The Death of Modesty

Josh Blackman, who was just named to Forbes’ “30 under 30” list in law and policy, found it sufficiently odd that old First Amendment warhorse Floyd Abrams, in the bio accompanying his op-ed in the Wall Street Journal, was so “modest.”

This is it:

Mr. Abrams is the author of “Friend of the Court: In the Front Lines with the First Amendment” (Yale, 2013) and a senior partner in the firm of Cahill Gordon & Reindel LLP.

Certainly both are great accomplishments, but I think he may have a few other credentials that qualify him to opine on free speech.

Well yeah, he does, which is the beauty of Abrams’ bio, and a point that sailed over Josh’s head.  I don’t blame Josh for not seeing it, as it’s been bred out of his generation’s grasp of both credibility and presentation.  the mantra of “if you don’t sing your praises, who will?” has become an article of faith for Millennials, and sing they do.

Floyd Abrams is one of the few attorneys whose career has put his name in the spotlight many times, and comes pretty darned close to being a household name, at least among educated households. No doubt there will be a reader or two of the Wall Street Journal who may be unfamiliar with the Pentagon Papers, but that can’t be helped. So they will ponder his bona fides a bit longer than others. Who cares?

There is an elegance to humility that is lost today.  Just in passing over Josh’s blog (and not as a criticism of Josh, who is merely a product of his age), the post above Abrams is about a review of his book on Amazon that “floored” him, and so he wanted everyone to know about it.  Then there was Josh’s post about him making the “30 under 30″ list. It’s a nice feather in his hat, and I don’t blame him for being proud of himself, but why not let someone else sing your praises, if your praises are real?

Ironically, Todd Zywicki at Volokh Conspiracy wrote a brief post to congratulate Josh on making the list.  Had Josh not sung his own praises, it still would have been widely known and respected.  And indeed, there were many on twitter who congratulated Josh on the accomplishment, further spreading the news.

That’s how real accomplishment works. That’s how real credibility is established.  It comes of its own virtue, not because someone screams to the internet, “hey everybody, look at me!!! Look at all the cool things about me!!! Me, me, me and me!!!”

There is no shortage of people on the internet who ascribe to themselves credibility, expertise and importance. Everybody wants so desperately to impress others, to make sure they know that they’re “kinda a big deal,” whether they are or not.  Everybody wants to be a star.

One of my quirks is that I look at the bio of people who follow me on twitter. I’m astounded by how many people call themselves “experts,” or gurus, rockstars and world renown. Then there are the inspirational speakers, available for speaking engagements.  You don’t get to say this about yourself. If someone else says so, then great, but this is utter shamelessness.

Whenever I speak at a conference, I’m asked to provide a bio for the program. I always send the same thing: A New York criminal defense lawyer and blawger at Simple Justice. Somehow, it never ends up that way on the program, where somebody will pull some of the meaningless tripe from my website. It embarrasses me terribly. The fact that I have a website that includes this tripe makes me something of a hypocrite, though I need to earn a living like everyone else. Still, I’m ashamed of myself.

I’m no Floyd Abrams. I’m not even Danny Abrams. But I am what I am, and that’s fine with me. I’m a lawyer, just like you’re a lawyer. I have a blawg, with a lot of words on it, and it reflects a body of work that I’ve created over the years, which is either worthy of someone’s respect or not, according to what others think of it. Compared to what others have to say about themselves, I’m a piddling nobody.  And perhaps that’s exactly what I am. It’s up to others to decide.

In the early days of blogging, any time a person would write something even remotely self-aggrandizing, it would be prefaced by the words, “I apologize for this shameless self-promotion.”  There was an appreciation of shamelessness then, and conversely an appreciation of humility.  It no longer exists.

When I read Josh’s post about Floyd Abrams, I was taken by Abrams’ restraint.  He is important because he didn’t need to list every wonderful thing he’s ever done, every burp and fart hiccup and snore (Note: my editor, Marilou, objects to my vulgar imagery, so I’ve changed it in deference to her sensibilities) that would let the world know how important he was.  The old joke is how someone is a legend in his own mind.  Today, the joke is he’s a nobody if he doesn’t blow his own horn.  But Floyd Abrams is no joke, and doesn’t need to blow his own horn to let people know it.  It’s too bad that such modesty has gone out of fashion.  Even worse, the appreciation of such modesty has gone out of fashion as well.

Congratulations, Josh, on making the Forbes 30 under 30 list. It’s quite an honor.

29 comments on “The Death of Modesty

  1. Dan

    This reminds me of a passage from a book I read a long time ago- a thriller set in Washington D.C. legal/political circles. The author/main character describes the phenomenon of the ego wall, i.e., the wall in your office where you put all the stuff that shows how special you are. He further explains that lower down on the power/chain, there will be a big ego wall. For example, a young junior assistant u.s. attorney might have a college diploma, a law school diploma, a phi beta kappa certificate, a monograph of a law review note, framed photo of you and the congressman you interned for- lots of stuff. As you go further up the chain, it gets smaller, but bigger deal stuff. Maybe a citation from your old employer and a photo of you with the President. Finally, when you get up to real power, e.g., the White House Chief of Staff, there isn’t really an ego wall at all. Rather, the ego wall might just have a single oil painting hanging, with no accolades, degrees, citations, photos at all.

