This past week, I was talking to a friend about the virtues of yielding and humility. For example, if you and someone else both want something, you should yield to them. Or if you are arguing about an opinion, you should be humble instead of insisting you are right.
She then brought up a really good criticism: Sometimes, if we keep yielding and being humble, the other person will grow in their arrogance, and we will become weak pushovers. Then they will bully us more and more in the future. Therefore, sometimes we need to stand up for ourselves and fight for what we believe in.
What do you think about this topic? I'll share my thoughts, but these are by no means a definitive answer.
In short, I think we need to follow The Middle Way. I like the way Aristotle explained this idea:
"Anyone can get angry – that is easy – or spend money or give it away; but to do all this to the right person, to the right extent, at the right time, with the right motive, and in the right manner, is not a thing that everyone can do, and is not easy."
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe applied The Middle Way to humility when he said,
"It is a great failing to see yourself as more than you are. It is equally damaging to value yourself at less than your true worth."
Excessive yielding and humility lead to being weak, holding grudges, and being insincere. A deficiency of yielding and humility leads to arrogance, conflicts, and anger. Following The Middle Way doesn't just mean the right amount of something, it also means doing it in the right way and in the right situation. That requires wisdom. Below, we'll discuss how to use yielding and humility wisely.
When I think of "yielding", the analogy of water comes to my mind. Lao Zi said,
“Water is fluid, soft, and yielding. But water will wear away rock, which is rigid and cannot yield. As a rule, whatever is fluid, soft, and yielding will overcome whatever is rigid and hard. This is another paradox: what is soft is strong.”
When we have a disagreement with someone, we could choose to argue and butt heads with them. That would be like rock hitting against rock; both rocks will get damaged. Alternatively, we could choose to be like water and flow around the problem, then neither of us gets hurt; Water accomplishes its goal by moving around the rock, and the rock just keeps on being itself.
To give an example, my friend said she wanted to go back to school for higher education, but her partner wasn't supportive. Yielding does not mean begrudgingly saying, "Fine, I won't do it. You win." If we do that, we will hold a lot of resentment in our heart, and that resentment will come out sooner or later. That's unwise.
Instead, yielding might be asking the other person,
"Why are you not supportive of my aspirations, and how can we resolve those worries?"
"Under what conditions might you support me here?"
"My broad goal is to XYZ. Do you support my goal? If so, do you see any other way I could achieve XYZ without getting higher education?"
In other words, we don't butt heads with them. Instead, we find a way to achieve our goals without needing them to change.
My Experience 1
To give a personal example, I want to go back to school to study sinology (Chinese philosophy). My father told me if I'm going to go back to school, I should do an MBA (Masters in Business Administration) so that I can join a big company and have a bigger impact on the world. If I were to argue with him, that would be rock fighting rock.
Instead, I tried to show how my proposal achieves both our goals. He wants me to get an MBA to join a big company to have a bigger positive impact on the world. I explained that sinology focuses on morality and virtue education, which is highly needed in the business world and in society nowadays. I already have a bachelor's in business, so pairing that with sinology is a great combination.
He was still reluctant, so I yielded more and said, "I know you want the best for my future, and I really think studying sinology is worth it. How about I try a one-year online course? This is not a big investment in terms of money or time. If it is great, I can keep studying it. If not, then I can let it go. And in the future, I can still get an MBA if it is useful to do so."
Then he agreed. From that experience, I learned how it is important to be soft, yielding, and flexible when we have different views with others.
Some people misunderstand humility to be looking down on yourself, as if you are lacking in value and ability. I like the way Ray Dalio explains humility in his book, Principles. He uses the terms "open-minded people" and "close-minded people", which I view to mean the same as "humble people" and "arrogant people".
Dalio also said:
"Open-mindedness doesn't mean going along with what you don't believe in; it means considering the reasoning of others instead of illogically holding onto your own point of view."
"In a thoughtful disagreement, your goal is not to convince the other party that you are right—it is to find out which view is true and then decide what to do about it."
"It requires you to replace your attachment to always being right with the joy of learning what's true."
In other words, humble people are not trying to win the argument; Their goal is to find the best option for everyone, and their views are based on solid evidence, not on emotional opinion.
For example, my friend had a disagreement with her business partner about pricing. She thought the current pricing is fine, while her partner thought it should be higher. An arrogant person would just try to win the argument. But a humble person wouldn't yield begrudgingly.
Instead, a humble person might say, "I really don't know what the best pricing decision is. In fact, neither of us knows. But we need to find out the truth for the good of the whole business. So why don't we try both pricing levels for two weeks and then compare the results?"
We can see that humble people know their value and do not try to inflate or deflate themselves. They are also very aware of what they do not know, and they seek to find the truth, even if the truth might not be what they expected.
My Experience 2
To give a personal example, I attend a sinology class with my mother every week. After each class, I summarize my notes, which then get checked by a classmate and the teacher, then I share it with the class. One week, my mother said my notes have decreased in quality.
If I was arrogant, I would feel upset. That is an emotional reaction which has no logical basis. To be honest, I was a little upset, which shows that I still need to work on my humility a lot. In my mind, I was thinking, "These notes have been checked by the teacher. What more do you want?"
But I quickly realized that voice was my ego talking, so I ignored it. I remembered a quote from Emperor Tang Taizong:
So I first thanked my mom for her criticism, then I asked her why she thought the quality decreased and how I could improve. She explained that she had copied down some points that were not in my notes, so she thinks my focus and attention must have worsened.
Again, if I were arrogant, I might start defending myself and say that I was super focused in that class. But I remained focused on finding the truth and verifying the facts. I asked her to specifically list out the points that my notes were lacking. When I heard them, I knew I wrote down those points in my notes, and I purposefully did not put them in the summary because I already mentioned the same ideas using different words.
At this point, if I were arrogant, I would criticize her for not noticing that those points were already in the summary. But instead, I asked her if she thinks these points in the summary match the points she pointed out in her notes. She realized they do match.
A humble person wouldn't want the other person to feel like they just "lost an argument", so I said, "OK, I guess different ways of saying things resonate with different people. These lines have the same meaning, but the lines I wrote resonate with me, and the lines you wrote resonate with you. So there is no right or wrong here."
This way, I didn't go along with something I didn't believe in, and I also found the truth without creating emotional conflict. Arrogance and humility are both habits that need to be nourished. It takes a lot of effort at the beginning to switch from arrogant thinking to humble thinking, but it gets more natural with practice.
Being yielding and humble are excellent and important traits for our happiness, relationships, and success. At the same time, we need to follow the Middle Way. If we are excessively yielding, we become weak pushovers. If we are deficient in humility, we become arrogant and stubborn. The wise person is like water, always overcoming problems and conflicts by flowing around the obstacle rather than colliding with it.
How can you be more yielding and humble in your life?
Weekly Wisdom Newsletter #205