Cultivating Humility in Design

Monish SubherwalImproving Collaboration1 Comment

No one likes to work with someone else who thinks they are smarter or better than everyone else (even if it’s true!).  While “genius design” sounds cool (think, Steve Jobs) it can lead to one person (or group of people) demoralizing, devaluing, and demeaning others (think, Steve Jobs) all for their own goals or benefit.

Designers who believe they are better than others, end up not being good team players who no one would like to work with.  This kills collaboration and can jeopardize your career and work projects.

Author’s note:  I’ve worked at a few places where some designers thought they were better than others.  There was always an aire of pretentiousness and judgement which caused others to be more competitive or fearful/doubtful.  Psychological safety was an issue.  To be 100% honest, I too have fallen into the arrogance trap and thought myself as “special” (we, as a human condition, are constantly judging and comparing ourselves to others).  That being admitted, I don’t want readers to read this article without examining their own behaviors and attitudes.  I recommend reading this article as it relates to you.  Don’t let your mind wander and think about others – use the article to ponder your own progress.  I believe, developing rock-solid humility and moving away from judgement takes time and maturity.  

What is humility?

“True humility is not thinking less of yourself, it is thinking of yourself less.” – CS Lewis

Humility is a modest view of one’s importance.  Humble designers realize they are no more important than others – putting their pants on one leg at a time too.  They also realize that they are no less important than others either.

Understanding this balance between valuing yourself and valuing others, I believe, is essential to collaborating well with others, whether you are a junior designer or chief designer officer.

The foundation:  being secure with who you are (and are not)

Humility, fundamentally, to me, starts with accepting yourself as you are and as you are not.

When we don’t accept ourselves, we work hard at “looking good” — trying to make sure we are seen in a certain way.

A good example of this is when we join a new company, group, or start a new project.  In this case, we have all felt a desire to be accepted and to “look good” amongst our peers.  This involves wanting to present ourselves as exceptionally competent and capable.  We may speak up more and try and present ourselves as “smart”.  Or, we may begin to feel anxiety and be hard on ourselves.  After all, it takes energy to try and present ourselves as perfect!  Or, we get overly sensitive.  Someone’s feedback to us feels like harsh criticism and we take it personal, when it is not.

In the end, our mind is all over the place and we are constantly trying to prove ourselves to get others to acknowledge and accept us.

Ironically, the three challenges I mentioned above, speaking up too much, feeling anxiety, and being sensitive – end up not helping us to get others approval.  People can see through our issues (often I have found, better than we can).  Our concern for “looking good”, repels others rather than attracts them.  The possibility of collaboration is hurt.

This article will cover ways to accepting yourself more fully, so hang tight and read on.

From worry to arrogance and the paradox of successful jerks

The above feeling of “trying hard” and not accepting yourself fully, is a common experience for many people.  Thankfully, I have found for myself, that these insecure feelings typically go away over time.  Once you settle in a healthy (key word: healthy) organization (you get to know people and they get to know you), you begin to relax and feel secure in who you are.

However, for some people, this doesn’t happen.  They end up perpetually feeling insecure and there is a constant underlying worry of not being accepted (or failing).  There can arise a compulsion to be perfect and seen as perfect.  As a result of striving to be perfect, we can become arrogant which works against humility and collaboration.

Author’s note:  It’s confusing and seems paradoxical, but I have met arrogant people who have done very well in their careers.  Their arrogance coupled with developed (or perceived) talents, give off a confidence that seem to help them in their careers.  For a while I thought that it was a good idea to be a bit egoistical and arrogant too.  But don’t be fooled.  I believe, such progress comes at an immense cost.  I believe that we cannot be arrogant and rude with others at work AND have a peaceful personal or home life.  Thus it’s important to work on our own issues.  

So how can we keep ourselves in check?

Ways to Cultivate Humility

People are amazing BS detectors.  Within a few seconds people can tell who is truly humble, who is faking it, and who is quite frankly, arrogant.  And like I mentioned, whoever is seen as arrogant, puts collaboration in jeopardy.

Thus, it’s important as designers to be aware of behaviors and attitudes that don’t demonstrate and cultivate humility.

No one is perfect and I have admitted earlier that I sometimes struggle with ensuring my ego is in check.

Earlier I had mentioned that humble designers realize they are no more important than others and also, at the same time, that they are no less important than others either.  That they understand the balance between valuing yourself and valuing others.

The list below has some techniques that I feel can help you learn how to “value yourself” and also, at the same time, learn how to “value others”.

Learning to value yourself

Learning to value others

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