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Desautels: A lesson in humility

In this month's column, Bob Desautels wonders why we can't all be a little less serious about ourselves?
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Bob Desautels

“The one important thing I learned over the years is the difference between taking one’s work seriously and taking one’s self seriously.  The first is imperative and the second disastrous.”

— Margot Fonteyn

It was many years ago when I first encountered this quote by the great dancer Margot Fonteyn.  I was quite young at the time and it made a major impression upon me.  Since my first job I have been able to work with a pretty high degree of intensity and, at the same time, fortunately never took myself too seriously.

As a professional golfer in my early twenties this ability not to take myself too seriously became ingrained in my personality. I got used to losing!  Here’s why: in a major golf tournament about 150 people tee off the first day.  Four days later there is only one winner . . . and 149 of us were already on the road to the next week’s tournament, hopeful that it might be our turn in the winner’s circle. It was a great lesson in humility.

As I moved onto my second and third careers as a university professor then entrepreneur, I maintained the attitude I had learned on the golf links.  I have always been able to put my heart into my job without letting my work define me while distancing myself from personal feelings of pride.  As a result, when I lost joy in my occupation it was easy to move on to the next goal and passion.  I had developed an innate ability to simultaneously immerse myself into the task at hand and step back, like a spectator, and view my actions from a distance… sort of indifferent, in a personal and strange way.

If I had to describe this distinction between an engaged work ethic and “taking one’s self seriously” I’d frame it in Buddhist terms.  The Buddha outlined an “eightfold path” to enlightenment.  It wasn’t exactly doctrine but more of a guideline for living a good life.  The first of the eight steps along the path is known as “Right Understanding”.  It involves seeing the world as it really is and understanding its true nature while learning a valid road to higher levels of contentment.  I consider Margot Fonteyn’s quote as “Right Perspective” – an indispensable road map to a balanced and successful pursuit of passion.

The preceding thoughts bring me to a teaching of Tich Nhat Hanh.  A lesson for the everyday, some would say tedious, tasks in our lives.  This advice takes Fonteyn’s saying to an even higher and more useful level.  Tich Nhat Hanh taught that you could immerse yourself in activities as simple as walking or washing the dishes and, in each case, attain a profound sense of peace simultaneously.  The key is to stay in the moment by concentrating on your breath as you work.  I’ve found this technique is particularly valuable for menial or repetitive activities. 

Rather than being bored you feel uplifted… dare I say enlightened?  It is worth practicing!  You will find yourself putting your best effort into the task at hand while removing yourself from direct association with it.  In and out, at the same time.

As usual, I cannot resist adding a dash of humour into this subject.  We all agree that it’s important to truly get to know yourself… and equally important not to attach too much importance to that same self.  A lot of what we do, and problems we encounter in our lives don’t even add up to “a hill of beans” as Bogart’s character Rick said in the film “Casablanca”.  So why not be a little less serious about ourselves.  It’s better to be amused at both our failures and successes.  Measure them each with joyfulness, not regret or boastfulness. Just hearty laughter!

“Blessed is he who learned how to laugh at himself, for he shall never cease to be entertained.”

— John Bowell

Bob Desautels is a successful restaurateur, author of two books and former professor at the University of Guelph's Bachelor of Commerce program.

Visit him at his blog

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