Way #26: Know Your Place
Every person has a contribution to make in this world. Figure out your role in the grand scheme.
Imagine the accountant standing in a roomful of doctors and pontificating on medical science. How foolish he sounds!
A key ingredient in wisdom is to know who you are, and where you fit into the greater scheme of things. Arrogance is a major barrier to growth. The "know-it-all" is smugly satisfied. Don't be arrogant, don't be satisfied. Realize how little you understand. If you appreciate that wisdom is your most valuable possession, then you'll push for more.
Way #26 is hamakir et mikomo – literally "know your place." Do you know where you stand in relation to others? Realistically evaluate your strengths and weaknesses.
By learning how to make that calculation, you'll know when you're best suited for the job at this moment. If you are, then don't be held back by false modesty. It's your obligation to step forward and take the lead. On the other hand, it also means knowing when others are more suited, and stepping back into your place.
Sometimes, silence is golden. The Talmud teaches that, "A person should not speak in the presence of someone greater than him in wisdom." Don't be too quick to throw in your two cents worth.
You can think the world of yourself, only to walk into a room of geniuses and find out that you have a lot more to learn. Or you can be down on yourself, only to walk into a room of under-achievers and find out that you're not so bad after all.
The Sages speak about carrying two slips of paper – one in the right pocket and one in the left. On one paper is written: "The entire world was created just for me" (Talmud – Sanhedrin 38a). On the other paper is written the words of Abraham: "I am but dust and ashes" (Genesis 18:27).
Know your place. Before you begin talking, stop to think: Is this a time to step forward, or a time to step back?
Your Special Role
Each human being possesses a combination of personality, talents, timing and circumstances – a specific role to play in this world. Our role is dependent on many factors – not only our innate talents, but also on the needs of the times.
The important thing is to discover your contribution – and fulfill it.
The Torah (Exodus 2:11-12) tells us that one day Moses saw an Egyptian taskmaster killing a Jew. He looked all around, and when he saw that there was no man, he took action.
Why does the Torah tell us "there was no man"? Because Moses was checking to see if someone else was available, someone better qualified to do the job. Because if you reach for leadership when it's not necessary, then you're doing it more out of your own desire than for the needs of the people. Only when Moses saw there was nobody else qualified, did he take action.
Knowledge is responsibility. If you know something, you're responsible to share it and act on it. That's part of knowing your place.
Evaluate the Source
To avoid costly misjudgments, learn how to evaluate other people's opinions. We often assume that someone is wise because he's older, or has more experience, or occupies a high position. But it's not necessarily true – just because someone is successful in business doesn't mean he can tell you how to stay happily married.
When someone expresses a viewpoint, put it into perspective: Does this person know what he's talking about? Or is he just a know-it-all?
On the other hand, when your knowledge is insufficient, don't let your ego get in the way. We all like to think we have enough common sense to figure out what to do in life, but sometimes you need to turn to others for aid.
If you're contemplating marriage, find a wise person and ask: How should I prepare myself for marriage? What character traits should I be looking for in a spouse? How will I know when I've found "the right one"?
Know What You Know
Sometimes we lack confidence in our position, because "who's to say that any one view is right?"
The 48 Ways says: You can attain absolute clarity. For example, you have absolute clarity of the fact you have five fingers. Nobody can talk you into believing you have 75 fingers. You can count those five fingers on your hand. There is so much evidence to support the claim, that it's an unshakable conviction.
Judaism says: We have to get "five-finger-clarity" about all our beliefs and values.
One way to gain confidence is to work out definitions. You're planning to get married. Are you in love? What is love? How does love differ from infatuation?
Love is built on knowledge. The more intimate the knowledge, the more you can love. How do you know if you are in love or infatuated? If you hear yourself saying, "He's perfect," or "She's perfect!" then beware! That's not reality. That's a sure sign of infatuation. Real love takes work. You have to be willing to make the effort.
Take responsibility and become real with your decisions. Nothing will just "somehow work out." You have to make the appropriate effort to think through your decisions and understand what you're basing them on. Ask yourself: What's my position on this issue? Do I really know what I'm talking about? Do I have definitions? Do I have evidence for my position? Is that me speaking, or am I parroting something I heard or read?
If you don't assert yourself with confidence, then you'll be manipulated as a puppet of society. And society could be making some grave errors in its approach to life!
Adjust Your Relationships
Being sensitive to others is one of the most important steps in knowing your place. Don't just "be" with people. Notice them. Where are others strong and where are they weak? That will help you better understand where you stand.
Analyze the dynamics of your important relationships. Is it a teacher-student relationship? Or parent-child? Or equal friendship? Or some combination?
By asking these questions, you'll be able to determine if your position is a healthy one. For example, a good marriage is one where both sides share their strengths and complement each other.
On the other hand, you might discover that some of your relationships are power struggles, constant battles for control.
Parents can sometimes treat a child of 25 the same as when he was 15. Or adult children can treat parents as they did when they were little. Correct this.
Know Your Place Vis-A-Vis God
A basic element of knowing your place is to put your relationship with God into perspective. The first thing a Jew does in the morning is to say the "Modeh Ani" prayer:
"Thank you, God, for graciously returning my soul for yet another day."
The higher a person becomes spiritually, the more humble he becomes. As we get closer to God, we become more realistic about our own limitations, vulnerability and mortality. We internalize the reality that every human's position is tenable, and only God is eternal.
Moses was called "the most humble" because when he stood before God he knew his place. Anything else precludes room for God to fit in. That's why the Talmud likens arrogance to idol worship; both push away the presence of God.
In being humble before God, we feel the unity of the world, rather than the self-indulgent, negative energy. We are more relaxed, calm and flexible. This in turn trickles down to all our interpersonal relationships: business partnership, marriage, community and nation-building.
Moses became leader of the Jewish nation because he saw himself solely as a servant of the people and a servant of God. He was able to encompass the needs and yearnings of the entire nation. He was in the right place.
Why is "Knowing Your Place" a Way to Wisdom?
- When in the presence of someone more knowledgeable, think twice before speaking.
- By understanding others, we can see what we know and don't know.
- Don't be afraid to ask others for advice.
- If you don't take control of your life, you're being manipulated by others.
- If the moment calls for it, take the lead.
- You were created to fulfill your role in life.