Applied Humility / by AB Mann

And lastly, his great Resignation and Humility in acknowledging the Just Censure passed on his Essay, joined to his hearty Repentance, as well for that as other Sins of the like Kind he has heretofore been guilty of, together with a sincere Promise of Amendment for the future.
- A Defense Renewed (1)

Humility is multifaceted. It's not just moderating one's self opinion to avoid arrogance, but also having a modest or low view of one's own importance and knowledge. Humility is understanding the distinction between what you do know and what you don't know. And when you encounter the boundary between the two, humility is see that before you barrel across the line into a morass of uninformed arrogance and pride.

And like most of the virtues, perhaps especially so, humility is hard to maintain but glaringly obvious when you don't have it.

I recently inherited a company wide initiative that fell off the rails (2) in the hope that I can, at least, drag it kicking and screaming nearer the finish line for the current development version. Because at this point, it's bloated and decomposing carcass is way too heavy to actually get it across the line.

Yeah. So, part of that screaming involves getting people on all the other applications to finish the analysis of their data that we asked them to do in 2014. For lack of previous completion, we created some high priority bug reports that show up on all the application reports with really red text. The idea being that, by hook or by crook, we're going to get people to pay attention.

In our bug tracking system, you can attach the bug report to a development tracker and, once you flag that development as complete, it flags the bug report as fixed. And it then drops off all the reports. One team opted to attach the report to a development log and set the dev as complete. In about an hour. Without attaching any development objects or filling out the requested research documentation. So, poof, the bug report fell off all the reports.

I found that the next day when reviewing all those reports to see if they had, at least, been assigned for review. And I wrote an email.

In said email, which included their team lead and the application manager, and my boss, I did anything but assume for competence. I assumed, rather, that because they did the above they were trying to game the system and avoid all the red marks on their application reports. And boy did I make that clear. This was about 6pm that night so I went home.

The next morning I was greeted with a few BCC "hey look at what this jerk is saying about your team member" emails. And a voicemail from his team lead. To his team lead's credit, he was calm and deferential. He said that he understood how all this looked, understood where I was coming from, and dang it they were going to fix it, and that email read as really mean — don't do that again.

In short, he was doing everything opposite what I did and acted without ego.

And I felt awful.

I immediately called the guy I accused of gaming the system and apologized. We worked out what was going on, why he did what he did, and both arrived at the place we needed to for tracking their research progress as intended.

And I felt better. And I called his lead and apologized to him too.

Well, sort of. I felt awful for all those assumptions but great about where we ended up. I was, ultimately right that we needed to track things and that was what he was trying to do. He just didn't realize that the way he did it defeated the escalation path we were using. Which made sense as he had only been around for about 7 months.

A couple of lessons taken from this total failure at humbleness: 1. Don't assume people are trying to work around the system. Ask them what's going on. 2. Assume for intelligence, dedication, and a desire to do right in the world until you have evidence to the contrary. And even then, be helpful and not accusatory. 3. Don't send angry emails when you've been working late for most days the last few weeks. And wait to send it when you're NOT BEING EMOTIONAL. 4. When you screw up, acknowledge it and make it right.

4 is clearly the most important part if you find yourself in this sort of hole which is easy to do in a world of digital communication. You cannot include tone or intention in your digital breadcrumbs, one can only infer it.

And inference is a dangerous hubris.







  1. John Webbe: Defense Renewed, I. Printed in The American Weekly Mercury, November 27, 1740. Accessed from FranklinPapers.org.

  2. I'm not entirely sure it was ever on the rails.

    Also: the more time you wrestle with each virtue the more you find your flaws with them. When do you actually start getting better at them?