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A hand offering a small plant in a tiny heap of soil, symbolizing the concepts of giving, growth, and humility.I once knew a college student who was an outstanding, remarkable, and beautiful individual in many ways; it was hard finding fault in them. However, they did have one major point of clash and disharmony with me: they were almost allergic to advice, and in the same spirit, barely interested in some topics related to self-improvement or growth. No matter how polite or constructive I strove to be in my advice or criticism, they were always clearly offended; and when I talked about growth or self-improvement generally, I could feel a certain sense of discord and apathy. It often sparked my curiosity as an everyday student of psychology, why that person found it so difficult to accept sincere advice.

I did notice that it was easier for that young person to seesaw between a sense of superiority and, less often, self-pity, than it was for them to maintain the fine middle line of humility, assertiveness and self-confidence. However, the superiority was not blatant arrogance, but subtle, so it might have suited them sometimes because they were generally better in so many things than most people around, even significantly older people! An individual with a rare mix of talent and intelligence at the same time, which easily shone among average college seniors; that’s who they were. Don’t get me wrong; my article is not about that person or my opinions about them specifically, and I’d rather have you focusing on my real deep interest within these memories and thoughts: the relationship between the elements discussed here. I’m generally attracted to mysteries, and the mysteries of human behavior are almost endless.

What I am describing here is something that another person, or you as the reader, for example, can think of as an almost perfect relationship with a person that you view very favorably or have very high opinions about, and perhaps vice versa. However, imagine how that one single clash or incompatibility can very well sour the whole relationship, or perhaps kill its possibility altogether before it even starts. Why is an issue like this such a big deal? Why can’t I, for example, just be quiet and not give advice or talk about self-improvement at all? And why does another person overreact in such a shocking way to someone like me, when I’m actually trying to help them? Lots of people, upon reading those words, would quickly have thoughts along the lines of “nobody asked you for help” or “only offer constructive criticism when asked for it”, and I actually blatantly ask: Where did this culture come from to begin with? How did some people adopt such mentalities, and even think of them as common sense, proper etiquette, and the accepted norm? It feels so alien and weird to me. Yes, if someone asks me whether I’d like others to treat me that way—give me good unsolicited advice whenever, I will give them a surprised confirmation along the lines of, “Of course, I would! Why wouldn’t I?” And if they shrug their shoulders and think I’m weird, I’m probably pouting and thinking they’re weird, no matter how many people support their strange way of thinking and living.

From my perspective, how can anyone see something wrong in life and not want to gently correct it? How can anyone see someone else inadvertently harming themselves and not alert them? Of course, no one is saying that we are to walk around and shove hard, cold criticism and overzealous advice down people’s throats, but diplomatic, gentle, subtle, and indirect advice with a smile, whether they ask for it or not? Certainly! I mean, they would only ask for advice if they had any clue that they’re doing something harmful, right? And aside from addictive or self-destructive habits like smoking, more often than that, people are not aware that they’re doing something harmful or counter-productive.

So now I ask, Why did that college senior find it almost impossible to accept advice or constructive criticism, no matter how politely it was phrased? And does this psychological barrier or challenge have anything to do with their attitude swinging between superiority sometimes and self-pity occasionally, and rarely settling down in-between, where there is humility, self-confidence, and assertiveness? Does real humility, which helps a person not just accept advice but actually feel grateful for it, have anything to do with growth? And can that person actually be a prime example of the countless talented and intelligent individuals in the world who have a single self-sabotaging and fatal fault, which slowly deforms them from a remarkable young person into a below average mature person? What does allergy to advice have to do with lack of true humility, and what does lack of humility have to do with self-growth?

I never imagined that there are such close relationships between all these things until I understood the true meaning of the majorly misunderstood word, “humility”. The following is an excerpt from Aspire by Kevin Hall:

“Humility is one of the most misunderstood and misapplied words in all of language. Humility is not being passive and submissive, nor is it distinguished by slumping shoulders, bowed heads, and subservient, downward glances. It is about being teachable and coachable. It implies a continual commitment to learning and growing and expanding. It is living life in crescendo, with shoulders back and heads up as we reach and stretch to become our very best, then extend ourselves to help others do the same. And then, we start again!

Humility is the hub of the wheel, the solid core between self-mastery and leadership. It is here, in the middle of this book, to connect the words of the first five chapters—words for self-discovery and personal development—with the words featured in the final five chapters—words that empower us to help, inspire, and potentially lead others. We can’t influence until we’ve been influenced. We can’t change the world until we are changed.

Through humility this transition can happen.

The origin of “humility” is the Latin word “humus” meaning soil, specifically rich, dark, organic soil. When a seed is planted in fertile soil, it transforms into something far greater. The acorn becomes the oak tree. The smallest of seeds carefully planted in the spring becomes the bounteous harvest in the fall. It all starts with the nurturing quality of the soil—humus.

When we have sufficient humus in our lives, we grow and develop, and foster those around us to flourish. Humility produces growth.”

So I finally realize how many people today lack any humility at all, and who does. I finally understand what humility truly is, and how deeply related it is to growth. I finally understand how, why and when my passion for growth and improvement, for self and others, leads to disharmony and discord with anyone else. I understand that my impulsive encouragement and advice lives in a passion for growth, and a passion for growth is the essence of humility. And I now know that if I wanted to find out whether a person is truly humble or not, I can just check how passionate they are about self-growth and improvement.

—Yaseen Rocca