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Radical Humility with Rebekah Modrak and Jamie Vander Broek

George Grombacher June 15, 2022

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Radical Humility with Rebekah Modrak and Jamie Vander Broek

LifeBlood: We talked about radical humility, what it means to be humble, why admitting fault and failure is so important and so difficult, the importance of a healthy prospective, and how to get started with Rebekah Modrak and Jamie Vander Broek, editors of Radical Humility: Essays on Ordinary Acts.  

Listen to learn why and how to embrace ordinary!

You can learn more about Rebekah and Jamie at, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, LinkedIn and LinkedIn.

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Our Guests

George Grombacher


Rebekah Modrak


Jamie Vander Broek

Episode Transcript

Unknown Speaker 0:00
Come on

Unknown Speaker 0:12
Well, I’m left with this is George G. And the time is right. welcome today’s guests strong and powerful. Rebecca mo Drac. And Jamie Vander Brooke. Ladies, are you ready to do this? Yeah, excited to be here. Excellent. excited to have you on. Rebecca and Jamie are the editors of radical humility essays on ordinary acts with contributors from renowned scholars and psychologists, artists radical, radical humility, offers guidance and comes at a time when humility is being stressed from the top. Tell us a little about your personal life, some more about your work, and what motivated you to to do the project. So this is Rebecca. And I’m an artist and I teach. I’m a professor at the Stanford School of Art and Design at the University of Michigan. And I, one summer, I left Ann Arbor and I went to spend a few months in Nebraska to interview farmers about their jobs. And I was really happy to leave university that summer, I just had been around a lot of

Unknown Speaker 1:18
occasions where people like to talk about what they did, in ways that sort of put themselves ahead of other people. And I escaped in Nebraska, where as I interviewed farmers, farmers kept telling me, you should interview this one particular farmer. And I would say, you know, like, why is that and I would think they were going to tell me, you know, that he knew about pest control or crop rotation. And they said, he’s really humble. And it wasn’t a word that I heard very often. And I was really interested in humility, and how it’s a part of somebody’s life. This is Jamie. So after Rebecca got back from that trip, she reached out to a couple of different colleagues and I was one of them. And coincidentally, I had a baby that year.

Unknown Speaker 2:09
And having my first child had really kind of opened my eyes to the ways that we think about raising humans as a society, and how much influence is placed on each person being this like, perfect, unique, special thing that deserves absolutely everything

Unknown Speaker 2:28
it ever could want or desire, like kind of right from the start, which was overwhelming me and freaking me out a little bit. Because I was sort of like, projecting into the future and thinking, well, if they’re all raised like this, how will they have a community together? Or what how will they ever learn to take themselves aside if they ever need to, so that someone else can step forward?

Unknown Speaker 2:52
So as I was sort of grappling with all of that, and not really at the top of my mind, just kind of like, it was kind of bubbling back there. Rebecca approached me about joining a project related to humility. And, and I realized that I had already been thinking about it not so much professionally in the way that Rebecca had been, but more personally. And so then we began trying to assemble a group of people to think about it together. And it was really important to us at the start that that group of people be a diverse group of people, and that they come from lots of different backgrounds, our intention was not to assemble a bunch of people, just from universities. So that was really important at the start.

Unknown Speaker 3:35
Awesome. Well, that certainly does make sense.

Unknown Speaker 3:40
So you need to talk to this person, why not? Because they’re the best farmer, or they have the best methods because they’re humble. And after talking to that person, did you walk away with with what was what was sort of the vibe or your feeling? Well, you know, interestingly, I never got to like the Holy Grail of that particular that one person that a few people mentioned to me, but I saw this trade in so many aspects of my life in Nebraska and how people interacted with each other. For example, you know, a farmer who was, who had a lavender farm, who, you know, where the crop was destroyed by hail one winter, and she had to replant the whole crop and then it was, you know, destroyed by something else. And every farmer had a story like that of facing, you know, failure on a daily basis. And, and just like moving on, you know, accepting that and finding the best way to adapt, but I also saw it you know, when I went to town barbecues or pancake breakfasts, the people that I sat with, you know, never talked about who they were, they would talk about their children they talk about, you know, a cycling or the weather or or you

Unknown Speaker 5:00
No pets in their lives where they would ask us questions about where we were from. And then when they would leave the room, the person next to us would say, you know, by the way, that was the town there, or by the way, that was our state senator one time that happened. And

Unknown Speaker 5:15
so, you know, it was really a part of life there.

