You can find dozens of business and self-help books giving keys to success, but most overlook this vital key that makes all the difference—humility.
Would you like to know the single greatest factor in real success?
It’s not something most people would guess, and yet the answer has been around at least as long as the Bible. That key is not solely a matter of having vision or setting goals. It is not merely the result of passion, nor is it simply the product of drive, resourcefulness or perseverance. These are all important elements, and you certainly need them to succeed, but I do not believe they are the single greatest key.
I believe that key is humility—a realistic understanding of our own importance in relation to God and other people.
Without humility, whatever success you achieve will be shallow and joyless. Why?
Because humility allows you to put your accomplishments into perspective—it reshapes your goals, your passion and every other factor in your pursuit of success. Humility makes it possible for you to respond to and have a good relationship with your God, who looks “on him who is poor and of a contrite spirit” (Isaiah 66:2).
Let’s take a look at the impact of humility on three of the most commonly recognized steps necessary for success.
1. Goal setting
Almost everyone who lays out a plan for attaining success includes goal setting, whether those words are used or not. For example, in his 1989 classic The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, Stephen R. Covey tells his readers that they must “begin with the end in mind.” That’s just another way to say begin by setting goals.
Humility affects the type of goals you set. Are your goals about getting as much as you can, whether it’s money, prestige or power? Then you’re setting the wrong goals! On the other hand, if your goals reflect a desire to serve God as well as your fellow human beings, then you are on the right track.
When you set your goals, keep in mind the two great commandments: “you shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind” (Matthew 22:37) and “you shall love your neighbor as yourself” (verse 39). Humility in goal setting means recognizing your God-given talents and then planning to use them in serving God and His children.
2. Preparation and education
You won’t go very far in your life unless you prepare yourself for whatever path you will follow. If you want to be an electrician, for instance, you’d better learn all you can or you won’t be able—or even allowed—to do the work.
So what does humility have to do with education? Quite a bit, actually. First, you need to recognize that you don’t have all the answers. You can learn from other individuals in your chosen field.
That’s simple enough, but at a more basic level, humility will prompt you to assess your own natural talents and abilities against the career paths that appeal to you. You’ll ask yourself whether you are a good fit, not only because you want to succeed for yourself, but because you want to succeed for others.
You’ll want to succeed for loved ones who depend on your income. You’ll want to succeed for coworkers who depend on your contribution to the team. And you’ll want to succeed for customers or clients who depend on you to do a thorough job.
Then, once you’ve assessed your God-given talents honestly, you’ll be ready to prepare yourself, through the appropriate education, to use those talents well.
Another element often included in recipes for success is passion—and the drive that comes because of it. When you don’t care, you won’t act, so you won’t succeed. But how does humility affect your passion?
If you care about what God wants and what other people need, and if you are pursuing goals that reflect that care, you’ll find that your passion is greater.
Let’s say, for instance, that you are in sales. If you don’t really believe a potential customer will benefit from your product, you’ll find it nearly impossible to pitch it. On the other hand, if you are convinced that your product will solve a customer’s problem, you’ll find yourself driven to share that solution.
We could spend page after page considering the impact of humility on other traits and actions associated with success, but let’s move on to considering the inherent struggle we all face.
Clothed with humility
Unfortunately, as human beings we tend to put ourselves first. Our natural tendencies are at war with humility and always will be.
“Humility is a choice—and so is arrogance.”Pat Williams, in his book Humility: The Secret Ingredient of Success, came to believe that “any person of true greatness” throughout history was “also a person of deep humility” (2016, p. 18). Anyone who aspires to greatness, though, must first recognize the internal struggle and then choose humility:
“Humility is a choice—and so is arrogance. The wild beast of arrogance always lurks within us and can only be subdued by a more powerful, more spiritual force: the character strength of humility. We must continually choose an attitude of humility—or we will choose arrogance by default” (pp. 40-41).
The apostle Peter describes this choice as “clothe yourselves with humility” (1 Peter 5:5, New International Version). That seems like a strange way to describe the choice we make until we look into the meaning of the Greek. According to The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, “‘Clothe yourselves’ (egkombosasthe) is a rare word that refers to a slave putting on an apron before serving. So Christians are to imitate their Lord, who girded himself and served” (1981, Vol. 12).
Christ’s example of service
The second sentence of the Expositor’s quote refers to John 13, which describes Christ as He assumed the role of the lowest of household servants to wash the feet of His disciples. An important aspect of being clothed with humility is choosing to serve by choosing to do what the people around you need.
So what does this have to do with success? We find the answer in a companion passage. On that very night before Christ was crucified, the night on which He took the role of a servant to wash the feet of His disciples, they began to argue about who among them would be greatest in the Kingdom (Luke 22:24). In essence, they were concerned about their own success.
What Christ said is revealing. After mentioning that gentile kings routinely “exercise lordship” (verse 25), Christ taught His disciples that whoever “is greatest among you, let him be as the younger, and he who governs as he who serves” (verse 26).
If we want to succeed in life, then we, too, must continually choose humility.
Sidebar: What, Exactly, Is Humility?
In our narcissistic age of social media and selfies, the idea of humility being an important principle for success, let alone a critically important key, seems absurd. After all, the Western world has tirelessly promoted self-esteem as vital to emotional well-being ever since psychologist Abraham Maslow published his hierarchy of needs in 1943.
Isn’t self-esteem in opposition to humility? To be humble, don’t we have to think of ourselves as having little or no value? And if we don’t believe we have value—that we have something to offer—then why would anyone else believe we do?
The answers become clear when we begin to consider Christ’s example. No one would argue that He saw Himself as having little or no value, and yet neither would anyone argue that He lacked humility.
“Let this mind be in you”
One of the most moving passages in Scripture is in Paul’s letter to the Philippian church. Paul admonishes the Church to adopt the mind-set of Christ, and that mind-set is one of humility:
“Let nothing be done through selfish ambition or conceit, but in lowliness of mind let each esteem others better than himself. Let each of you look out not only for his own interests, but also for the interests of others.
“Let this mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus, who, being in the form of God, did not consider it robbery to be equal with God, but made Himself of no reputation, taking the form of a bondservant, and coming in the likeness of men. And being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself and became obedient to the point of death, even the death of the cross” (Philippians 2:3-8).
Notice that Christ “did not consider it robbery to be equal with God” (verse 6), so He did not think of Himself as having little value. On the other hand, Christ “humbled Himself and became obedient to the point of death” (verse 8).
Humility, then, is not just about how we view ourselves. It is about how we view others. Of course, none of us should have an exaggerated sense of importance, but denying our God-given talents is just as wrong. The right approach is a realistic appraisal of our own abilities, coupled with a desire to use those abilities to serve others. That is real humility!