Can A Modern Catholic Be Humble and Ambitious?

One Sunday, in the quiet time after Communion, I turned to the back of my family missal to find a new prayer to fill the silence. I found The Litany for Humility, a short prayer whose cadence seemed perfect for a quick prayer towards the end of Mass. As I read on, however, the language started to make me, well, uncomfortable. The prayer begins easily enough, petitioning to remove the fear of being loved and adored, but as it continues the prayer hit my ego hard.

That others may be esteemed more than I …

That others may be chosen and I set aside …

That others may be praised and I unnoticed …

That others may be preferred to me in everything…

The prayer drives the point home hard: stop thinking of yourself and placing yourself before others. The prayer is usually attributed to Pope Pius X’s Secretary of State Raphael Cardinal Merry del Val but its history or context is not known. The sentiment, however, is both timely and timeless, as just recently Pope Francis reflected on this very topic during daily Mass. “Along the path where Jesus shows us to journey, the guiding principle is service,” said the Pope earlier this month. “The greatest is the person who serves most, who serves others most, not the person who boasts, who seeks power, money… vanity, pride. No, these people are not the greatest.”

Humility is a virtue that we all think we understand. When we are younger, our parents tell us to tone down showboating and always remember to give people thanks for helping us achieve our successes. As we get older, we see humility as sharing credit with coworkers instead of hogging the spotlight, and as long as we do not act like Jordan Belfort, we generally consider ourselves checking the humble box.

Yet this litany and what the Pope recently preached is in direct contrast to what we experience in our daily lives. If you work in an office for a company of any size, the pressure to achieve and succeed is intense. With as many as four generations in the workplace, the upward career mobility of years past that could be assumed in many office jobs is not present. Competition for promotions or to find the next step in the job ladder is intense, and thus the millennial generation must work harder than ever to differentiate themselves in a tough market.

Our office culture reflects this. Modern leadership theory focuses on the cult of the personality, the idea that “innovative” people can make the difference in a company’s success or failure. When you attend leadership classes or read business books, the focus is not on working together but instead on the individual improving him- or herself to the point where they can lead. A perfect example is the current top seller on Amazon in the Business category: Smarter Faster Better, which according to its summary on Amazon, “explores the science of productivity, and why, in today’s world, managing how you think – rather than what you think – can transform your life.”  Even books which talk about building a leadership team default to the worship of the individual; the much lauded book Good to Great by Jim Collins explains how a good leader puts “the right people on the bus” instead of how a group of people can work together to make a company great.  Everything focuses on making yourself better and preparing yourself to lead and stand out.

How does a modern young professional find the balance? Can we truly be humble and disregard our ambition, our desire to better ourselves? Is it moral or ethical to not care about supporting ourselves or our family? Isn’t this using our God-given gifts to climb the corporate ladder and become the best executive we can?

As I often do when I need to think through a tough moral issue, I looked up the words of one of the millennial generation’s most admired religious figures, Teresa of Calcutta. I found a quote from her that hit the problem on the head: “If you are humble nothing will touch you, neither praise nor disgrace, because you know what you are. If you are blamed you will not be discouraged. If they call you a saint you will not put yourself on a pedestal.” This quote puts the idea of humility in a new light – this humility of Mother Teresa is a brutal honesty with yourself. To be humble is to be absolutely honest with ourselves about our failings and our strengths, because once we are honest with ourselves, it is impossible to be distracted by what others say about us. Conversely, lying about what we can do is where pride comes in; pride can be both public blustering to take credit and private simmering about getting something we may not deserve.

The application to our work life then becomes obvious. Yes, a Catholic can be ambitious and humble.  A Catholic can aim to create a leadership style based on his or her personality and strengths. But unlike many business books published today, the necessary first step is knowing who you are and, more accurately, what gifts God has given you. Then, and only then, can you grow as a leader and a professional because you know what gifts you have been given and that you can only achieve your goals with divine help. The humility we seek should be a serious accounting of ourselves, not just a false emotional self-abasement.

Robert Hay, Jr. (@roberthayjr) is a writer based in Alexandria, VA.