The Line Between Humility and Modesty

I have to admit, that as of a few weeks ago, I didn't really understand what humility and modesty really meant. I thought of them as synonyms and I used them as such:

"Don't be so humble." I would admonish a swimmer for downplaying their accomplishment.

"You're being modest." were my words for a colleague that didn't mention their success.

It wasn't until a few weeks ago, while at a conference, that an aggressive but well intentioned man approached me after I spoke and blew me up. "It's ok to be humble, but you're being modest and it's a problem.".

I took a big gulp and mumbled "can you tell me more about that?" even though what I really wanted to do was get as far away from his critique as I possibly could.

Impostor Syndrome and Self-Promotion

At various stages of our lives, we hear that we must become skilled self-promoters. The first time I can remember being pressed like that was applying to college. It made me deeply uncomfortable. "SELL YOURSELF" was a weird piece of advice that I got over and over again.

When I fully moved to adulthood, I heard a version of the same when it came to applying for jobs. I labored over cover letters and resumes. How could I convince people I would be great for their job without being a lying braggart.

I struggle with something that I think most every person does. Impostor syndrome is that little voice in the back of your head that seeds doubt in your very real accomplishments. It can tell you to be modest- to hold back some of your best qualities and accomplishments as if they aren't real.

The Absence of Exaggaration

Humility, I learned, is something else altogether. Some of the most wildly self-promotional, confident or even trash-talking people I can think of are actually quite humble. Let me explain.

Humility is knowing who you are, and who you are not. It's the lack of false confidence. Garrett McCaffrey termed Lily King the "Larry Bird of Swimming" and the analogy couldn't fit better. Both back up their talk- there's nothing false about what they say.

When Larry Bird announced to other competitors in the inaugural three point contest that they were playing for second place, he was right. 

False Modesty

Modesty is, I've come to understand, false by definition. Imagine if, asked if he was a good shooter, Larry Bird had said "I'm alright". That would be modest of him to say, just as it would if Caeleb Dressel described his start as "pretty good" or Greg Meehan commented that recruiting at Stanford is "going well."

Not admitting that you've done something great doesn't serve others either. Again, imagine again the hypothetical of Caeleb Dressel with a "pretty good" start. What does that leave your average age grouper thinking about their ability off the blocks?

Humility, knowing who you are and what you have accomplished and presenting it without embellishment, is admirable. It's a virtue. Crossing the line and downsizing your accomplishments doesn't serve you or others. When it comes to it, draw the line at humility.