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The Lost Art of Modesty and Humility

I just watched this insightful video from David Brooks, columnist for the New York Times, who described a significant shift that’s taken place in our culture. It’s about our collective demeanor. (Thanks to my friend, Jeremie Kubicek for posting this!)

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David listened to a NPR program that replayed a show airing just as World War Two ended. During the show, Bing Crosby announced that the Japanese had just surrendered. In a sober and humble manner, Crosby simply said, “I guess there’s no room for pride here. We’re just happy it’s over. We are humbled. We had brave soldiers. We had great allies. We’ve been blessed with great resources. Now we hope to be worthy of this peace.”

Still mindful of this announcement, David Brooks returned to his hotel room, and turned on the TV in time to watch an NFL running back make a two yard gain, get up and begin to swagger and dance at his achievement. David remembers thinking—I have just watched a young man display more arrogance after gaining two yards on a football field than when America did after it won World War Two.


photo credit: Ed Yourdon via photopin cc

Herein lies a picture of this shift. Kids today are growing up after the shift occurred.

Fifty years ago, when someone accomplished something great, it was generally against a backdrop of responsibility and duty; there was an ethos of humility; it was commonly said, “I’m no hero. I only did was I was supposed to do.”  Parents would tell their children to not “get too big for their britches.”  In fact, when George H. W. Bush (the senior president) spoke one time, he asked his mother how he was doing. She simply responded, “You’re talking too much about yourself.”

Today, that’s all politicians do.

Consider how the shift has happened. In 1950, a Gallup Poll asked high school students: Do you think you are an important person? That year, only 12% of students responded “yes.” The same question was asked in 2006 and over 80% of teens replied “yes.”  Since 1970, we’ve absolutely bought into the idea that “self love” and high self-esteem are among our highest priorities. In 1962 there were no articles on self-esteem in any educational journals. In 1992, there were more than 2,500 articles in such journals. Fifty years ago, American students were among the best in the world at math. Today, we come in somewhere around 28th worldwide, yet still come in first in our estimation of how great we are in math. More U.S. students believe “I am very good in math” than any other country on the earth. So, while we’re far from the best, we still believe we are. We’re awesome.

Dr. Jeanne Twenge, from San Diego State University has written about a longitudinal study that evaluates student’s attitudes about themselves. She reports that each she benchmarks the study, narcissism goes up in collegians.

ESPN just invited participation on an afternoon program, asking viewers to vote yes or no on this question: “Can you be great without being arrogant?” The fact that we even ask that question tells me how far we’ve drifted from reality.

So what are the effects of this shift away from humility and toward pride?

  1. Spending and Personal Care. We see no need to deny ourselves pleasure.
  2. Passing Debt on to Future Generations. We believe we are worth the debt.
  3. Attitudes Toward Risk. We tend to take risks assuming it’ll it will work out.
  4. Short-sightedness. Our ego blinds us from seeing the big picture.
  5. Parenting. Our style is really about our needs more than our kids.
  6. Polarization. We don’t collaborate well because we don’t really need others.

In the end, pride is self-preoccupation. Self-promotion. Self-righteousness. I love what Zig Ziglar used to say about it: “Pride is the strangest of diseases. It makes everyone sick…except the one who has it.”

What’s most sad to me is this. Psychologists are now diagnosing the consequences of a society consumed with feeling special. Kids today are suffering from a new phenomena called: “High arrogance, low self esteem.” Their self-love is actually hollow; they somehow know they are not that special.

May I suggest we begin to build the virtue of humility among our students and student athletes. Let’s replace a sense of entitlement with a sense of duty. It won’t remove their drive or ambition—it actually will give them something bigger to be ambitious about—a team rather than themselves.

HabitudesForAthletesWant to prepare athletes for excellence in sports and life? Check out Habitudes for Athletes.


  1. Kevin on October 26, 2012 at 9:47 am

    Not only do politicians talk about themselves, they downgrade the other candidates to “raise” themselves up. Mudslinging is getting worse and worse.

  2. Kurt Earl on October 29, 2012 at 6:18 am

    This was a great read for me as a teacher and coach. I think you captured the problem well when you hit on entitlement. I think many of the young people I work with struggle with a sense of entitlement. At the same time, when placed in pressure packed situations they often lack the confidence to execute which seems to indicate that deep inside they fear not being good enough. So they feel they are entitled to things even though they don’t feel like they are good enough.
    Also, I love your point about using a sense of duty as motivation. I teach and coach at a Christian school so the primary “sense of duty” we discuss as a motivator is God’s glory. In His divine plan God has given us the opportunity to take part in the going public with His infinite worth and we do our best to teach our kids what that looks like as they strive for excellence while abiding in Christ.
    Great stuff Mr. Elmore!

    • Tim Elmore on November 1, 2012 at 10:14 am

      Great points! Thanks for sharing.

  3. Barbara on October 30, 2012 at 7:31 pm

    I strongly feel that Facebook has played a large part or been a reactive part of this me-ism phenomena….”look what I just did” posts are the norm. Do you agree?

    • Tim Elmore on November 1, 2012 at 10:14 am

      Yes. I definitely think social media plays a role. I think technology can be a great tool but we must teach students how to use it appropriately. The comparison game that gets played on Facebook by students (and adults) can have many unintended consequences.

  4. Richard Dudek on November 21, 2012 at 10:02 am

    Great article. Thank you very much for leading the way!

    This is a subject that has been of much interest to me for many years now. My
    wife and I are very blessed to be mentored by some of the greatest leaders of
    today: Mr and Mrs. Orrin and Laure Woodward.

    We too have noticed the decline of our culture. We have also committed to a
    life dedicated to restoring it one family at a time!

    In my opinion, in order to turn our society back towards Christ and the
    principles of a Judeo Christian world view; we must, as individuals be willing
    to question nearly everything we’ve come to accept as “normal” in our society

    A few examples would be: main stream media in nearly every room of our homes,
    entertainment abounding, consumerism, invasive technology and ramped complacency
    (I.E. settling for a life of mere survival when we are called to use our
    talents for significance and abundance). Sadly I’m truly concerned about this being
    aided by some of our own Churches..

    “Everything rises and falls on leadership” – John Maxwell

    Today we’ve accepted institutionalized solutions for nearly every aspect of our
    lives. Most importantly we’ve unknowingly delegated the education of our youth
    to institutions that by their very nature teach: conformity and obedience and
    not freethinking and leadership.

    When are leadership skills best developed? As

    I’d like to recommend an amazing book called: A Thomas Jefferson Education by
    Oliver DeMille

    This book pointed out to me why my roll was so important in my children’s
    education. I learned that no one can teach anyone anything. We can only be
    inspired to study and learn for ourselves.

    In early America (pre civil war) most families played very active rolls in
    mentoring their children.

    Thank you for allowing me to share a few of my thoughts. God Bless. Rich

  5. The Truth Hurts on May 1, 2016 at 8:22 am

    why does this describe the entire ethos of the bay area?

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The Lost Art of Modesty and Humility