Widgets Magazine


The road to humility

“If you don’t mind answering, why did you take the year off?”

I have been asked this polite question many, many times, probably upwards of a hundred times.

I thoroughly enjoy answering this particular question — it’s the moment I have a chance to be more real to those caring individuals who asked — but looking back, I feel sorry for them.

I am now realizing that every answer I gave varied heavily. The answers were inconsistent, to a point of seeming dishonest!

The answers ranged from gaming addiction, grades, family, friends, dating, major, existential crisis, etc. The answer perhaps depended on what was on top of my mind that day, and the current stream of consciousness somehow overwrote past memories.

But for the past few weeks, I found an answer that encapsulates all these potential answers. When someone asks about my gap year, I now answer confidently:

“It’s a long story, but in short, I didn’t know what I was doing. I knew something was wrong, but didn’t know what. So I tried to see if things could be better.”

Soul searching? That would be the much more glorified and egotistical version. But let’s be honest, if you are soul-searching, then you don’t have a soul (trivially). So let’s not be quick to boast about “soul searching.” It’s a self-diss.

That silliness aside, my one-size-fits-all answer might be clarified by this analogy:

Life is a journey, or at least that’s a common metaphor. But unlike any ole’ stroll, this journey seems like a really, really fast sprint. Too fast to be sustainable, perhaps. A couple years back, I noticed everyone around me sprinting on this road, towards something. And, of course, I found myself sprinting as well.

When I caught my breath sophomore spring, I really couldn’t see where any of us were going — perhaps I needed better eyesight or even get better glasses. At least that’s what people told me.

But I couldn’t see the end, so I decided to stop.

I let everyone pass. And letting all sprinters pass by me, left and right, felt pretty crummy. It was difficult. But not difficult, as in triumphant or courageous. None to be glorified. Life at Stanford hit me hard — I was dejected and rejected by parts of Stanford — so I improvised.

I am now here, back to the road. The dust still hasn’t settled, for people sprint here every day. And the road is still here, with plenty of footprints encouraging me to run that way.

But maybe, just maybe, there is a different road. A road where the thing at the end of the path matters (and is visible). A road where we seek eulogy virtues, not résumé virtues. A road where humility is graced and self-promotion avoided.

A Road to Character.

Reorienting to this path is deeply concerning to me. Contradictions rise, and they block the road to character, or at the very least slow me down.

The contradiction is present in this post itself: I write. I write. That is one more self-promotion. One more ego-boost. One more backwards-step, one step away from character.

Is this habitual writing process making for a better résumé or better eulogy? Even discounting click-mongering, perhaps writing publicly itself is a problem.

I have found an ad hoc rationalization to this contradiction. Explaining away disturbing details to help me live, perhaps.

A fairly successful startup CEO once told me that humility without power is not humility. In other words, gain power first, then speak of humility.

Initially, I was taken aback by the elitist statement: so do only people like you — the mega-billionaires, politicians—deserve to think of themselves as humble?

After a couple of days nibbling on this weird advice, the correctness of it emerged. After a couple of months nibbling on this weird advice, the importance of it emerged.

And the realization caused ripples in my streams of thoughts.

The road to character is not about avoiding success. That is not walking on the road to character; it’s simply stopping. Avoiding success altogether is “going nowhere.”

The road to character is about striving for success, while keeping your head up. It’s easy to be humble as a mere student. It’s much harder as Elon Musk.

But that process of juggling success and humility is the road to character.

I read somewhere (perhaps Nietzsche) that writing is not about sharing your proudest accomplishments. Getting into Stanford, winning that championship, founding your startup, going public, etc. These successes, by themselves, are not worth writing about.

And also not enjoyable to read about! They are isolated superhuman feats. When I read a TechCrunch article about Series QXZ funding, I don’t learn much about them: I just feel intense envy at these obscure individuals.

Bare accomplishments are not useful.

Nietzsche recommends writing as a process of revealing human triumph. Human triumph. That human-ness necessitates a past self fighting a human struggle, and coming to a tremendous state of triumph.

But both the human and the superhuman. The crummy past version, then the awesome current version. Communicate this process of transformation, then you communicate hope.

With the ugly aspect, you now have some way of diverting self-promotion.

All these bits and pieces are really warnings to myself. To keep your head up straight. Be vulnerable. Spread hope, not envy.

If you would, please keep me in check.


Contact Josh Cho at joshcho ‘at’ stanford.edu.