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!