Unknown Speaker 5:21
And then we flip that, and the potentially the opposite side of the coin is, and is it appropriate to say that? Well, like the self esteem movement that that we got into, and I don’t know, when that started, but telling everybody that we are, you know, special? We are uniquely special? And and that’s, that’s how we’re raised? Is that almost the opposite? Or am I looking at the wrong way? Well, I think one thing we learned when we investigated humility is I always thought, like, humility is opposite his arrogance. But like, in talking to all these different people with many different perspectives, and backgrounds and trainings about humility, it’s, it’s not one thing. And so there isn’t one opposite to it. So absolutely, that is, like, especially the story that I told, I think that like, that’s a big counter part to it, that, you know, this is like self esteem for sure, versus sort of, like smallness, or being a part of a,

Unknown Speaker 6:25
a big community. But there’s actually research that shows that even in more collectivist societies,

Unknown Speaker 6:33
humility is not always like,

Unknown Speaker 6:36
you know, number one value, because people still feel like pride at being like, the most sacrificial to the community, or things like that. So, but I think that one of the most interesting things was just like the variety and the diversity of definitions of humility of places where it shows up in people’s lives. And, like the sheer, like, difference in the stories that we heard from people, like from doctors offices, to lawyers, to people in restaurants, shows up in lots of places. One of the psychologists that we spoke with this question came up of, you know, well, isn’t it okay to feel good about something that I’ve done and to, you know, be proud of it or excited about it, and she made a difference distinction between, you know, being proud of, of an action or, for example, like, you might be proud of the podcast and proud of the conversations and the information you’re sharing. And that’s really different than being proud of like, George, you know, like that. It’s all about you, George. And it’s all like, set in the like, you know, the singular eye. So focusing more on what comes from from, you know, an action that’s really positive, rather than like, you know, the big glowing me that’s in the center of it.

Unknown Speaker 7:56
That makes sense.

Unknown Speaker 7:58

Unknown Speaker 8:00
in a perfect world, should there be such a such a thing, people would,

Unknown Speaker 8:08
would understand, embrace and practice more humility?

Unknown Speaker 8:15
Definitely, and, you know, this is, again, back to this one psychologist Jen Wright, who wrote one of the essays for the book. And for me, it was really,

Unknown Speaker 8:25
you know, one of the key people that we spoke with, she talks a lot about humility being a process and a state of being that you come into and out of. So, you know, if if, like, our natural inclination is to see ourselves as the center of this gravitational force, that, you know, we have to kind of continually reframe our vision, and which is something that I’ll do often.

Unknown Speaker 8:50
Right. And so every time we do that, you know, we kind of remind ourselves that the world is much larger than us, and there are many more people involved. We’re, you know, processing through this state of being, but it’s, you know, we lapse in and out of it. And it’s not, it’s not as though you ever achieve this perfect state of humility and just exist within that.

Unknown Speaker 9:15
I like that. It’s a process and a state of being. And I remember, my mom would tell me when I was a little kid, probably today, like the world does not revolve around you, George. And I think that’s obviously true, and something that we need to keep in mind. How do we balance self worth with humility? I guess that’s the practice part.

Unknown Speaker 9:39
Well, I think that comes back again to this question of self esteem. I’ve been she’s not included in the book, but I’ve been reading the work of the psychologist Kristen Neff, a lot lately. She works on self compassion. And she pushes people to

Unknown Speaker 9:55
to be compassionate with themselves rather than to base their worth on

Unknown Speaker 10:00
esteem like, because you’re always sort of comparing yourself, I think you’re basing your worth on self esteem. So I think humility is a key component there. Because if you sort of start with the sense that you are an imperfect person, and but we all are, and none of us is any better or any worse than others, I think humility really plays into adopting that state of mind authentically.

