1. Humility: To be willing and able to learn from others

What would you do?

Mr. Zavere Poonawala is a wealthy Parsee industrialist in Pune, India. For 30 years, he employed a driver called Ganga Datt, who passed away in 2012. At that time Mr Poonawala was in Mumbai, but as soon as he heard the news, he canceled all his meetings and immediately returned to Pune. He arranged for his limo to be covered with flowers, and then – with the permission of the dead man’s family – drove the body on its last journey from his home to the ghat.

When asked about it, Mr. Poonawala replied “Everybody earns money which is nothing unusual in that, but we should always be grateful to those people who contribute to our success. This is the belief which made me do what I did.” www.rishikajain.com

The benefits of humility

Humility has the potential to:

  • help us learn and grow, through going beyond our own viewpoint and interests
  • awaken us more fully to our interdependence with people, animals and the environment
  • release us from being closed, insensitive or self-important, which cuts us off from others

A 16 Guidelines view on humility

Humility is the attitude of experiencing the world and what it contains with wonder and awe. It is about seeing ourselves as a small part of a vast cosmos, inhabited by people and creatures from whom we can learn.

Humility is quiet strength. In some cultures it is considered quite normal to be loud and assertive about what we think and what we want. Yet there is something dignified about people who are sincerely humble. Even if they are prominent and successful, they have the wisdom and experience to understand their limitations.

A person with humility can see beyond their own viewpoint and interests. They acknowledge that we are all dependent on other people, and that we have unique and sometimes unexpected roles to play in each other’s lives. Humility shifts our perspective from ‘me’ to ‘others’ and is delighted to do so. 

Humility comes at the beginning of the 16 Guidelines because it is a starting point. How can we grow and develop if we think we have nothing to learn?

16 Guidelines resources and training for developing humility

Did you know?

People who are humble tend to be more generous with both their time and their money, as well as better able to deal with stressful life events.

Although humility frequently is equated with a sense of unworthiness and low self-regard, philosophers regard true humility as a rich, multifaceted construct that entails an accurate assessment of one's characteristics, an ability to acknowledge limitations, and a forgetting of the self.  However, scientific study of the nature and implications of humility is still in its infancy.


Julie Exline and Peter Hill: Humility: A consistent and robust predictor of generosity,The Journal of Positive Psychology, 208-218, 2012.

Krause, N. et. al.; Humility, stressful life events, and psychological well-being: Findings from the landmark spirituality and health survey, The Journal of Positive Psychology, 2016.

June P. Tangney: Humility: Theoretical perspectives, empirical findings and directions for future research, Journal of social and clinical psychology, ISSN 0736-7236.



“I long to accomplish great and noble tasks, but it is my chief duty to accomplish humble tasks as though they were great and noble” said the American campaigner Helen Keller.

Despite losing her hearing and sight at the age of 18 months, Helen Keller worked tirelessly in support of issues such as disability, poverty, racism, birth control and women’s rights. Even without the ability to hear sound, she became refined her ability and willingness to listen and learn from other people. “No-one knows better than I the bitter denials of life. But I have made my limitations tools of learning and true joy” she commented at the age of 80.

For more on Helen Keller, see: 

  1. The Helen Keller Archives at www.afb.org
  2. The Story of My Life (her autobiography, first published in 1903) 
  3. The Miracle Worker, an Oscar-winning film released on DVD by MGM Studios in 2004


A short reflection on humility from '16 Guidelines: The Basics' book

Find a quiet space where you can relax. Sit comfortably. To help you settle, focus your awareness on your breathing. Let go of any thoughts, images of feelings that arise. Whenever you become distracted, bring your awareness gently back to the sensation of the breath going in and out. Spend a few minutes enjoying the experience of coming to rest. 

Observe your mind in an objective way, as if you were watching a movie. Keep a sense of distance between you as the viewer, and the movie screen. Allow your thoughts to come and go of their own accord as you watch them on the screen. Take your time and wait for the activity to slow down. Resist engaging with your thoughts.

You may notice strong emotions such as resentment, jealousy or romantic love flooding the screen. They may even suck you in, until you are no longer the viewer but an actor in the movie. If this happens, extract yourself slowly and gently, and return to watching it from afar.

How does the flavour and intensity of your emotions change on the screen? Observe them carefully, while still taking care not to identify with them. Do they make you feel bigger and stronger, or more fearful and vulnerable? How do they affect your self-image? Give yourself time to observe your responses as if you were watching a movie.

Until now you have been the viewer. Next switch to being the commentator. What does this process tell you about who you are? Explore questions such as: How realistic is my self image? Is it accurate and helpful, or is it simply a projection of the mind? What is there to be proud or arrogant about? Can I be more relaxed about who I am?

What can you learn from this experience? Whatever conclusion you arrive at, sit with it for a while and just let it deepen.

Close with the wish "May all beings be happy!


Quotes on humility

  • It is impossible for a man to learn what he thinks he already knows. – Epictetus
  • I never met a man so ignorant that I couldn’t learn something from him. - Galileo Galilei
  • No one is as deaf as the man who will not listen.  – Jewish proverb
  • When you talk, you are only repeating what you already know; but when you listen, you may learn something new. – HH Dalai Lama
  • The greatest obstacle to discovering the shape of the earth, the continents, and the oceans was not ignorance but the illusion of knowledge. – Daniel J. Boorstin
  • The noble art of losing face may one day save the human race – Peit Hein


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