‘I am the greatest! I am the greatest thing that ever lived.’
We are in a culture that is becoming increasingly bold in its self-promotion. Through social media we have seen the coining of a new term, the ‘humble brag’, and there seems to be nothing humble about it. Consider the ongoing debate today about the freedom of professional athletes to celebrate. A number argue that it is good entertainment to have dramatic demonstrations of emotion. As such we are treated to extended and choreographed touchdown dances and practices like batters staring down the pitcher and emphatically flipping a bat after a home run. Whether Lebron James, Cam Newton, or Mike Trout, these athletes are role models to the next generation. As such, their influence reaches beyond sports, as their ideals and values are communicated to a wider world.
More troubling than the individual practices, is the content of the dialogue behind the discussion. Popularity is described as a self-justifying motive for behavior. Notoriety at all costs. Am I at the top of the google search? What will get us trending on Twitter? While it is a normal thing to desire widespread influence, the way in which we garner attention is not value neutral. For example nearly two thousand years ago, the Roman Coliseum drew large crowds to watch gladiators fight to the death. The fact that something is popular does not mean it is right. That is a logical fallacy referred to as ‘argumentum ad populum’.
While virtually every business has to consider ‘what sells’, that should never become the only consideration. These questions are not value neutral. It is always easier to go with the tide and appeal to the broader culture, but what if that tide is headed in the wrong direction? Popularity becomes the argument when there are no other controlling principles by which to determine what should be done.
Two thousand years ago, Jesus of Nazareth confronted his own students with their self-importance, interrupting their discussion about who was the greatest:
“You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”
Jesus explains that wanting to become great is normal—He even affirms that ambition—by telling them how to be truly great. However, the means to greatness which He describes is servanthood and humility. Whatever excellence we possess should be directed into serving others, not self-promotion. Humility is the virtue which John Dickson refers to as, ‘a willingness to hold power in the service of others’.
Why is this so important? Do you want to have influence or be remembered? As Dickson argues in his book, Humilitas, the virtue of humility is a key to lasting power and influence. It is a virtue that magnifies all other praiseworthy gifts. In an environment increasingly enamored with selfies and self-promotion and brand management, I think this concept needs to be inserted back into our public discussion.
Maybe shouted. Humbly.