Unknown Speaker 10:26
And then I think it just sort of relieves this pressure valve that I think that we’ve like, inflated into people. I mean, Rebecca and I are in this academic environment, it’s sort of coming off a wave of entrepreneurship being like, really

Unknown Speaker 10:41
dominant, sort of like, theory is the wrong word. But like, that’s like that was like the ethos where we were working for a long time.

Unknown Speaker 10:50
And that really subsist on a sense that like everyone should make it for themselves. It’s all based on like your brand, and what you can bring to the table and how you can like survive on your own.

Unknown Speaker 11:01
And I think that instills in, especially young people, almost this like panic, that they need to be better than all the other people around.

Unknown Speaker 11:11
So I think if people can kind of start with this sense that like, no, no matter what you managed to achieve, no person is actually better or worse than another person, that I think there’s almost like a calm piece that can come for people who are practicing

Unknown Speaker 11:30
this sort of way of thinking, this sort of like humble mindset.

Unknown Speaker 11:35
If you’re sort of thinking about yourself as part of a very, like, sort of like an

Unknown Speaker 11:41
boundaryless group of people, I think that’s

Unknown Speaker 11:47
an easier way to live almost. And I love that. And one of the things that we did when we put together this book was I was really looking for models of people who acted out humility in their daily lives. And some of the people who wrote essays for the book, there are heroes or people who, like their greatest third biggest sort of thing that they’re known for is a failure. And I love that I think about all the time with my kids,

Unknown Speaker 12:14
teaching them that the people that we should value are the people who failed, and we should value them for failing, like for as an example of that. And this is a redefining failure, in a sense, also,

Unknown Speaker 12:25
one of the authors in the book Trojan War, who’s a philosopher and a poet, writes about a philosopher named Philippa foot, who in the 70s, wrote a paper that was really influential. And then in the 1990s, she started referring people to another paper that criticized her her original paper, and she then recanted her original paper, and said, You know, I was wrong, a lot of the things that I wrote I was wrong. Well, Troy, Jolly more shows both the original essay and her recantation to his students and says, this is, this is a really, you know, perfect model of somebody who’s willing to give up their, you know, and willing, willing to admit that things that they thought were problematic, so that they can move forward and gain new knowledge. And he says that often his students are really kind of upset by this. And they say, she should have stood her ground, she should have said, you know, I, you know, I said this, and I meant it, and I believe in it. But it’s, you know, he tries to teach them that it’s far more valuable for somebody to, you know, to give up parts of themselves as they grow, and they evolve. Yeah, I think that that’s incredible. There are fewer things in the world, that that make me more frustrated when people don’t own mistakes, and they just continue to live the term as double down or whatever it might be. It’s like, just say that you’re wrong, and that we as human beings have the capacity to learn and grow and change. And that’s, I think what you’re talking about are part of it. That’s right. Yeah. My other favorite, I mean, I, I have like 10 favorite essays on the book, but another favorite one is pay an attorney who was the chief attorney for a hospital system. And at a certain point, he said, you know, we’re gonna start acknowledging our mistakes. From this point on if you make a mistake, you come forward, you admit you’re wrong, and let’s try to make it better because he realized how much trauma was caused for doctors who felt that they you know, if they had prescribed just like the wrong dose of medicine, that they had to kind of you know, pretend that they hadn’t that they then you know, like their whole future was jeopardized as a doctor by doing that the patient was you know, you know traumatized have to fight the hospital system to prove this. The hospital never you know, if for example, say the say the labeling was hard to read, they never made the change.

Unknown Speaker 15:00
into the labeling some of the problem would occur again. And his essay is about, you know what it was like for him to go through this process with. Within this medical system, I mean, everything I read that essay like every other month just to kind of like remind myself that there was this person, you know, in this position of power, who instead of like, seeing power as something where you know, you you control knowledge or information, instead using it as a way to, you know, encourage people to fess up and claim mistakes.

Unknown Speaker 15:34
That’s a really powerful essay, if you like just cherry pick one essay out of the book, I think that’s one of the ones I would think of, to suggest, I was just, for the first time with colleagues who are other art librarians in Chicago, and more than one of them came up to me to say that they read that I say, cried on the subway.

