The Most Important Characteristic: Humility

Liao-Fan Yuan was a high-ranked government official who lived in the Ming Dynasty of China (about 500 years ago). Back then, study was held in highest regard in China, and government officials were chosen through a system of meritocracy: many levels of imperial exams were given to all who wished to take them, regardless of background, age, wealth, or circumstance. One had to be very learned and pass difficult exams to become a government official. Even after becoming a government official, one had to pass progressively harder exams to rise in the government.

Liao-Fan wrote his book, Liao-Fan’s Four Lessons, to teach his son about cause and effect, proper versus improper acts, and the method for correcting one’s faults and practicing kindness. It also provided living proof of the rewards of people who practiced kind deeds and cultivated virtue and humility. The book was treasured for generations by emperors of Japan as a reference for ruling a country.

One of the four lessons is the benefits of the virtue of humility. Below is a story from his book:

“During the Spring-Autumn period of China’s history, there was a high senior government official in Wei named BoYu Chu. When he was twenty, he was already mindful of his faults. He studied these mistakes carefully and tried to correct them. At the age of twenty-one, he felt he still had not completely corrected all his faults. When he was twenty-two, he felt as if twenty-one was spent dreamily, without practical improvement. Thus, year after year, he continued to correct his faults. When he reached fifty, BoYu still felt that the past 49 years were full of wrong doings. This was how particular our ancestors were regarding the correction of faults.”

The book explains:

“A humble person in society receives support and trust from the general public. If a person understands the virtue of humility, he is also a person who understands the importance of constant self-improvement. This constant self-improvement not only includes the search for higher knowledge, but also encompasses the need to be more humane, to perform better in daily duties, and to improve communication with friends. Many benefits and rewards result from behaving with an understanding of humility.”

If we make a list of characteristics that people can have and identify the 20% of characteristics that have 80% of the effect on someone’s life, humility would definitely be in the top 20%. Humility is such a powerful characteristic: It counters anger, arrogance, laziness, and ignorance.

Anger

It is a scientifically proven fact that the human brain cannot be both angry and happy at the same time. So by reducing the amount of time we are angry, we are literally improving the quality of our lives by allowing more time for happiness.

By the way, anger is not just when someone explodes and shouts; anger includes irritation, contempt, and hostility. So what makes people angry? Typically, people get angry when their expectations are not met, and these expectations can be for the world or for people. For example, someone who just missed the bus because it came one minute early might get angry that now they have to wait 10 minutes for the next one. On the other hand, someone who’s humble might realize that they really should be getting to the bus stop 5 minutes early because buses probably have a 2-minute margin for which they can arrive early or late. Humble people focus on how they can be better rather than on why the world is unfair. With regards to anger with people, that is often caused by arrogance.

Arrogance

Arrogance is when we think we are better than others, or just great in absolute terms. Arrogance is not limited to going around bragging about yourself (few people are that arrogant and emotionally unintelligent), it also includes being passive aggressive or sarcastic, as well as always focusing on the faults of others. Humility lets us realize that we all have faults, and most people are unaware of many of their faults, so we should not judge others for their wrongdoings. This does not mean we do not teach them to improve, but rather it means we do so from a place of kindness and good intention rather than from a place of self-superiority and blame. Besides, what other people do is out of our control, but we can control our response. Humility gives a double dose of happiness: one by letting go of what’s not in our control, and two by knowing that we made good use of an opportunity to improve ourselves.

Arrogance is also when we get unhappy because someone else criticized us. On the other hand, humble people recognize that everyone, include myself, is biased and emotional. Therefore, it makes no sense to believe that only I am logical and others aren’t as logical as me. If the criticism has truth and merit, a humble person would gladly accept it and seek to improve. If the criticism does not have merit, then it’s simply an opportunity for you to build your character by practicing tolerance. And if the method of delivery by the other person was very rude, a humble person may decide to tell that person in a respectful way if they believe that other person is able to accept the advice. Otherwise, the humble person would just move on and maintain their inner peace.

Laziness

Laziness is caused by a lack of motivation and an attachment to short-term pleasure. Someone may come home from a long day of work and just want to lay on the couch and watch videos with the justification, “I’m so tired from working hard all day. I need to relax.” Then, they complain to their friends that they never have time for something they want to do, like staying fit, reading, meditating, or pursuing some other interest. And they just continue life lacking real fulfillment. A humble person realizes that there are so many people out there who live harder, tougher, and busier lives, who are accomplishing so much more, and those people don’t complain (my previous blog post talks about Elon Musk as an example). Humble people are inspired by these role models and take responsibility for their goals and fulfillment.

Ignorance

Ignorance is not knowing better, and it has an air of innocence to it. Ignorance is different from stupidity, which is doing something that you know is wrong. Because of ignorance, people make mistakes that they regret or that harm others, and innocence is no excuse unless you are a baby. Ignorance on a topic decreases as we learn more and more every day about that topic. Arrogant people would think they know a lot and therefore do not need to learn anymore, while lazy people just don’t care. Humility allows us to realize that we still have much to learn, and that learning brings joy.

So what should topics should we learn about? One topic that everyone should learn about is being a better person because this affects every moment and aspect of your life. Being a better person involves building your character, training your mindset, interacting better with others, and setting a good example. By simply getting better at being a human being, you will certainly improve your life. For topics that are more specific to individuals, you should learn about what you are interested in or passionate about, which is hopefully what you do for work or at least as a major side project.

Passionate about self-cultivation, happiness, and sharing wisdom.