In humility lies the real strength…

I was traveling back from Austin on Southwest Airlines.  Since I had to change my flight at the last minute, it was clear I would have to settle for a seat in the middle.  So, as soon as I saw one empty in the front row, I claimed it.

I was still searching for my seat belt when the passenger to my left (let’s call him Mr. Left) complained, “Don’t you just hate traveling like this? I always travel Business Class.”

“At least, it is a short flight,” I said, trying to dismiss his negativity.

“I am CEO of my company.  How am I supposed to explain this to my staff?”  He was fidgeting in his seat. I looked out the window. Now I noticed the passenger to my right (Let’s call him Mr. Right) who was happily settled in his seat reading a newspaper.

In a few minutes, Mr. Left started again. “Do you live in Houston?  I live in Santa Barbara. I would rather be there.”

“Yes, I live in Houston – and I love it.” I had to defend my city.

“What else can you say if you have to live here?”  He mocked me.  Helplessly, I glanced to my right.  Mr. Right smiled politely, bent toward me and said very softly, “Do you want to switch seats?”

“Thank you, but I am OK.” I was surprised Mr. Right was willing to trade his window seat with me.

Three minutes passed and Mr. Left started again. “What do you do? Do you work?”

“I work at the University of Houston.”  I was irritated that he didn’t notice my bold UH pin.

“Don’t know much about it… I was admitted to Stanford.” I wanted to punch him, but kept my hands in my lap.

“What did you study at Stanford?” I was curious because I know they don’t offer a degree in stupidity.

“Well, I went to a community college, but Stanford really wanted me. I make so much money now anyway—who cares about Stanford?”  I sighed and thought to myself, “Oh, this is going to be a long flight!”

“Do you know how much money I made last year?  I can buy a Ferrari if I want to.” He was trying to impress a total stranger.

At this time, Mr. Right got up from his seat and said to me, “I insist you take this window seat.  You can use some rest.”

The force in his voice made me get up and do as told.  The rest of the journey was uneventful, at least for me.  While leaving the plane, I thanked Mr. Right. It was then that he handed me his business card and said, “It was the least I could do, Dr. Khator. Thank you for all that you do for our state.”

Do I know him?  I read the card, blinked my eyes and read it again carefully.  Then I realized I was sitting next to a real success story! I wanted to say something, but he was already 10 steps ahead of me.  Obviously, he did not need any affirmation of his success from anyone.

“What a difference!” I thought to myself.  Are these two individuals different because how successful (or unsuccessful) they are or because of who they are as individuals? One was clearly in desperate need of recognition from others, and the other was solid as a rock, full of inner strength. One so arrogant, the other so humble!

Humility is, I believe, a reflection of an inner strength that is neither an art nor an acquired skill.  It is a deposit, built up layer by layer over time. Only genuinely successful people can afford to develop this deposit because they don’t have to spend their time and energy pretending to be who they are not and protecting the thing they don’t have.

Humility is a precious thing, and I see it in action every day on my campus: faculty members engaging a class of 500 students with as much ease as talking with a friend over lunch; vice presidents serving pancakes at 11 p.m. to students during Finals week;  managers picking up dirty plates to ensure seats are available for students waiting in line;  staff members standing under the blazing sun offering water bottles to students on the first day of classes; and students with perfect GPAs helping their peers who have panicked just before the major exam.

On the drive from airport, I was reminded of a verse from an Urdu poem, one of my all-time favorites.

“Khuda humko aisi khudai na de

Ki khud ke bina kuchh dikhai na de.”

Simply put, that means: “God, give me success, but never let success make me forget the existence of others around me.”

As you begin the New Year, may you be blessed with the gift of humility!


14 thoughts on “In humility lies the real strength…

  1. You never truly know how much money someone has or makes, but in my experience, someone like Mr. Left often does not have the means they say they do. I fly from Houston to California all the time for business, and I prefer Southwest, but they do not often have the most convenient or cheapest flights available. In my experience, it is very rare that Southwest would be the only option to get from city A to city B. Usually it is the case that when booking last minute there is only one airline that is an Affordable option, but there are others who can be much more expensive, mostly because they only have upgraded seats available. Someone like Mr. Left, if he had the means he says he does, would typically not think twice about paying more for an assigned seat, and possibly in economy plus or first class.

    The other telling thing is that “he could have bought a ferrari.” Then why didn’t he? There are many ways to measure wealth, but the wealthy typically don’t tell you about things they “could” have, because they have the buying power to get them, and instead talk about things they have. Meaning the only reason why someone with the power to buy a ferrari wouldn’t buy one is that they don’t want one. If they don’t want one why would they bring up the fact that they could buy one if they wanted to?

    However the most telling thing here has nothing to do with Mr. Left or Mr. Right. It is that Dr. Khator, a university president, is not above flying Southwest and having a middle seat. Especially in this time of lavish executive benefits and travel options.

    Also, many of my clients are at Stanford, and I was there last week. There isn’t any thing there that is better than U of H, except the weather.

  2. Wow. What an experience!

    UH has some of the best faculties that are successful beyond imagination, yet they go out of their way to help students. MBA at UH has been one of the most humbling experience for me. Not to mention how much I have learned from all the professors here.

    Professors like Dave Cook, Dale Rude, Phil Rogers, Staci Smith, Victor Wayhan, Paul Pennington, Steve Koch and Phil Morabito are some of the examples of what great professors look like in and out of class room. All my success to this date is due to these faculties. I am forever grateful. They have taught me better to be Mr. Right.

    So not to worry Dr. Khator, the culture you are raising is producing many Mr. Rights. And I thank you for that.

    • Dear Dr. Renu,
      I would not have learned your humorous writings if my boss, who has very high opinion of you,. had not mentioned this story to-day. I am so glad that I read it to day. I love it being a humorous writer among Gujarati group of this town.
      You wrote this from your experience and I write from my observations from Indians behaviors, Gujaraties in particular. Published my first 43 humorous articles in my first book “Halve Haiye” in 1997.. I write poems, Gazals, haikus, etc.

      For your info, I attended U of H. Did my MS in Civil Engg in 1968 and since then settled here. One on my daughter, Heta Shah, did her pharmacy from UH and she is now a regional pharmcy manager for Randells in this town.

      With your permission, I would like to translate this article in Gujarati and publish it on my web site “Chaman Ke Phool’. Also, I would like to read more of yours.

      Like you quoted, I would like to mention a sher (two lines) from my gazal.
      It’s in Gujarat so please let your Gujarati proffesor or a student read to you and explain.

      ખુદા એ મને ચતુરાઈ ના દીધી હતે તો ઠીક,
      સમજણ, સાચા ખોટાની ના દીધિ હતે તો ઠીક

      My contact info: E-mail:

      Thanks to know you as a humorous writer.

      Chiman Patel “chaman”
      Kite Flying Day

  3. Thank you “Mr. Right” for all you do each day to help the person next to you. This is a wonderful reminder that a simple kindness to the person next to you has a big impact.

  4. “Khuda humko aisi khudai na de

    Ki khud ke bina kuchh dikhai na de.”

    खुदा हमें ऐसी खुदाई ना दे
    कि खुद के सिवा कुछ दिखाई ना दे

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