“Do you wish to be great? Think first about the foundations of humility. The higher your structure is to be, the deeper must be its foundation” – Saint Augustine
When I was a teenager back in the 1980s, I used to enjoy watching a five-minute PBS program called The Star Hustler, hosted by Jack Horkheimer. The subject was astronomy, and Jack told us about stars, planets and constellations with a bubbly, boyish enthusiasm. It was clear that he really enjoyed stargazing, and to me, he was the perfect host because he was able to transmit that excitement to his viewers. The other notable thing about Jack Horkheimer was his sign-off; he always ended his show by encouraging us to “keep looking up”.
Lately, I’ve been thinking about that sign-off phrase. Although it was intended in a strictly astronomical sense, when framed in another context, it contains advice that may be one of the best determinants of our success in life.
As you travel along your life’s journey, picture yourself climbing a ladder – a ladder of your own accomplishments. As you climb this ladder, you can either look down and marvel at all that you’ve achieved so far, or you can gaze upwards and observe what you may still conquer one day. While there’s nothing inherently wrong with either of these viewpoints, I’d like to make the following recommendation: keep your gaze focused upwards instead of downwards. I admit that it’s tempting and ego-gratifying to look down – either at others who are struggling, or simply to admire your own accomplishments – but I urge you to resist the temptation. Keep looking up, and see the heights to which you may yet climb.
The root of this philosophy is a deep sense of humility. Looking up is effortless for astronomers like Jack Horkheimer because they know – far better than any of us – how incomprehensibly expansive the universe is, and how small, insignificant and practically immeasurable we are in comparison. Comprehending our place and importance in the universe – and by extension, your place and importance in society – may be difficult for many of you, but in order to adopt and embrace this philosophy, you must first put your ego aside.
This is usually the point where most motivational speakers end their speeches. They’ll leave their audience with an intricately-woven, wonderful-sounding and inspiring metaphor – and then send them out the door to take on the world. It’s now up to each person to figure out how to apply this vision to his or her own life. I’m not like those motivational speakers, because I’m now going to give you some concrete, step-by-step advice. If you can summon the necessary humility and if you’re serious about applying this interpretation of Jack Horkheimer’s celestial advice to your own life, then do as many of the following things as possible:
- Ralph Waldo Emerson said “Every man I meet is my superior in some way, and in that I learn from him”. You may know a lot of things; you may be a trivia expert, have an exceptionally high IQ, or even hold graduate degrees, but everyone you meet – no matter what their station in life – knows something (or many things) that you don’t. Take as many opportunities as you can to learn something from everyone, and then add it to your storehouse of knowledge. Know-it-alls will miss these opportunities because they spend their time trying to impress people with their own knowledge, instead of listening to others.
- If you’re a talk show fan, then watch Oprah Winfrey instead of Jerry Springer. Jerry Springer’s guests are generally less-than-accomplished folks (to put it charitably). While their antics may give the studio audience and home viewers a sense of superiority and smugness, that feeling will also make them complacent. The Oprah Winfrey Show is a much better choice – her guests are savvy, capable, educated and inspirational, and the viewing experience is completely different. Audience members and home viewers come away energized and inspired; they see what others have accomplished, and may now feel inspired (or even motivated) to seize the day, reach higher and accomplish more with their lives.
- Don’t pay attention to celebrity news or gossip. Sometime during the last generation or two, we – the voracious consumers of media known as the general public – seem to have lost the distinction between fame and infamy. These are opposite sides of the publicity coin. These days, celebrities and journalists measure attention-seeking only as an absolute value, and ignore the +/- sign. This leads to such insipid (yet widely-believed) phrases as “there’s no such thing as bad publicity”. Celebrities no longer have to set a positive example to stay in the spotlight – they just have to behave poorly, which is obviously much easier. In my opinion, if you behave poorly, then you’re not worthy of my attention… or of anyone’s.
- Strive to be a small fish in a big pond, instead of a big fish in a small pond. For example, if you’re enjoying a senior position at a small firm, then apply for the same job at a larger company and immerse yourself in an enormous pool of talent.
- Don’t buy the biggest house in a run-down neighbourhood – buy the smallest house in the best neighbourhood that you can afford. You will feel humbled at first, but you will also be challenged and aspire to greater things; your neighbours will set a new standard for you. If you own the largest house in poor area, your immediate environment will simply drag you (and your house’s value) down.
- Many insecure middle managers (in large corporations) will build fiefdoms by hiring a platoon of marginally-qualified underlings. They then get a feeling of superiority (and job security) because no one in their department can do their job as well as they can. This also means that they will never leave their department, because there are no qualified people to take their place. Don’t do this. I realize that this advice sounds counter-intuitive, especially in a tough economy, but… make yourself dispensable. Hire the most talented people you can find and teach them everything you know. Feel secure knowing that if you get hit by a bus tomorrow, then your department will run perfectly without you. Your bosses will notice, and you will be more likely to be promoted.
- Try to associate (and ideally, make friends) with people who are smarter and more accomplished than you are. Don’t feel that you need to compete with them – I’ve discovered that no one thinks less of me when I readily admit that s/he has a superior knowledge in a particular field.
- Take a course – either for credit or general interest. Think back to when you were growing up; we were surrounded by experts – parents, relatives, teachers, professors – and we could ask them anything we liked. Now that we’re adults and our formal education is complete, it’s easy to believe that we possess all of the knowledge that we need to get by in life. That’s because ignorance is bliss. Whatever you think you know right now is still not enough – there is always more to learn. The more you know and understand, the richer life becomes. Take a course in anything, but surround yourself with experts, and never stop learning.
- Don’t rest on your laurels or pat yourself on the back for too long. As soon as you’ve accomplished something, start another, more ambitious project immediately.
If you spend your life looking down, then you’re going to “plateau”; you won’t rise to new heights because you won’t be aware that they even exist. The only time that you should look down on someone is if you’re extending your hand to help lift that person up.
What Jack Horkheimer asked us to do literally, is what we should do metaphorically and socially. Don’t look down, with a sneering sense of superiority, at those who are shallow, grasping, unambitious or poorly behaved. Instead, choose to observe those who are ambitious, talented, focused and driven, and who set high standards for themselves.
Finally, and coincidentally, a reference to outer space was made by John F. Kennedy in a 1962 speech at Rice University. He said “We choose to go to the Moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard”. This is our call to action – “because they are hard”. Looking down on others is easy and ego-gratifying; looking up to those who are more accomplished is humbling. The choice is yours, and it depends on the strength of your character, and on what you hope to achieve during your lifetime.
Sadly, Horkheimer died in August 2010, at the age of 72. His tombstone epitaph (which he wrote himself) reads:
‘Keep Looking Up’ was my life’s admonition;
I can do little else in my present position.