It’s only through humility that we can achieve great things

My 6-year-old son is really farsighted, and I had no idea. I completely missed it.

To be fair to me and my husband, the ophthalmologist (the esteemed and wonderful Dr. Hunter of Children’s Hospital Boston) said that Liam was compensating really well. And until his yearly checkup last month, he had been passing vision tests (which mostly test for nearsightedness). But in retrospect, there were signs we didn’t pay attention to. He didn’t like looking at words in books, and on hikes he kept saying “Where?” when my husband pointed to things nearby. We thought he was impatient or not paying attention. Turns out he couldn’t see.

It got me thinking about humility.

It’s easy for me to think I’ve got this parenting thing down pat. After all, come February I will have been at it for 21 years. I’ve had lots of experience with everything from babies who won’t stop crying to teenagers pushing the limits of independence. I’ve managed countless fevers, homework predicaments, sibling fights, and social crises. I’ve potty-trained five kids, and helped teach them all to read, look both ways before crossing the street, be polite, and eat vegetables. I’ve learned to pick up on the subtle clues of illness, sadness, and fear.

Yet I missed Liam’s farsightedness.  And for the past couple of weeks I’ve been wondering if I missed it because I was too sure of myself as a parent.

It’s the same in medicine. It’s really easy to get sure of yourself as a doctor, especially when you’ve been doing it for a while—and especially when you have lots of patients to see. It’s easy to say: I know this. I’ve seen this before; I know what to do.  Been there, done that.

Usually, it works out. But sometimes, it can make us miss things we should see.

I don’t think that it’s arrogance that gets us into these situations. Well, maybe it’s a little bit of arrogance. Mostly, though, it’s convenience. It’s so much easier to go into things with our assumptions and habits, with our certainty about our experience. It makes us feel more calm, comfortable, and confident—and all of those are good things.

It’s much harder to go into things realizing that every day, every moment, every child or patient is new. Going into everything with a clear eye, mind, and heart is so much more work—and means acknowledging that there is so much we don’t know. In fact, it means focusing on what we don’t know—and who wants to do that?

We tend to think of humility as an optional virtue. Humble people are admirable and all that, but we think of humility as something that can get in the way of excellence and achievement.

But I think that it’s only through humility that we can achieve great things. We might get lucky here and there without it, but it’s only when we know our limits that we can push those limits, and ourselves, further. It’s only with a clear eye, mind, and heart that we can see what we need to see.

Like Liam’s farsightedness.

Claire McCarthy is a primary care physician and the medical director of Children’s Hospital Boston’s Martha Eliot Health Center.  She blogs at Thrive, the Children’s Hospital Boston blog.

Submit a guest post and be heard on social media’s leading physician voice.

Comments are moderated before they are published. Please read the comment policy.

  • Sayantani DasGupta

    As a faculty member in the Program in Narrative Medicine at Columbia, I embrace the notion of humility in medicine – I’ve been calling my vision of this orientation “narrative humility” – broadening the directives of both “cultural humility” to encompass ALL the stories we encounter from our patients and the directives of my colleague Rita Charon’s notion of “narrative competence” – remembering that we cannot hope to master or understand fully our patient’s stories but can approach them openly and humbly – from a position of learner as well as teacher. I wrote in the Lancet (vol 371, March 22, 2008)  about these issues in an essay entitled “Narrative Humility”. 

  • Haleh

    Humility in medicine is key.  In addition to reminding a doctor to view a situation clearly, it also significantly enhances the doctor/patient relationship.  In order to be an effective healer a doctor needs to truly listen to a patient and respect what it is that they are saying.  This takes humility.

    Haleh Rabizadeh Resnick, Education, Speaker, Author of Little Patient Big Doctor: One Mother’s Journey

  • smith

    Great story. I fully agree with you that it the humility using which we can achieve great things. Thanks for posting such useful information……..

  • Vibha Fenil Shah

    Very thoughtful post. Humility needs to be worked on in every aspect of life for everyone. If we have humility and experience working together we can do wonders.

  • Michele Lee Bordelon

    Humility means you are open to growing as a person AND a professional.  It’s a good “place” to be.

  • Bobby Fernandez

    Great story.  My RN mother still talks about the time she let me play a full week of football practice and a game with a fractured thumb.  Of course the school trainer missed it too but she took the experience as a reminder that despite her mastery of her profession, she still will not always get it right. 

  • Joyce Hyam

    This article is a great reminder to be open to listening to each and every patient, client,customer,family member with an open heart, mind, ears and eyes. It is by listening and understanding that we can approach with humility and can be open to learning and experiencing new things which can assist us in our future experiences. An important point is that everyone is unique and each situation is also.

  • Anonymous

    No one doubts the uniqueness of mother-Child interaction.  This interaction does not compare with any past experiences.  Humility allows us to identify the true challenge.  The true challenge and the largest one is ourselves.  Trust me is the greatest challenge of all as I found out as a disabled mother with a daughter.

Most Popular