Provision #419: Embrace Humility

Laser Provision

Humility does not get the attention it deserves in many circles. Self-help literature is often wont to mention the word. Leadership books can speak of courage and charisma in ways that make humility sound weak. But nothing can be farther from the truth. We most help ourselves, as well as others, when ego falls out of the equation. Let this one go, forget about taking credit or assigning blame, and you’ll be surprised how well things can go.

LifeTrek Provision


If the last two Provisions in this series on spiritual wellness, Embrace Mystery Click and Embrace Hope Click, were not enough to bring you down to earth, then I don’t know what will. Our clamoring egos notwithstanding, we are simply not all that critical to the magnificent workings of the universe. With us or without us, life will go on. And the sooner we accept that fact, the sooner we can carry ourselves as a gift to others.

Unfortunately, that’s not the way of the world. We act as though everything depends upon us, revolves around us, and belongs to us. So we proceed with a sense of entitlement and consumption rather than of stewardship and service. We act as though we know best what needs to happen in life and work. So we get frustrated and demanding when things don’t go our way. And God forbid that we ever have to apologize or admit to ignorance, limitation, or confusion.

Although the competitive realms of politics and business can leave people feeling backed into a position where they are unwilling or unable to muster such forthright honesty (e.g., when George W. Bush was asked during the last campaign if he had made any mistakes during his first term in office, he was unable to recall even a single instance), we cannot afford to take such a posture in our pursuit of spiritual wellness. Something there is that does not sit well with such memory lapses.

In fact, the higher we go in life and leadership the more important it becomes to ground ourselves in humility. The word itself comes from the same Latin root as the word hummus • the stuff of the earth that comes in bags at your local lawn and garden center. To be humble is to be grounded, without false pride or arrogance. It is to know our place in the grand scheme of things.

On some levels, of course, our place in the grand scheme of things is as grand as the scheme itself. Part of the mystery exposed by quantum mechanics is how interconnected everything is on the microscopic level of energy, frequency, and possibility. Just as the DNA of any cell contains all information in every cell so too do the energies, frequencies, and possibilities of any atom contain all the energies, frequencies, and possibilities of every atom in the universe. And that’s not only amazing, it’s pretty darn grand.

But to extrapolate from the grandeur of the microscopic level to anything less than humility on the macroscopic level is to totally miss the point. We are, indeed, microcosms of the universe, but that serves only to remind us of the dust and ashes from which we come and to which we shall return. This is not something to take credit for let alone to lord over others (who are equally grand). It is rather something to marvel at and to share graciously with others.

Perhaps that is why great spiritual leaders have been noteworthy in terms of their humility. Their presence and their accomplishments are byproducts of their humble character rather than products of their triumphant striving. In fact, they have an aversion to taking credit for just about anything. Instead, they have a strong sense of being vessels for an energy, a presence, and a caring that is larger than themselves.

It is the sense of being a vessel that comes with embracing humility. We find ourselves able to live by the maxim, “It is amazing how much good can get done in the world when we don’t care who gets the credit.” We also find ourselves able to avoid the power games that follow from its opposite, “It is amazing how much harm can get done in the world when we do care who gets the blame.”

These are the dynamics that we need to pay attention to if we hope not only to be spiritually well but to exercise servant leadership. When we recognize our common ground with those we lead, serve, coach, and struggle with, when we connect with them on the quantum level, we are much more likely to become an unobtrusive catalyst for change rather than a lightning rod for controversy.

Thomas Leonard used to speak of this in terms of “the absence of you.” It is listening to another person, or to a situation, until you no longer exist. You become a transparent vessel of the energy that unites and gets things done. In the words of Lao-tzu, author of the Tao Te Ching and the founder of Taoism,

“True leaders
are hardly known to their followers.
Next after them are the leaders
the people know and admire;
after them, those they fear;
after them, those they despise.

To give trust
is to get trust.

When the work’s done right,
with no fuss or boasting,
ordinary people say,
“Oh, yes, we did that ourselves.”

