am reading the wrong stuff). I certainly haven’t found it yet.

    I think you know Tom Volkar (Delightful Work blog) he has something of this approach – though he sounds like a decided extravert to me.

    I struggle with ‘the rules of the game’ being set by ambition (as I see it) – the accepted forms of sales letters and so on. And I’m well aware that I am not comfortable with this way of doing things and haven’t mastered the ‘techniques’. So if people say it is just that I am not good at this stuff, I agree (but maybe not witht the “just”).

    Thanks for your comment. It has certainly given me more to think about. The idea “for our business activities to be a natural expression of that contentment, as opposed to an attempt to fix our brokenness” really resonates with me. Thanks for your comment.

  5. What I’m hearing is that when you try to promote your stuff, you start worrying that you are coming from a place of ambition as you call it — which I think means a fear of lapsing into a “win at all costs” mentality that comes from a place of lack or shame about yourself. I can get why you would be concerned about promoting yourself from that place.

    What I wonder is — is this just when you are thinking about marketing in conventional ways, using long-form sales letters and so on? Or is this a concern that you have about all marketing and self-promotion? That is, is there any way to promote yourself that doesn’t feel scarcity-based to you?

  6. Evan says:

    Hi Chris, I appreciate you engaging with me about this stuff. I do think ambition comes from a place of lack. When I think ‘marketing’ this probably is what I think of.

    Self-promotion I don’t like the sound of at all.

    I would like to find models of those who market their stuff not from a scarcity base. You may be one of them. I would be more than happy to copy what you/ these people do. This is one way Tony Robbins and I are in complete agreement: copy others who have done what you want to do. No argument from me about that. This presumes that there are people who have done what you want to do (it is a socially conservative method). I guess there are probably lots of people who have done what I want to do – though they may be only a tiny percentage of those who call themselves ‘marketers’. I just haven’t found them yet (unless one of them is you of course).

    At the moment I can’t think of ways to promote myself / my stuff that doesn’t feel scarcity based. I’m not aware of any models of this either. Thanks for this, it’s really helping me think.

  7. evan, i love how open and vulnerable you are here.

    it’s interesting how you link modesty and internal spirituality. i can’t help but think of my lutheran upbringing here (a bit too modest and internal, i’d say though 🙂

    how do we link promotion and authenticity? a question that baffles, me, too. i am in a phase right now where i just find it completely uninteresting to overtoot my horn. yes, i have a horn, yes, i’ll blow into it, but please, i really want to blow at my own volume and pace, let my breath dictate the sound i make, not the cacophony around me.

    hm, interesting metaphor. how’s that for an idea: breath-based marketing?


  8. Evan says:

    Promotional slogan: Breath-based marketing: inspiring!

    In the Evangelical Christianity I grew up in modesty was a bit overdone too I think. I think it lead to a huge waste of talents because people didn’t get to try stuff and find out what they could do.

    I would dearly love to find some role models for this. If you know of any let me know. Thanks for your comment, I guess we keep on living with the question and see if we find a way of doing/living.

  9. Adelaide says:

    Scarcity and abundance.

    Most people have an abundance of choices and options. They just don’t know that they do.

    And modesty as a block or a blessing: the first time I really thought about modesty in any substantial way was in 1992 when my friend Kevin N did well in basketball – but didn’t say that he had done well. He was being a member of the team. He too was an introvert but had lots of other beautiful qualities which we may or may not have recognised, like his kindness and his beautiful heart.

    And then somebody really good who I respect said that I was modest – in the sense of knowing that I was good but not acting superior for that – what Isabella says about not overtooting your horn.

    I think qualities like modesty come up in a character when you see its opposite or the lack of it, as several posters have said.

    It was really great to read about Ethel Talbot’s views of emulation, especially in the Girl Guide context. Not being like others but being like a standard and not measuring yourself up to it, because life will do it anyway. And also Charlotte Bronte won an Emulation Rewarded value.

  10. Evan says:

    Hi Adelaide. I think what you say about us usually having more options than we realise is very true. I like what you say as a definition of modesty ‘knowing I was good, but not acting superior for that’. Thanks for your comment.

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