I recently spent many hours over several days to compose a personal statement to go along with an important application I was submitting. I had a three friends with rigorous editorial perspective to review it and offer me suggestions for improvement. I stressed that I trusted each of them to tell me directly what they felt could be improved, and not worry about my feelings because this was about composing a paper worthy of the attention of the application review committee.

And they delivered. Though I didn’t specify, each editor provided something distinct from the others. One was amazingly effective at pointing out ways to improve grammar and structure, and where to cut out fluff. The next gave good advice on how to make the text more clear and flow better. The third really challenged me to do more to make certain strengths shine, ones that she personally was aware of and felt the committee needed to know about.

That last one was a surprisingly tough challenge too. I thought I was already being rather bold in my self-promotion yet she felt I was being too modest, and not highlighting some things that deserved more recognition. Since I was crafting this not for my own pleasure but to connect with the expectation of the application review committee, I really had to consider the difference between her impression of my statement and my own. Why did I not think those features to be as important? Why would I not emphasize certain strengths more than I had?

For some people self-promotion is easy to do. For others it is terribly difficult. There are all sorts of reasons why a person may find himself on one extreme or the other. There are whole cultures where the individual is urged to compete and show himself better than others (machisimo) and there are cultures where standing out, especially if appearing to be better than those around you, is heavily discouraged. What kind of a person am I? And what kind of a culture am I submitting this personal statement to?

Some part of the culture I grew up in valued humility, and I think I just assumed I knew what it meant. The examples of humility we could point to were of people who were really good at something or did something amazing but downplayed their skill or role in that event. They were diverting attention away from themselves toward other people or causes that should be acknowledged also, but at the same they were denying their proportion of responsibility that an objective observer might recognize. And, in contrast, there were examples of people who made a mistake or who were not good at something and just happen to point that fact out realistically, yet we did not considered that to be humility, just taking responsibility.

Eventually I sensed that our unspoken definition of the word was missing something. Somewhere along the way I started using a different definition of humility = an earnest attempt to give a more accurate statement about myself in the situation. This definition would guard against both an inappropriately inflated view of myself, and an inappropriately deflated view. Instead, an expression of humility would acknowledge the mixture of positive and negative; it would include a note about others who were responsible for the outcome, proportional to their contribution.

Some might say humility is offering a balanced view of the person. I don’t prefer to use the word ‘balanced’ because this can also be problematic. The arrangement of positive and negative in any person, in any situation, is not necessarily nor often 50/50, as the word ‘balance’ would imply. If I am about 90% correct in my view and only about 10% wrong, then it would not be accurate to say I am unsure about what is correct. If I was only 25% responsible for that outcome and another’s was more like 75% then I should not imply that our contributions were equal. But if I aim for an ‘accurate’ statement, then I try to acknowledge the various players and their proportional contribution. That is humility, a commitment to describe the situation truthfully, whether I end up on the better side of that assessment or the worse side.

This seems more like a stoic perspective, doesn’t it? I suppose it is.

I also sense that one person’s arrogant response or another person’s self-effacing response could both be rooted in insecurity, in an attempt to protect the fragile ego. But a secure person, though making the same claim of more or less responsibility, would send a different message behind his words. We might detect his effort to give a truthful description of the situation. He would communicate with a more credible kind of authority. The heart or the intention behind his so-called ‘humble statements’ matters too, not just the words or tone.

Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash

As I looked over my personal statement again after reading my editors’ comments I attempted to step back and assess what I’d written, as they had, from a more impersonal, less-ego protective way. I easily and happily made the grammatical and clarity improvements, no problem. And I did follow some of my third editor’s recommendation to increase emphasis on certain features or strengths, but I don’t think I went as far as she may have preferred. Maybe she was right? Or maybe I intuited a reason to be a bit more modest? It was good for me to wrestle with this question and look in my heart and mind more deeply, then review my guesses about what the committee would be looking for.

Knowing her as a friend, colleague and student, I reflect on how my third editor’s general style of both praise and criticism is more intense than mine and a bit more direct. Perhaps part of her advice is biased by her own style and voice. What is so constructive about getting raw advice from trusted editors – from people who see things differently than me yet love and believe in who I am – is that it ultimately helps me become more real with myself and with others. In some ways, I may decide to yield to their recommendations and in some ways I may decide to resist. The process of self-examination that leads me to such decisions helps me more clearly define who I really am and what my own voice should sound like.

We can really benefit from skilled, honest and careful editors like these, letting them push us to find who we really are, to help us be more accurate in our self-assessment, to develop a better form of humility.


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