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Success tip: Avoid false modesty - it can lead you astray

26 January 2014

When we are young, most of us receive many lessons from our parents and teachers about the dangers of pride and the importance of humility.

Some aspects of these teachings are perfectly valid. For example, nobody likes someone else perpetually talking about how good they are. All of us must be humble when we think about the majesty of God. Furthermore you can make seriously bad decisions if you over estimate your talent and ability.

In my view the opposite danger receives too little attention. With perpetual lessons about modesty and humility, it is all too easy to become someone who underestimates their talent and ability. That can lead you to seriously under achieve in life.

In my own life I have always tried to give honest answers to questions, rather than respond with false modesty. When someone once asked me if I was good at chess, I simply answered "Yes."

I addressed this in my sixteenth thought for the week for BBC Radio Manchester which is reproduced below. As always, I was introduced as Co-Chair of the Muslim Jewish Forum of Greater Manchester because I want to promote the organisation and what it does.

Thought for the week

My name is Mohammed Amin and I am highly intelligent, well educated and extremely reliable. At this stage let me apologise to anyone who choked on their breakfast when they heard the first sentence. It does sound very un-British. Not something you expect to hear in a “Thought for the Week.”

From childhood, it is drummed into us that we should be modest. That is especially true in Britain. I suspect that if you asked Andy Murray “Are you good at tennis?” he would reply with something like “I play a bit occasionally.”

Sometimes there are some good reasons for understating your real capabilities. For example, it might lull people you are competing against into a false sense of security. It might make you popular if everyone thinks that you are “just one of the lads.”

However I think there are some real dangers in false modesty. False modesty means deliberately understating how good you really are.

The most serious risk is that you start to believe what you say.

If you regularly claim that you are not very good at something, it is quite easy to end up believing that you really are not good at it. That means you will not try things you might have achieved, because you believe that you don’t have what it takes. Even though you really do.

That is just as silly as trying to accomplish things you are just not going to succeed at because you don’t have what it takes.

Both approaches cause you to make bad decisions.

Once upon a time there was a general with a faulty telescope. When he looked at his own army through the telescope, the numbers looked smaller than they really were, even though he actually had far more men than the enemy.

Since the general believed he was outmanned, he decided to retreat. This happened time after time, until finally he had retreated back to the gates of his capital city.

Outside the gates, it happened again; so he decided to surrender and the entire war was lost. Only after it was all over did he learn that he had always outgunned the enemy.


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