A midwesterner once said that his parents planted humility in him like alfalfa in the fields: sown, nurtured, and reaped to general — not personal — advantage.
I grew up at the beach, where the metaphors tended toward seashells. But the idea in my family was the same. “If I don’t sweat, I don’t get,” my mother used to say. Sweat she did, and the accolades followed. But in our world view, they were a random consequence of effort, not something engendering pride. Being humble was easy. Plant the seed; apply water, sunshine and nutrients; harvest. Sometimes effort yielded something, sometimes nothing. But either way, it was the effort not the honor that mattered.
So, when my peers nominated me for an outstanding government service award, I was shocked, unhappy, but eventually acquiescent. The nomination letter presented highlights of my career; I wish my parents could have read it. (Note to self: put a copy in my obituary box for my family’s future use. Much of it will surprise them.)
I won the award and received the certificate at a conference before 600 law professors, government attorneys and private practitioners. I said a few words about excellence, integrity and the privilege of public service. A group photo, a few handshakes and several hugs followed. I was gracious. (My mother: “Always be gracious.”)
But the nomination letter itself — that documentation of all my effort — was what pleased me the most. True, as a favor to my colleagues, I had helped them compose the letter. But so what? It was just history, albeit without my mistakes and misfires. Ooh, look how hard I’ve tried, my letter said.
Then the emails started to circulate. A senior colleague — the one I had intended to nominate for the same accolade — sent an email blast to my entire office announcing the award. Another email reported my remarks. The Deputy General Counsel sent a note on top of this, and the General Counsel followed with his own email — an email adorned with adjectives that I managed to read aloud to my family but won’t report here.
I was getting attention. Lots of attention, from surprising corners of my agency well beyond my office. I didn’t mind 585 strangers applauding. But these were my fellow alfalfa plants, all of us soaking in the same sunshine and fighting the same pests. Find me a hole in which to hide.
When the umpteenth person cheered me in the hallway, I finally said something. Figuratively speaking, they shook me by the shoulders and told me to knock it off. “Savor this moment,” they said. “Relish it.” “But the flood of kind words is sweeping me away,” I said. They replied, “We never hear nice things about ourselves, so just hang on and cherish them. Let us tell you we love you.”
People have said nice things about me before, but either I don’t believe them or I recast them as Effort Prizes. But the flood of words — and the love animating it — was different this time. That love! It felt so real. No, it was real. And so, I decided to let those words and that love brighten my shadowy place of Not Good Enough. Just for one day (or maybe two), I allowed myself to believe that I truly matter in my work community and in my public service.
Why can’t I believe that all the time? When does humility — an emotion that fosters curiosity, connection, generosity and service— become a defense against the love of others and self? When does it actually infiltrate the alfalfa and launch rot?
I have no answers yet. But I have decided to hang the certificate in my office and not slide it under my bed. I will try to treat it as a reminder of the love, generosity, and enthusiasm radiating from my community where — say it! — I matter to a lot of people, not because of my effort but because of my own love that I shine back at them.