Are you being humble, or Just Timid?

There’s one question I hear more than any other when helping clients prepare for career interviews:


“How can I talk about my accomplishments without sounding like I’m bragging?”


The beauty of this question is that there actually is a simple answer at its foundation. Here’s the secret:


                Stick with nouns and verbs; avoid adjectives and adverbs.


In the context of describing accomplishments, nouns and verbs describe concrete actions and results, e.g.:


  • I designed and led the initiative that increased revenue by 130% in 12 months
  • I ran a team of eight direct reports at the X level with 65 total employees under me
  • When X emergency hit, my team and I worked round the clock to get everything back up and running in under 36 hours.
  • I brought together leaders from four different departments and facilitated negotiations until we reached agreement on X.
  • I’ve helped clients save over $5 million in expenses/taxes/lawsuits/other
  • My clients’ average rate of return is X%, which is Y% above market average.


The key is that you can’t state that you think you’re an awesome/inspirational/expert leader; ascribing such evaluations to yourself most definitely does sound like you’re rather full of yourself, to say the least, and makes the listener doubt the validity of your claims at worst.


But if hearing you state those matter-of-fact results makes the listener think to herself, “Wow, that’s amazing! This person must be really organized/expert/inspirational as a leader,” then GREAT. As long as they derive that conclusion for themselves, they will believe it, and you’re not bragging!


Now, this gets more complicated in other contexts aside from interviews, when people are not likely to say, “Tell me about your accomplishments.”


And it gets even more complicated when you’re either a person who does not like to draw any attention to themselves, or were raised to believe that humility was not just a requirement, but an all-or-none concept, in which you were either being “humble” or “arrogant,” period.


Although well intended, this framework is limiting in its application.


For example, in the American workplace (and many other contexts), to some extent or other, it’s important to learn to advocate for yourself. Do you want to be considered for a promotion, to lead a project, or to have face-time with a new client? Heck, do you even want people to listen to your opinion? You need to step up and throw your proverbial hat in the ring.


But you also have to ask yourself: are there times when I don’t speak up, and justify my silence as virtuous humility, when in reality, I’m making excuses to avoid taking risks and being vulnerable?


In other words: At times, are you truly being humble, or just timid?


This powerful challenge was posed on the Speaking to Influence podcast by my guest this week, Aïcha Ly, Head of Consumer Insights at OpenSignal.


What’s the difference, you might ask?


Aïsha laid it out, plain and simple: when you act (or fail to act) out of timidity, people won’t know the value you can bring to the world.





In our conversation, Aïcha shares her insights on:

  • How to showcase your gifts while still being humble, and without sounding arrogant
  • How to find the courage to be deliberate about what you want to say
  • The importance of working with people who have different skills but similar values and standards
  • How to empower others to solve their own problems (and how to resist the urge to solve their problems for them)

and more.


Listen to the full conversation here or watch it on YouTube here.


Aïcha won’t tell you how amazing of a guest she was – but you can take my word for it, and tune in. Trust me: you’ll draw the very same conclusion for yourself right from the start!