Humility: Success’s Key Ingredient

While some athletes have found success being egotistical, humility is the better path to follow for a fulfilling career in any field.

Conor McGregor has had a great career fighting and fulfilling his ego's desires. But is his really the model life? Credit: Getty Images

By: Jeffrey Newholm

Most sports fans can quickly name Conor McGregor’s profession-he’s a fighter of course. And a very successful one at that. He’s made quite a bit of money pulverizing opponents in the octagon, and has had a real good time doing it. He lives a dream life, an enviable one. But did you know that McGregor was almost a plumber? In Sports Illustrated’s February 29th issue this year, McGregor reflected on the more experienced plumbers he saw when he was an apprentice. He saw how they got bossed around (like the rest of us), and didn’t want to be a part of that. Here’s his memorable line: “Yes, sir, no, sir. clock in, clock out. Why were you late? Why are you not in today? That’s not how humans are supposed to live,” McGregor’s words surely hit home to any of us in Capitalist America who don’t like their boss. But what if I told you that McGregor was actually wrong? That giving up control of our lives (or, perhaps, the illusion of it), was actually the key to a successful career and life? In this article, I’ll take a look at some advice that’s been given about humility, and how those in sports who had, or didn’t have it, did in their careers. And I think you’ll be surprised by what I’ve found.

I’ll begin by sharing some time-honored spiritual advice. In the 10th chapter of the Gospel of Luke, a lawyer gives Jesus a hard time about the path to salvation. Jesus gives two rules: 1. Love God with all your heart and 2. Love your neighbor as yourself. Seems simple and noble enough. But that lawyer wasn’t satisfied leaving it at that-and this is where spirituality gets interesting, and humility comes into play.The lawyer who “wished to justify himself” (reminds me of some of my wise-guyism), asked Jesus “And who is my neighbor?” (Luke 10:29) Jesus went on to give the parable of the good Samaritan. Today a “good Samaritan” means one who helps a poor guy out who’s down on his luck. But this parable means more than that. Consider who the Samaritans actually were. They were the hated “outsiders” for the Jews. I can think of many examples of “outsiders” in America today. Blue vs. Red. Black vs. White. Citizen vs. Immigrant. Politicians do a great job in setting us against each other, and I think that’s a shame. That’s not how Christianity is supposed to work, and this is contrary to that very good advice I got five years ago. But in case you’re one of those who’s not interested in abstract spirituality, I’ll give three examples from football of men with differing degrees of egos and success. One of these men was an egotistical failure, one was a egotistical success, and the third was a thoughtful and intellectual success. I think these three examples show in more concrete terms the importance of humility, and how doling things “my way or the highway” isn’t the best in the grand scheme of things.

As my example of an unsuccessful egotist, consider Chip Kelly. Kelly was very successful with Oregon, taking the team to unprecedented heights with his up-tempo, touchdown-a-minute offense. And judging by Oregon’s remarkable lack of success since then, it’s fair to assign him most of the credit. But when Kelly was hired by the Philadelphia Eagles, he thought doing things his way would work out in the NFL too. Kelly started out with two good years, then was given free reign over the roster. He did all sorts of wheeling and dealing, moving pretty much every major player on the team. He thought he was a football wizard and could call all the shots. Well, the next year the Eagles went 7-9 and Kelly was fired. Now he’s the coach for a rather bad 49ers team, and many think Kelly is the one to blame for San Francisco’s troubles as well. The only way the 9ers got in the news was a protest by a benched quarterback that Kelly had nothing to do with. Pretty soon I think Kelly will again be fired. It’s understandable why he had an ego with his college success, but he ultimately proved he wasn’t so smart after all when it came to football acumen. Kelly is a clear example of someone who failed due to over-confidence. But surely we can think of exceptions. What of the egomaniacs who are actually quite successful? I’ll now give my second example to talk about such cases, in order to demonstrate how these men are equally foolish.