Unknown Speaker 15:54
So like, definitely, I think humility can be just this like, very powerful. It unlocks, I think, what the brings us together as people instead of what sort of is keeping us apart. And I think that’s almost like medicine that we need in our society right now.

Unknown Speaker 16:14
I think that that’s a great way to put it. And

Unknown Speaker 16:19
it strikes me that if we are,

Unknown Speaker 16:23
if we are going to, if it’s going to be possible to do what, what you’re talking about what we’re talking about, that we need to extend grace, when somebody does make a mistake, and not counsel them, or fire them, or shame them, or whatever.

Unknown Speaker 16:44
Yeah, that’s an interesting point. I think like,

Unknown Speaker 16:48
I think that, I think that a lot of when we think about humility, we think about what we can do as ourselves. And that’s fair enough, like, that’s what we can control. But it is also like extending grace to other people. And to like, kind of giving people space to mess up.

Unknown Speaker 17:09
And, you know, recognizing that, like, if you are around children, at any point, it is really hard to say that you’re wrong, it’s hard for them to learn to say they’re wrong. And it’s hard to say you’re wrong to them, even to like a child. So like imagining saying, You’re wrong, if you are in a position of power, like, that’s not an easy thing to do. So I think also recognizing,

Unknown Speaker 17:32
I don’t know what we need to do to encourage it to happen more. I mean, Rebecca and I have talked a lot about what needs to happen at, you know, the institution that we work in, and I’m sure that you’ve observed people who need to apologize also, or say that they’ve done things that are wrong. But it’s hard.

Unknown Speaker 17:50
I found that it’s

Unknown Speaker 17:53
I wish that I could point to people right now that are famous, or that have come out and said, Hey, listen, this, I made a mistake. And because I know that when I do that, over the course of my life, that’s when real connections are made, especially when I have been in a position to leadership. And I admit to the people that I’m working with or leading that I screwed up, and I own that. And because we are all fallible, and we all all, all do make mistakes, that just tightens the bond and and really increases trust. And I’ve got a five year old and a two year old and I will tell them, I’m with you. It’s not easy, but I’ll absolutely tell them when when when I’ve made mistakes, because I do it all the time. And I apologize, I find that it’s a muscle that that just needs to be exercised. And that as you do it, you become more comfortable with it and you get better at it.

Unknown Speaker 18:55
That’s such a good point. And I think it’s also possible to then never use the muscle. So like you get to a point where like, it’s just like, painful in this like excruciating way to admit it. And I think that too many people in powerful positions have not practiced it and so like their first time having to practice that would be a really, really high stakes situation.

Unknown Speaker 19:19
Yeah. And I think the psychologists and philosophers that we spoke with said that the more you apologize to your children like apologizing to them, kind of on a daily basis, which I tend to do I also like because it’s so easy, I mean little things like right like I you know, I forgot to put the like carrots in your lunch like I’m sorry, you know, it’s so easy to say that and

Unknown Speaker 19:42
I remember these studies that you know, they shared with us where if you do apologize, and your children see like how easily I’m sorry comes from your lips, then they grow up to be people who, you know, don’t have sort of like weird fetishes about being perfect and are willing to

Unknown Speaker 20:00
say they’re sorry to other people and become really good leaders and really good, you know, people to work with and, you know, better communicate with their own family. So it’s hard, I say, I’m sorry, to my, to my children every day. And

Unknown Speaker 20:16
right now my son, if he needs to say, he’s sorry, it’s so hard for him still, even even with me doing that.

Unknown Speaker 20:25
It’s just, like, painful for him to say it. And I’m trying to help him where, you know, it just like, comes out easily. But he needs like a good three hours for something to kind of settle in with him and process it before it’s ready to come out. The other side is a sorry, so we’ll see. Yeah, just because I’d say sorry, to my kids doesn’t mean that they’re good at saying it back. So I totally get it.

