E&P 35 under 25 and what modesty really means

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Today, Editor & Publisher’s “25 under 25” list was released, including my name for improvements made under my tenure as editor in chief of The Sun. The editors had told me about the induction about a month ago, which I shared with close family and friends, but of course once it was released to the public, my digital face flushed a deep, reverberating red.

“It’s a bit overstated,” I told a friend, when he sent me a congratulatory Facebook message.

And as he chided me for poo-pooing the way the publisher chose to write up my bio, I stopped to think.

See, I’m engaged to an exceptionally modest and humble man. He’s on the board of directors for a prominent local charity organization, and our local TEDx conference, he writes about tech for The Wirecutter and The Sweethome and has had work appear in national and internationally renowned publications. Recently, he’s continued his foray into food writing, via Buffalo Spree Magazine and I can’t wait to read a slew of articles he has in that publication, next month. But the only thing bigger than his heart or more astounding than his talent is his consistent devaluing of his own worth.

He’s gotten a lot better about it as I’ve explained my position, but it’s often incredibly annoying.

I like this quote by Arthur Schopenhauer: “With people of limited ability, modesty is merely honesty. But with those who possess great talent, it is hypocrisy.”

Put another way, I always find myself getting irked when I compliment my man and he says, “Oh, it’s not a big deal.” Because to deface himself is to refuse my admiration, and that’s worse than modest; it’s insulting. To respond as such is as good as saying, “You’re wrong. I’m nothing special, and the incredible things I do aren’t either.” In other words: Don’t we all appear on Time and do charity work in our spare time?

Shouldn’t you?

When I was a kid, I often rushed to the gold-edged dictionary to look up words I didn’t know. That dictionary is currently living in my car (long story). But let’s take a look at what my old friend Mirriam and Webster have to say on the subject.

modesty
noun, plural modesties.
1. the quality of being modest; freedom from vanity, boastfulness, etc.
2. regard for decency of behavior, speech, dress, etc.
3. simplicity; moderation.
And then ..
humility
noun
1. the quality or condition of being humble; modest opinion or estimate of one’s own importance, rank, etc.

Excess modesty, I think, often throws a compliment back in the giver’s face like ice water. It’s holding up a mirror and asking, “If the one you admire’s not that great, shouldn’t you feel even worse?” Humility and modesty may have similar definitions, but it’s the scant differences between the first definition of modesty and humility that interests me.

If modesty is a freedom from vanity or boastfulness, it would seem that conducting oneself modestly is a virtue. But it can be taken to an extreme, if in an effort not to be boastful, a person refuses accolades entirely. Humility, by contrast, seems like keeping the old ego in check.

To me, it’s accepting praise with a gracious “thank you,” and an internal curtsey (or external, if you’re at a Victorian tea party. I don’t know your life). I think that’s what my parents would call manners. But refusing compliments or tempering them with “well, you know … ” There’s nothing humble or modest about that.

As kids, especially as young girls, we’re taught, “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the Earth.” We’re taught to be seen and not heard, or to sit down, shut up and for heaven’s sake, don’t draw attention to yourself because that’s being a braggard, that’s being bossy, that’s being too loud, too proud, too much.

A source asked me how I was doing in “the good old boy’s club” of journalism, a couple of weeks ago. And as a woman who grew up shy, I’ve had my fill of meek and I’d rather take the Earth by storm now than inherit it later. In other words, I’m doing just fine, because I’m not willing to shut up if I have something to say.

“You’re right,” I told my friend. “Thank you.”

I love my work, even if I’m too often, too quick to complain about budget cuts, subscription rate struggles or any of the myriad annoyances that plague my day-to-day. Earlier this week, I got to sit with a crew of high school students as they chatted about their experience putting on a recent musical, “Curtains.” There was a curly-furred dog at my feet, visiting for the afternoon and he rested his big lump of a head on my lap as I jotted down notes. Each week, I get to design and paginate a newspaper however I darned well please (well, within reason), and engage in conversation with our readers on our social media feeds. Best of all, I get to explore the community in which I grew up, from the side of the notebook I always coveted, as a kid. I get to create the newspaper I grew up reading.

How cool is that?

There’s a place for both modesty and humility in all things, but there’s also a place for being proud of oneself, at the end of the day. Each week, I get that little jolt of satisfaction when the paper comes out, and I see how another week’s hard work has culminated in 20-some pages of news, events and community information. Each week, I get to explore the place that raised me and share it with the world. That’s a privilege I’m proud of, no matter what I sometimes spew in anger and frustration.

And so yes, I’m proud of making the E&P list, and inspired by the immense talent of the other names on it. Whenever I’m afraid for the state of journalism in this day and age, whenever a report of low numbers comes across my desk, or someone calls with a correction, or a new app comes out that’s both exciting and terrifying for my industry (lookin’ at you, Periscope/Meercat), I hope to think of all the incredible young journalists in my corner. We’re a formidable bunch, and I can’t wait to see what we do with the craft and magic that’s been entrusted to us, with our notebooks, cameras and press passes in hand.

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