Any number of examples could do well here, but I’ll use my personal favorite: Jameis Winston, or so called “famous Jameis”. Winston was a very successful quarterback with his time with Florida State. His rookie year the team won the national title, and Winston won the Heisman trophy. But Winston was a real troublemaker. There were serious allegations of sexual assault and incidents of shoplifting and public vulgarity. But as it so often goes, Winston got off the hook because of his athletic talents. The ‘Noles enabled his absurd egotistical behavior because he could throw a football well. But what was it all for? Florida State is already just a merely good team now, and there’s already talk of Jimbo Fisher moving on. Winston is just an OK quarterback for a mediocre Buccaneers team. And most telling of all, “famous” Jameis is already real old news  in the college football world. I think wise old king Solomon, whose advice goes even further back in team than Jesus’, had the best line for supposedly great men like Winston: “Then I saw all those who are to live and move about under the sun with the heir apparent who will succeed to his place. There is no end to all these people, to all over whom he takes precedence; yet later generations will not applaud him. This also is vanity and a chase after wind” (Ecclesiastes 4:15-16). What Solomon is trying to get it is for even the greatest men, like kings or Heisman hopefuls, their deeds don’t mean that much in the grand scheme of things. Winston and Florida State justified great wrongdoing for selfish reasons, and those selfish gains didn’t amount to all that much in the end. Even egotistical successes won’t end up being as great as they perceive themselves, and will never be able to satisfy the bottomless-pit craving the ego demands. With these egotistical examples out of the way, I’ll move on to a very famous success, who I believe did things the right way.

I’ll prime this example by encouraging our readers to think of Packer coaches. The current coach, Mike McCarthy, is not my example. McCarthy has a longer tenure than most NFL coaches, but only due to a Cinderella Super Bowl run in 2010, the luster of which has already long wore off in Titletown. No, my example is  Vince Lombardi. Lombardi, of course, won six NFL championships and the first two Super Bowls. Perhaps you’ve heard of the Vince Lombardi trophy. But of all his famous quotes, one in particular stands out in terms of priorities in life. He once implored his team: “Think of only three things: your God, your family and the Green Bay Packers-in that order”. I can’t imagine any NFL coach saying that today. The hometown fans would probably riot. Surely football and winning comes first, right? Not for Saint Vince. Lombardi believed having a good spiritual and family life was more important than football. And yet the 1960’s Packers were the last true dynasty before league-wide parity set in. No team has won even two titles in a row since the pats in 2005. The NFL is now hyper-competitive, and almost every team has at least some sort of a shot of winning it all every year. I think the reason why no team can go on a run anymore is the NFL is now extremely lucrative, with billions to be divided between coaches, players and executives. Winning is now each franchise’s sole aim, including Green Bay. But for Lombardi, our careers were only s small part of who we are. Career success is a byproduct of good character traits, not an end in itself. This is what made that Packer dynasty so great, and its lack of remembrance is why no team is on top for very long today in popular football leagues.

So to conclude, and to return to my original quote: is McGregor living the dream life? Should we envy him, seeing as he’s gotten rich feeding his ego and beating people up? I think not. First, I think McGregor is very fortunate to have found a field where egomania is actually a key ingredient to success. Having an ego won’t get one very far in most fields. But more importantly, I think McGregor is missing out. I think one will never find true success and happiness living only for one’s self, and furthermore probably won’t be truly great and memorable in the pantheon of earth’s history anyways. Humility, as Jesus tried to teach us eons ago, really is the key to lasting success and happiness. I believe  I’ve demonstrated that this is true for this life. And I’d be willing to bet that it’s the key to success in the next life as well, regardless of the afterlife’s particulars.

You can follow me on Twitter @JeffreyNewholm and our blog @NutsAndBoltsSP.

Scripture readings from the New American Bible.


Jeffrey Newholm
About Jeffrey Newholm 204 Articles
Hey there! I’m Jeff Newholm and depending on your point of view I’m blessed or cursed that my two favorite sports are outside the limelight. Being a UW-Whitewater grad (winter 2013) my first love was d3 college football, but over the last few years I have picked up a huge interest in woman’s basketball (Uconn being my favorite team as their 90 game winning streak helped show me how good a team can get in the woman’s game). I like all the sports everyone else likes (NFL, NBA, MLB, NCAA basketball and football) but those two sports are where I really have a passion.
Contact: Twitter

Be the first to comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.