Hubris means extreme haughtiness, pride or arrogance. Hubris often indicates a loss of contact with reality and an overestimation of one’s own competence or capabilities, especially when the person exhibiting it is in a position of power.
Humility (adjectival form: humble) is the quality of being modest, and respectful. Humility, in various interpretations, is widely seen as a virtue in many religious and philosophical traditions, being connected with notions of transcendent unity with the universe or the divine, and of egolessness.
These are contrasting ideas or states of mind, wouldn’t you say?
Recently, I have been reading biographies about famous musicians. In one of these books, a famous, brilliant, gifted, successful musician of yesteryear is in the studio, trying to record his next solo album. An equally luminous musician, but from a more modern time, is at the studio controls, capturing the music being made by the older star. He and the producer know the material is below par. They know the lyrics are weak. The producer, also renown, dares to suggest that the material requires revision or additional reflection, before release. The humiliated, fading rock star is incandescent. He asks pointedly, “how many number one hit records have you had?” The critical voices are silenced, even though both have enjoyed major chart success. The less-than-great record is released and it does very poor business. Both of the silenced men know that they should have stood their ground, for the greater good. Regret is the dominant feeling all around.
A CEO, fond of snide jokes to staff about firing the lot of them, and of asking assembled rooms full of employees why she shouldn’t get rid of them all at once, is fired…by phone. The company she led has performed dismally for a long period of time. Once a dot com powerhouse, the company is now an irrelevance, basking in its fading glory, unable to innovate and return to its once dominant and prominent position in the business world.
How many companies, once so self satisfied and pleased with themselves, wind up going down the pan? Think of the failing fortunes of Microsoft, IBM, HP, Sony and soon even Apple, once they begin to lose their way and are deprived of their driving forces. It’s a fact that of the Fortune 500, FTSE 100 or S&P top performing companies of say fifty years ago, very few indeed are still at that peak of success. They all failed to sustain their dominance and good fortune. Some of those mighty names are no longer even remembered.
In art, as in life, you really are only as good as your next piece of work. That’s the great leveller. It’s what makes art (and entrepreneurship) exciting. The next big thing can come from nowhere. Advantage is temporary. If your best work is behind you, you can only look back in fond reminiscence. You need to be constantly improving your art and your output, if your goal is to stay toppermost of the poppermost.
As an artist, how do you survive this ruthless and brutal levelling process, which is indifferent to your past successes or the blood, sweat and tears that went into their making? There is only one way. Always do your best. You don’t necessarily have to be the best, though always doing your best is, in fact, the only way to ever be the best. You can’t phone it in. Throwing it together, without thought or effort, won’t cut it. Winging it, without preparation, giving less than you should, because you think you alone have the secret and the Midas touch, is a recipe for failure and oblivion.
Combating a tendency for self-delusion and hubris must, of course, be very difficult to do if you have enjoyed the long-term adulation of dedicated fans and the flattery of sycophantic courtiers, who deceive to remain close to your fame, glory and power. It may be the most difficult thing about your art. Asking an honest question about your current artistic work and getting an honest answer from a genuinely objective consumer, can be hard, but so is hearing difficult or uncomfortable truths. Equally dangerous is paying heed to those with an agenda and nasty enough to belittle your efforts, irrespective of their quality.
There is a delicate balance to be struck, I think. We can’t please everybody and should never try. Pleasing ourselves is a more reliable route to authenticity, ultimately. However, we can’t become so arrogant and disconnected that we serve up any old junk, with our signature on it and expect uncritical accolades for our “efforts”. Our art needs to have integrity. The artists that chart the most successful course between hubris and being crushed by any and all criticism are the ones that always seek to improve. They always look for what could be even better, in their art, taking soundings, but with wariness of those that just like to destroy. Try something innovative, novel, new, iconoclastic, groundbreaking, surprising, unexpected and fresh. This might fail, but at least you are trying to improve your output.
Formulaic art is anathema and ultimately lazy. Doing more of what once worked is no guarantee that it will continue to work. Repeating yourself, as an artist, can even begin to bore you, which is always reflected in the diminishing quality of your work.
It is important to acknowledge and take pride in your own achievements and abilities, but not excessively. Always know there is more to know and much more to do. I think resting on your laurels is a bit like retirement, but with a less pleasant public face. Celebrate your talents and works, but stay grounded. You’re not the only one with gifts, but everybody’s gifts are precious and unique.
On the other hand, you shouldn’t be so humble that you hide your light under a bushel. Don’t underplay your talent and achievements either. How is that more honest than hubris? Don’t didactically ram your achievements down the throats of others, but don’t pretend you haven’t made any either. Demonstrating too much humility is simply suspect. You can’t deny your artistic and creative gifts, or the manifestations of your artistic effort. That’s false and undermines your authenticity and integrity, as an artist.
The protection you need is to always aim to make your next achievement the best one yet. If you do, you’ll stay engaged and curious and you will come up with new and exciting things. If you do that, who can complain that you didn’t give of your best? Who can accuse you, with any justification whatsoever, of hubris?