From this perspective, we can develop a new appreciation of the four-quadrant model of knowledge and awareness. Perhaps you are familiar with the model. On one axis is knowledge • what we know • on the other access is awareness • what we know that we know. Placed at a right angle to each other they create four quadrants:

Quadrant 1: I Don’t Know That I Don’t Know. This is our condition when we make our appearance into the world at birth. Other than knowing when to exercise our basic, bodily functions, there’s not much that we know • and we don’t know that we don’t know. Of course, at that stage in life we also don’t care very much. Fast forward a decade or two and it becomes very important indeed.

I remember when my son, who is in Systems Engineering at the University of Virginia and who is an avid computer gamer, was first told as a young boy that one of his favorite games had hidden keys on the screen that could help him win the game. Before he was told that, we wasn’t even looking for them. He didn’t know that he didn’t know and he was content to struggle along with the game, doing the best he could, even though there was no way to win.

In this quadrant it’s possible for people to become arrogant without good reason. Since they don’t know that they don’t know, they may insist they are doing everything right and everything possible to effect a desired outcome. They can become self-proclaimed experts who are particularly averse to change. Arrogance in this quadrant may be the toughest pride to cure or even to recognize. Someone who has been there and done that usually has to come along to point out a better way.

Quadrant 2: I Know That I Don’t Know. In my son’s case, there was some show and tell required in order for him to catch on to the trick of the game. Once the light bulb went off, however, he resumed play with a vengeance. There was nothing stopping him in his hunt for those hidden keys. Not even those basic, bodily functions could get in the way. Eating? Sleeping? Bathing? Who needs those when there are hidden keys to find! Soon he had mastered that game and was on to looking for hidden keys and tricks in all future games.

Learning in one area often transfers to learning in other areas as well. More than one of my son’s academic courses has been mastered with the persistence and curiosity learned in the search for those hidden keys. So it is with Quadrant 2 knowledge. We become like thirsty sponges, absorbing all the knowledge we can in our chosen fields of interests.

Nothing can be more heady or exhilarating. When I learned, for example, about the science of evolutionary nutrition, I could hardly stop reading all the books, articles, and Web resources I could find. Once I knew that I didn’t know, it was time to get to work and, eventually, to change my eating patterns as well.

Humility is the essence of this quadrant. Discovering that we don’t know something, especially if it’s something we thought we did know, is a humbling and disturbing discovery indeed. Allowing ourselves to speak those unspeakable words, “I don’t know,” may seem to invite criticism, ridicule, or rejection. More often, however, it invites others to let down their masks and to share in the journey of discovery.

Quadrant 3: I Know That I Know. Depending upon the subject, we can shift from Quadrant 2 to Quadrant 3 in pretty short order. In medicine, of course, it takes an extended period of training and apprenticeship. For the past two months, my daughter was living with us to study for her Stage 1 medical board exam. As the final days approached, we had study sheets taped to the walls of our kitchen and flash cards in every room. There was so much she knew that she didn’t know!

But she had a plan and she followed it perfectly. Every day was designated as to subject matter, location, methodology, and term. Some days were very long, others were shorter, and still others were off days. But as the exam date approached she knew that she still didn’t know, or at least that she still didn’t know enough, to walk in the door with confidence and poise. So anxiety rose. Until all of a sudden, 48 hours before the exam, she was done. She knew that she knew. And that made all the difference.

I appreciated her attitude going into the exam. Many authors describe Quadrant 3 as the quadrant we want to be in. One designated it the “quadrant of enlightenment”. But, like Quadrant 1, it can also be a quadrant of arrogance. When we know that we know, it’s easy to drop into a demanding posture. After all, we know that we know that we know! But that was not the attitude my daughter took into the exam. She was both confident and humble. She knew that she knew, but she wasn’t taking anything for granted.

Quadrant 4: I Don’t Know That I Know. In my mind, this is the quadrant we want to be in. Rather than unconscious denial, I see this as the quadrant of unassuming humility. And it only comes with experience. No amount of studying and test taking will ever make my daughter a medical doctor or my son a systems engineer. Those will only come after years of apprenticeship and hands-on experience. At some point, they will both handle their crafts masterfully with only minimal thinking and effort. They won’t know that they know, and yet they will know, and it will be perfect.

