Humility + Ambition = Magnanimity

By Mattias A. Caro
March 2, 2018

I don’t like humility. Well, better said, the virtue of humility and I have a love-hate relationship. On one hand, ambition drives me to be better and to do more and to abhor failure. But on the other hand, I’ve been around the block enough to know, my strength and abilities have limits, and that’s perfectly acceptable and good.

For example, I once wrote an article I was foolishly sure would virally infect the interwebs. It didn’t. The argument, though prescient, fell flat. The resulting impact I hoped to accomplish just wasn’t there. I was left to face the truth that despite my efforts, the expected results eluded me.

Focus on Process, Not Results

These days I find myself aligned with my friends in the tech and software development industry. While results matter, refining process is more important. When my article failed to produce the traction I hoped for, I still recognized that at the very least I did what I set out to do and I followed the method I mapped out.

In most endeavors, looking at process is more important than focusing on results. The habits and virtues you employ in pursuing a goal are often as important, if not more, than a good outcome. Let’s say I take up fishing tomorrow. I might have “beginner’s luck” and snag a fish “this big.” But I will probably have no idea what I am doing. If I am being realistic, my first couple of times fishing should be about me learning to trim the line, prepare the hook, and wait.

When you try something new, anything new, you’ll fall short of the mark. But falling short is valuable information. For one thing, you set out on a goal and you quickly discover what abilities or resources you lack to achieve your desired results. You also see (or at least might begin to see) what not to do. Failure can certainly be an option if you are willing to listen to what it says.

But Results Still Matter

I am working with several good people (including my wife) to get a new Catholic school off the ground. Process, of course, is important. Our team has to learn not only how to build a school, but how to properly interact with parents, lead teachers, craft a curriculum, and generally run a school that helps children walk along a path of learning and wisdom. If we fail, my consolation of relying on the process does me little good.

Some tasks simply demand results. Wise software developers like to say, a product doesn’t exist until it is launched. That is, for however many good lines of code and ideas a development team might have, until the users actually use the product, which is by definition something functional, it doesn’t really exist. It’s a hope or aspiration. Until you get “the thing” you don’t really have “a process” either.

That’s important. Process aims to produce good results, although sometimes it won’t. When it does, process helps to lead me to the results I hoped to achieve. When it doesn’t, I say with some satisfaction that I did what I could. But in both cases, the experience is an opportunity for growth and continued reengagement.

Humility Meets Ambition

At some point the virtues of humility and the human desire to achieve, what we might call ambition, must meet. Often times these two qualities are set in apposition: the humble person is caricatured as saying he “does not matter”—desiring to see themselves like an insignificant speck of cosmic dust. This is pride. Likewise, the ambitious person is said to be incapable of humility. Yet, ambition, properly ordered, is nothing more than an accelerant that forces someone to act beyond their present capabilities, to achieve something more than they have.

Ambition grounded in humility is what was called magnanimity: the ability of the soul to recognize that great achievement requires steady work and commitment. And the work is worthwhile whether or not the results immediately come. This, in turn, we call perseverance.

Ultimately, the incremental result is the important one. That is, if ambition and humility are to meet, it is around a process that realizes what is achievable and to recognize that achievement as worth the effort. That is, so many factors remain out of our control, that the small, meaningful improvement is an achievement worth satisfying a day’s work.


Mattias A. Caro is managing editor of Ethika Politika.

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