Humility Contests

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I happened upon a YouTube video last week that got me thinking a lot about humility contests. Uploaded by O'Reilly Media, this video is a 5-minute Ignite Great Lakes presentation by a talented Detroit violinist named Dixon. I won't spoil the fun by telling you what you'll encounter in the video. Go watch it and return here when you're done.

What you might notice in this video is a person with great confidence, but also great humility. Those two human qualities don't often occur within one person. Confidence is vital, because nothing can move forward without a belief in one's own powers. Humility is vital because it is the steering wheel to wisdom.

Speaking of which, do you know who else combines confidence with humility? Tim O'Reilly, co-founder of O'Reilly Media. I've never met the guy, but I admire the heck out of him. He asks such interesting and important questions in his tweet stream and in the public talks he gives. He is both daring and doubtful at the same time. You give that a try sometime if you think it's easy. Larry Lessig - the Harvard law professor who is also the founder of the Creative Commons - is another in the category of strong thinkers who subsumes self to public good. If you've never seen or heard one of his presentations, a good place to start is here.

If humility is such a useful tool on the path to wisdom, then why don't we more often seek national leaders with a sense of humility? Maybe we need to hold humility contests for all presidential candidates. Reporters could ask candidates whether they would ever enter a humility contest. Any candidate who does not adamantly refuse to enter a humility contest would automatically be disqualified from winning the contest.

Honestly, we need to sneak some humility into the White House if we ever expect to get wise decisions coming out of there. It's not enough for presidential advisors or cabinet members to be humble. Quickly: Name the five most humble cabinet members of the past 50 years. They don't exactly jump to mind, do they?

I've been reading a biography of the Wright brothers and was struck by how two minds became one as they tackled the problem of flight. They used twice as much brainpower as any other aviation inventor, and each of their mind's was formidable on its own. Do you know what else I admire about the Wright brothers? Their humility. They refused to boast about their invention. When newspapers steadfastly ignored the magnitude of their accomplishment, that inattention just served to renew their resolve to improve their invention.

Be that as it may, we do need to sneak some humility into the White House – and the only way I can think of to make that happen is to make the United States president's office be made up of four persons rather than one. Sound outlandish, perhaps?

What do you call a White House comprising four minds rather than one? A quad processor.

Both other branches of government have the benefit of multiple minds so why not the executive branch, too? Can better decisions be made when four times as much thinking is put into them? And wouldn't we have a little less stress in the White House as executive branch responsibilities are shared? Stress and sound decisionmaking do not go hand in hand.

What do you call a presidential contest between two groups of four people rather than two individuals? You call it a battle of ideas rather than a battle of personalities.

But please, can our battle of ideas be rooted more in contests of mental abilities rather than contests of stagemanship? Starting tomorrow, the League of Woman Voters should work to have at least one of the presidential debates hosted on the set of Jeopardy. If the voters of the nation can't view the presidential candidates buzzing answers on the set of Jeopardy, for an extended hour-long game, then how in the world can we gauge the extent to which they understand the world? (“I'll take Employment for $400, Alex.”) I have long stopped watching presidential debates because there is nothing new I can learn about the candidates via that human-invented device.

And after the Jeopardy contest, I want to learn what the candidates have doubts about. I want to see them grapple publicly with both sides of an issue – any issue. We ask that feat of high school students but not presidential candidates? After all, if presidential candidates can't engage meaningfully with their own doubts, they'll never win a humility contest. Isn't that the goal – wise decision making, based not so much on one's beliefs but on one's ability to doubt?

Phil Shapiro

The blogger, a member of the Internet Press Guild, is an educator at a public library in the Washington, D.C., area and teaches an occasional graduate educational technology class at American University, in Washington, D.C. He can be reached at and on Twitter at

(I'd like to thank Dixon the violinist for giving me permission to travel the above journey of thoughts. And I'd like to thank O'Reilly Media for imagining Dixon the violinist as having thoughts – unspoken yet powerful thoughts - worthy of our attention. Thanks, too, to the organizers of Ignite Great Lakes. Lastly, I'd like to thank Phillip Torrone, from MAKE magazine, for reminding us that technologists are also capable of deep thinking.)

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