By Steven Pressfield | Published: August 4, 2010
We were talking last week about ambition. Judging from the response, the subject struck a chord. Apparently no few of us, if we’re honest, have to admit that, however egotistical or un-PC it may sound, we really do want to excel, to succeed, to make a mark. We want to do something great, and we’re not going to apologize for it.
So maybe this week we should balance things out and talk about humility.
A scary world out there
The artist and the entrepreneur (and all of us on the soul-level) live in an uncertain world. Our trade is in ideas, but who can say where the next one is coming from—or even if there will be a next one?
There’s a wonderful quote from John Gardner or somebody that, alas, I can’t find. The bad paraphrase goes something like this:
I make my living tapping a source that I cannot name or control, a force that appears and disappears based on factors that are unknown to and unknowable by me and that cannot be managed or manipulated, no matter how hard I try. I am at its mercy.
The author is talking about the Muse, the unconscious, whatever you want to call the mysterious source and wellspring of creativity.
The author’s world is a pretty scary place, if you think about it. To be dependent utterly on something that you can’t see, smell, taste, measure, summon, govern or control. No wonder artists and entrepreneurs act so crazy.
The virtue of humility
What, then, is the proper attitude of mortal man and woman toward this weird and unknowable, uncontrollable source?
Homer (not Simpson) believed it was respect, humility, even devotion. Both the Iliad
“Sing, goddess, of the wrath of Achilles … “
and the Odyssey
“O divine Poesy, goddess, daughter of Zeus … “
begin with invocations of the Muse, as do countless other works by great artists down the centuries.
Homer was no fool. He understood the dynamic. Heaven gives, we receive. If we know where our bread is buttered, we will knock off the wisecracks and show a little respect.
There’s a terrific 19-minute talk that Elizabeth Gilbert gave last year at TED on this very subject. Ms. Gilbert was speaking about the pressure she felt (and was putting on herself) to follow up Eat, Pray, Love with another book just as good and, hopefully, just as successful. The strain, she said, was driving her a little nuts. What chilled her out in the end was the time-honored notion that the work doesn’t come from her, but through her. This understanding gave her permission to take the pressure off. Since the issue rests with the gods, the author can relax. Ms. G. was being half-facetious of course. But her thoughts on the source of creativity being outside ourselves are, to my mind, right on.
The difference between humility and passivity
That being said, there’s a critical difference between humility (healthy) and passivity (not healthy.) The gods want us to show them honor, true. But once we’ve paid our respects, the immortals expect us to display some huevos.
When we work, we must work with audacity and fearlessness. The actor has to take chances. The writer must turn off the self-censor. The space commander must boldly go where no one … well, you know.
Ambition, humility, audacity
Ambition is the artist’s foundation. Dynamis in Greek: the drive to seek, to discover, to become. The Muse approves of ambition. Ambition gives the artist the passion to start and the tenacity to finish.
But ambition must never be allowed to rise to the level of hubris. The minute we believe that we are the source of that which comes through us … that’s when the gods start dusting off their thunderbolts.
At the same time, humility must not become passivity. You and I may only be mortals, with all the foolishness and fallibility that that state implies, but we’re mortals made in the image of heaven. The gods can’t do their work without us. So let’s be bold, in their cause and in our own. It’s our job, we humans, to make manifest that which is unmanifest–and to raise into consciousness, in this material dimension, that which had been known before only in heaven.