Mitchell Kimbrough
Mitchell Kimbrough

Founder

Posted on Nov 27, 2019

Our egos are the worst: How to be humble and competent at the same time

Humble Ginger

Ninjas, Gurus and Masters (oh, my!)

We suck at marketing.

I’m allowed to say that. I thought it was a dirty word for 20 years. I didn’t know that “marketing” is another way of saying, “I care about people. I want to understand what they need and how that aligns with what I might provide. I want to tell them clearly, honorably and regularly that I am here and ready to help.” Of course this is my definition of marketing. Advertisements for kids sugar cereal and time shares may see mileage that varies.

We’re not all ninjas, gurus and masters. We only say that because we suck at marketing and we don’t know what else to say. We say that because colleagues we like and respect also say that. These terms have no connection with what our clients actually need. Our clients need empathy. They need for us to anticipate their need before they have it. They need for us to deliver on that need with mastery. The mastery is secondary. The relationship is primary.

Let me say that one more time: The mastery is secondary. The relationship is primary.

“We are [insert agency name].”

How many times have you seen that? What kind of arrogant, ignorant nonsense is that? “We are Solspace.” If you can find any such utterance from me on the Wayback machine for solspace.com I’ll buy you a beer. If I was ever so uncreative and arrogant, I truly apologize. Because this didn’t serve you and your needs as a marketing director or website owner. It served my ego and my laziness simultaneously.

Why don’t we go farther in our industry and call ourselves “Coding Bishops” or “Design Rabbis” or “DevOps Swamis”? It makes about as much sense and we have about as much of a claim to it.

We have so many awards for ourselves. All sorts of nonsense. All of it for insiders. I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve had to explain what a Webby is to a client. At least they got a good nap out of it. All of you reading this know what the awards are. You’re on the inside. But does the client in front of you, the one who is trying to get a start-up off the ground with friends and family money, credit cards and their kid’s college fund care about your awards as much as they care that you will execute and launch on time?

Our clients need our humility

Humility is not the opposite of being an expert. It’s not the opposite of being competent. Humility is the root of mastery. Humility is a necessary condition for expertise. Arrogance is the opposite of humility and it starves out excellence.

Arrogance goes it alone while humility works together. This fact is perhaps our biggest struggle in the web development industry. Self-promoting ourselves with arrogance pushes others away. It ultimately freezes out our clients when they need us the most.

How can we take credit for excellent work when we did it by collaborating? We can’t claim mastery when mastery only emerged from working together? Is that true? No of course it’s not. But somehow we worked ourselves into this corner.

Being humble means we take our hat off. Hold it in our hands. Walk over to a colleague and say, “I’m lost. Please help.” When we do this, we gain their knowledge and their insight. We gain their collaboration. The courage that takes on our part gains their respect.

Years ago one of my best developers used to come to me after banging his head on a problem. He would come to me humbly and with bowed head. He would say some version of, “I’m so frustrated I could punch a kitten.” I would say, “Tell me what’s going on.” He would explain the problem. Then he would be quiet and listen to my questions. Usually I would ask about stuff totally unrelated to his code before asking if he tried so and so. The ‘so and so’ was always a waste of time since he out coded me 10 to 1. A few questions later and he would say, “Stop! S**t! That’s it! I know what the problem is.” We used to joke all the time that all he had to do was come to me and say he wanted to slap a puppy and he would get the answer in about 30 more seconds. It was humility that was his super power.

Arrogance “tells” while “humility” listens.

We’re at our worst when we can’t stop telling our clients what they need. We’re better when we listen first and listen more. Remember my empathy complaint above? How often do we stop and check in and ask ourselves if what we’re feeling is what the client is feeling. It’s a powerful thing, to connect with someone like that; especially when you and your team have the skills needed to help the person.

If a solution feels boring to you but originates from empathy with your client, it is necessarily good. Here’s an example. As of this writing, headless CMS websites are still a trend. The insiders with ‘mad skillz’ are convincing other devs that the only way forward for the web is front-ends decoupled from back-ends with macheté finality. Apparently a tech stack for a website these days has to have 20 brittle moving pieces in order for it to be considered legit. (A headless CMS abandons templates that belong to the CMS in favor of Javascript rendering of data pulled from CMS driven API’s. I bet you wish you were headless right now after the migraine this paragraph has caused you.) Anyway, this client had a site built for them that was headless. They weren’t given much of a choice. It was “The Thing.” So they bought it on faith. Two years later and the client still has to go to a totally separate dev site just to preview content before they publish it on their production site.

Arrogance fears while humility trusts

Unhealthy pride puts us in a place to resist sharing with our client. Humility trusts that our client will appreciate our sharing of information to make them smarter. And being humble allows us to not fear smarter clients. Arrogance also keeps us from collaborating with others like we mentioned before. It makes us fearful that they’ll “steal” business from us or make us look bad. We fear embarrassment, but mainly because we’ve isolated ourselves and don’t know that everyone else has the same fear. Humility leads to trust. Trusting others creates a context for others to trust us.

Arrogance wants recognition, humility prefers improvement and results

Striving for awards and recognition in our business has gone past the tipping point. We’ve gotten to the point that winning Addys or Webbys or other awards has taken on more importance than positive results for our clients. You know what one of the best awards is? A reliable flow of customers moving smoothly through your client’s website. I like the greenback award and I like it most when it’s my client who receives it.

Too many of us spend too much effort trying to arrange work that looks good in our portfolio. We spend so little time trying to be invisible we miss out on its power. In 20 years of web development I can tell you that your clients want you and the website you build them to just be part of the wallpaper. They want you to be the tile floor that the whole business rests steadily on. Let ease, tranquility and non-resistance be your reward. Make that client’s website be something they never have to think about and they (you) win.

It’s our humility that allows us to do work to benefit our clients even if that work might appear dull or hard to feature in a way that promotes us. In the Tao Te Ching, water is said to be powerful through its humility. It sinks to the lowest point. Waits quietly until it’s time. It moves effortlessly around obstacles. It persistently drills its way through solid rock. What’s more reliable and powerful than water?

This move toward humility allows us to actually be more competent than before. It increases our likelihood for healthy collaboration. It means we’re more likely to recognize and grow from our mistakes and limitations. It keeps our relationships empathetic rather than self-promotional. It’s a shift that will make our industry better on many levels.

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