Unknown Speaker 20:51
They are tiny humans. And, and it is a lot. I just had the opportunity to talk with a talk with a therapist, and she was telling me how,

Unknown Speaker 21:01
how young people are suffering so immensely with mental health challenges, and one of the things is struggling with, with perfection. And so I think that the more that your work, and the more conversations and the more parents can talk to their kids about how it’s, we’re imperfect, and we make mistakes, and it’s just part of the human experience that that’s probably how, in fact, I know, that’s how we’re going to start making these changes. Just one at a time. Yeah, I think I mean, for me, like these essays, I mean, I wish this book was in high school curriculum, because there’s another essay in the book by Mickey do che, who I don’t know, if you watch this series on Netflix called losers. It’s a series where maybe there were like, five to eight episodes, and each one was about a different athlete, who had, you know, totally failed, like,

Unknown Speaker 21:55
I think was like a golfer who, you know, like, wasn’t expected to do well did really well reached for like, top game, and then just bombed that game. And, you know, had to live on not only with that failure, but with being known for like a huge failure. And Mickey describes, like, in each of these cases, like what what that failure enabled in their life that then we don’t go on, we don’t we weren’t, we didn’t have access to see, but was really kind of pivotal in like, a life changing moment for them, where they learned, you know, other things that they loved and other ways they had of connecting with the world or contributing to the world.

Unknown Speaker 22:35
So I think for me, like, you know, lovely thing about this book is that it does provide especially, you know, growing curious people about the world a way of being in the world. That’s, you know, not just about perfection. Well said,

Unknown Speaker 22:54
Jamie, any additional thoughts?

Unknown Speaker 22:59
Yeah, I mean, I guess I just, I come back to like this sense of the power of being ordinary, I think, to me, that’s what my biggest takeaway from working on this project, I think like that working on this project really transformed the way that I communicate and interact, especially with coworkers and friends. And an essential aspect of it is just embracing ordinariness instead of perfection or instead of special or uniqueness.

Unknown Speaker 23:31
So I think that’s something that’s the very

Unknown Speaker 23:36
important lesson I guess from the bucket for people to take home. Love it, Rebecca

Unknown Speaker 23:44
is this where I give a suggestion of like, for sure Yeah. Yeah.

Unknown Speaker 23:51
Yeah, I we ran a little bit running a little bit long but yeah, give us

Unknown Speaker 23:57
give us that difference making tip for sure.

Unknown Speaker 24:01
Um, one thing that I do sometimes if I’m you know, for example, say there’s like a grant I didn’t get or some other kind of disappointment is I did try to like imagine myself and I like at first I imagined myself in this kind of small room with like myself at the center and then I just kind of like make the room around me get bigger and bigger and bigger until like, I’m in this huge like, kind of universe or huge world and I’ve become you know, a little bit smaller in that world. And I think for me, it kind of releases me of some of the claustrophobia of feeling like a singular event a little too closely.

Unknown Speaker 24:40
Love it. Jamie, you have a difference making tip?

Unknown Speaker 24:44
Yeah, I think it’s just what Rebecca just said like, be small, be ordinary. Okay.

Unknown Speaker 24:53
I mean,

Unknown Speaker 24:56
I think that those are great. That definitely gets come up. Rebecca and Jamie

Unknown Speaker 25:00
Thank you so much for coming on. Where can people learn more about you? And how can they get a copy of radical humility essays on ordinary X?

Unknown Speaker 25:09
The books published by belts publishing, and you can get at the website.

Unknown Speaker 25:17
And if they wanted to learn more about the two of you, where can they find you?

Unknown Speaker 25:22
I’m Rebecca mo

Unknown Speaker 25:27
And I’m Jamie Vander Brook. And you can find me, I guess, mostly where I work. So I’m the librarian at the University of Michigan. Excellent. Well, if you enjoyed this as much as I did show, Rebecca and Jamie your appreciation and share today’s show with a friend who also appreciates good ideas, pick up a copy of essays on ordinary X.

Unknown Speaker 25:49
Radical humility essays on ordinary X. And it was belt publishing.

Unknown Speaker 25:55
Publishing, I’ll list all that and where you can track find more in the notes of the show. Thanks again, Rebecca, and Jamie.

Unknown Speaker 26:05
Thank you. And until next time, keep fighting the good fight. We’re all in this together.

Transcribed by

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