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Sometimes it's easy to mistake self-deprecation for humility. I've gotten a little better at accepting compliments graciously in recent years, but I can easily trace absurdly poignant evidence of self-deprecation back to childhood, to the near pathological auto-under-valuing that was interwoven through daily life. A memory from age 7 or so has stuck with me for quite a while. I had a boyhood friend named Eddie and in the summers we spent countless hours digging, playing games and building forts in the woods which separated our backyards. One day, deeply immersed in an excavation straight through the center of the earth to China with little more than a couple of garden trowels, I heard his mother calling out to us in her gracious Virginia lilt,
"Eddddddddie, it's lunchtime! Robert, would you like a sandwich too?"
Struck dumb with vague embarrassment, I replied with great discomfort and characteristic crypticism, "I don't care."
What the hell kind of answer is that? I'm sure it puzzled or maybe even irritated her, but if it did she was too kind to let me notice. She was a really nice lady. We liked each other.
I can't fully explain why questions like that of Eddie's mom made me so uncomfortable but I struggled to accept the goodwill of others for my entire childhood and well into adulthood. I suppose it had something to do with a misplaced aversion to making myself in any way burdensome. This inability to accept gifts from others—whether in the form of kind words or something of material value—is a character flaw, something I've had to come to terms with in recent years. And while it may seem that this sort of chin-to-chest self-deprecation is active evidence of humility, I've come to realize it's not. I've learned that undervaluing oneself is the exquisite complement to boastfulness and bluster, classic enemies of humility. A closer look reveals that it's egocentric behavior masquerading as humbleness, a self-perception that one's every action has some consequential effect on others; that accepting a sandwich would in some way might ruin someone's day; a perception that you are important enough to have a disproportionate impact on everyone and everything around you.
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It seems the older we get, the bigger our egos grow. As the expression goes, "the bigger they come, the harder they fall." Validation and praise mean everything to us and yet our worlds crumble the moment we experience rejection or marginalization. Enormous egos fight for central validation in creative circles, each with an insatiable desire for praise, and yet the most inadvertent slight sends us cursing bitterly in the shadows. We have to maintain perspective, to remain humble through darkness and light, praise and criticism.
I endured a truly rough patch in my teaching a few years ago. Leading students outside the scope of my expertise in a special, two year, interdisciplinary appointment in Italy, I failed to reach all of my students, no matter how hard I tried. And I tried very hard. While not everyone was unhappy with my efforts (I tend to pay a bit more attention to criticism than praise), the acerbic barbs of a handful of students wounded me deeply for two years. I wasn't used to this brand of assessment, and I truly thought my career as a teacher was coming to a close. When I returned to my regular teaching duties back home, once again within the cozy realm of my personal competency, I expected everything to normalize, but I was quickly reminded of an unpleasant reality about teaching in our program: I had quite literally disappeared, and when I returned I felt like an absolute nobody. I was the new guy all over again, and it took me three full years to rebuild the confidence of an entirely new crop of students and my former reputation as a competent teacher. What a struggle that was, and there seemed to me no way to resolve it other than to ride it out or quit. I damn near did the latter, interviewing for and being offered jobs elsewhere, which would have had me doing things far from the world of studio education.
These days, my students amaze and inspire me, and I'm especially moved by their sensitivity when the occasional stressed out 19-year-old comes to see me in my office, soon in tears as they close the door for privacy. Crumbling under the workload, these beautiful people reveal themselves as completely human in their fragility, shedding their classroom-wrought, strong, balanced, perfectly poised personae. In the presence of their peers they appear to accept praise and criticism with equally objective measure, seemingly unaffected on an emotional level by all the chatter about their work. Extraordinary accolades do not seem to puff them up, just as devastating criticism doesn't cut them down. Maybe I'm fooled by some resilient veneer, but they always seem to remain humble—asserting in their behavior that they're neither better nor worse, neither more or less deserving of respect than anyone else. They present as exceedingly gracious and level-headed beacons of hope in a world in which most adults bristle at criticism and stew savagely over minor professional slights one day and rattle off news of accomplishments on Facebook the next.
Eknath Eswaran's quote at the top of this entry elegantly summarizes the most sound philosophy we can follow. We need to keep our egos in check not only when it comes to our accomplishments, but our failures as well. Personally, while things are good again (and I don't think I have ever enjoyed teaching as much as I have the past two years) I lately try a bit harder to catch myself before grandstanding when good things happen and I've tried even harder to give myself a break when I don't get it right. I'm still not very good at accepting either praise or criticism with measured objectivity, but I try to do so in an effort to exercise some of the humility I so admire in my students. I'm still grossly egocentric. More than anything I hope my students can remain humble—aware of their merits and flaws, but equally unfettered by either. Unfettered, that is, unless they truly need to close themselves in my office and cry.