One of my clients is a pediatric surgeon who is starting a hospital overseas. From time to time, however, he comes back to the United States to take temporary assignments when other surgeons go on vacation. Recently, he came back after a several month hiatus from having touched a scalpel or set foot in an operating room. “Are you nervous?” I asked him. “I am,” he said, “it’s been so long, that I wonder if my command of the operating room and the procedures will have slipped.”

Like riding a bicycle, however, it all came back to him as soon as he scrubbed up and put on his mask. He didn’t know that he knew, but he did. It was muscle memory, decades of experience, and a humble heart that enabled him to pick up where he left off.

This is the quadrant where healthy humility can emerge. Instead of being scared to admit that we do not know, as in Quadrant 2, Quadrant 4 persons are humble precisely because they know so much. They have released the need to know and, as a result, they have become wise, going about their business with a certain ease and grace that is at once disarming and magical.

“I have had the rare privilege to be in the presence” of such persons, writes Wayne Dyer in his book Wisdom of the Ages. “My most lasting impression of these highly evolved people is that they have subdued their egos and live as silent sages, unwilling to bask in the halo light of their own divinity. They have literally chosen to disappear as physical beings. They seek no credit for their great gifts, in fact they attribute them all to God.”

“All streams flow to the ocean,” writes Lao-tzu, “because it is lower than they are. Humility gives it its power.” So too when it comes to Quadrant 4 humility. It is in our unconscious competence that we become the servant leaders our world so desperately needs and wants.

Coaching Inquiries: Are you able to admit what you don’t know? Do people think of you as a humble person? How much attention do you pay to who gets the credit and who gets the blame? How could you become more of a servant leader? Who can you talk to without fear of judgment or reprisal? How can you grow into Quadrant 4 wisdom?

To reply to this Provision, use our Feedback Form. To talk with us about coaching or consulting services for yourself or your organization, Email Us or use our Contact Form on the Web for a complimentary coaching session.

LifeTrek Readers’ Forum (selected feedback from the past week)

Editor’s Note: The LifeTrek Readers’ Forum contains selections from the comments and materials sent in each week by the readers of LifeTrek Provisions. They do not necessarily reflect the perspective of LifeTrek Coaching International. To submit your comment, use our Feedback Formor Email Bob..


It’s been a while since I sent you a comment. As a graduate in Physics, your last Provision resonated with me. I have wanted to embrace mystery but was not able to explain it so I robbed myself of many opportunities to see a lot of things around me. Your great contribution to peoples lives around the world without physical contact is in itself a mystery. Thank you for your contribution


Wow! As I read your wonderful provision, I could not decide which was more exciting: Reading your recount of my first marathon or actually running it!!!! This was an experience that I will, for as long as I live, remember with great fondness. You were terrific and did a wonderful job of coaching me through my very first marathon. Thank you very much!!!


I’ve just read your Provision, “Embrace Hope.” If you don’t already know it look at the websitewww.HeartMath.org. The Institute of HeartMath• is an innovative nonprofit 501(c)(3) research and education organization. IHM, with founder Doc Childre, has developed the HeartMath System to enable people to decode and employ the intelligence of their heart • a process of unfolding the unused power within yourself. Sounds a lot like what you were describing. (Ed. Note: I was not familiar with this site, although Paul Pearsall speaks of HeartMath quite a bit in his book, The Heart’s Code. Thanks for the referral.)


I wish a great day and kind regards to Bob, family cooperators, and co-coachers by LifeTrek. 



May you be filled with goodness, peace, and joy.

Bob Tschannen-Moran, MCC, BCC

President, LifeTrek Coaching Internationalwww.LifeTrekCoaching.com
CEO & Co-Founder, Center for School Transformationwww.SchoolTransformation.com
Immediate Past President, International Association of Coachingwww.CertifiedCoach.org
Author, Evocative Coaching: Transforming Schools One Conversation at a TimeOnline Retailers

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