    1. Jamison

      I agree. Although their signatures are attached to photos on ego walls all over the city, the truly important people in D.C. have no ego wall at all. And if you want to determine who the really important person is in a photograph involving two dignitaries, look to see who has signed it.

      The same thing also applies to one’s title in D.C.: The shorter your title, the more important you are. For example, there is the President. Then there is an Assistant to the President. Then Special Assistant to the President. Then Special Assistant to the President for Legislative Affairs. And so on.

  2. mirriam

    I don’t know, Mr. Greenfield. Maybe tooting your own horn is the way to go because you can’t count on others to acknowledge the work you’ve done, especially if they wanted to have the honors themselves. I used to think it best to just sit quietly and KNOW that what I did helped x,y,z thing or person or situation. But what that does it really, I don’t know, makes me feel smug on the inside and yet also sort of angry about it?

    There is a difference, also, in pride and ego. You can exhibit pride in your accomplishments, that’s a good thing I think. But ego is what you have even if you have done nothing at all. Also, pride and ego go hand in hand for the young. Don’t you think life will kick it out of them eventually anyway?

    1. SHG Post author

      …because you can’t count on others to acknowledge the work you’ve done.

      That’s true. But then, not everything you do is worthy of a trophy. Not even a red balloon.

      And if you have accomplishments, aren’t they their own reward? Or are they meaningless without a red balloon? Or maybe you should have them tattooed to your forehead just in case someone doesn’t know about them? It can be so very hard to make sure everyone knows when someone is so very special.

      1. mirriam

        Math? Really? I went to law school because there was no math.
        Anyway.

        Yes, my accomplishments are their own reward, but the truth is people won’t hire me because I have a warm glow about me and I radiate confidence as I walk through the courthouse. When you are new (and I am not new but I came to a new place and am now not known) there are things you can do. You can work harder (check) you can work smarter (check) and you can hope your reputation wins you what you want and what you need (enough clients to cover your basic expenses and maybe a good bottle of wine and dinner with friends now and then. Oh, and swimming lessons for the twins so they don’t drown).

        The reality of our time is that you are who you say you are and you need to say it so that others will know it and will then tell other people and will hire you. We aren’t competing against you, we are competing against the Mavericks and the Rakofskys of the world. He who markets themselves best wins (the clients). It’s a shame but it’s true.

        So, maybe it is with modesty in our hearts that we brag about how great we are online.

        1. SHG Post author

          I’m well aware of the rationalization for immodesty. There’s a similar rationalization for stealing money.

          1. Mirriam Seddiq

            There are reasons (which you call rationalizations) for everything. Are there things that are simply self-evident? Or have we internalized the rationalization to such an extent that we don’t bother with explaining anymore (do good for goodness sake.Well, that can’t be it, really.)

            Marketing your strengths and being ‘immodest’ is the same as stealing money? Or at least same enough to warrant that remark? You could be right. But I don’t see it.

            1. SHG Post author

              do good for goodness sake. Well, that can’t be it, really.

              Why yes, it can. Really. I didn’t say marketing your strengths is the same as stealing money, but the rationalization for immodesty is the same as the rationalization for stealing: it’s good for me. It gets me what I want.

              It’s neither always wrong nor always bad to do something to advance one’s self-interest. We’re not martyrs, and haven’t taken an oath of poverty. But the point is that there are no longer lines, a point beyond which it becomes shameless and disgraceful to be so self-promotional. I know, I’m so old-fashioned.

  3. John Barleycorn

    “Piddling” some would argue would have been a much more accurate trade name for Twitter.

    BTW, I didn’t know that there was a Fantasy SCOTUS League. Pretty kewl. Go Josh!

    Just this weekend sitting in my ice shack, in-between “piddling” a complement I received from my postman last week and searching through the sawdust for a wax worm to put on my hook I was thinking about the marketability of the SCOTUS action figures I have been whittling to use in place of artificial perch replicas if they open up the spearing season this year.

    I know you are just dying to know…I “piddled”: postman told me that I had and the coolest dog in the neighborhood thought you should know. He particularly is fond of gnawing on Antonin prototypes. I just can’t seem to get that forehead right.

    P.S. Know any good patent attorneys who specialize in action figures?

  4. UltravioletAdmin

    How much of that isn’t really the Ego, but rather the nature of the business?

    The young buck needs to sell himself more than the established old hand.

    That and the nature of the particular practices? Criminal defense lawyers of a certain level don’t need to advertise much because they’ve built a reputation. Young solos and academics need to get seen.

    1. SHG Post author

      The young buck needs to sell himself more than the established old hand.

      Exactly. You don’t see shamelessness as a problem at all. Personal benefit trumps everything, and so there is no longer any shame in shameless self-promotion, because the young buck needs to…

      The death of modesty.

      1. UltravioletAdmin

        While I might not like it, I understand it.

        I’d like a profession where we don’t have to do it. I’m lucky I don’t need to do this. But I have friends getting out and hanging shingles who have to do anything they can that’s allowed to get work. I know friends that are counting nickles, deferring 1300 a month minimum loan payments, and moving in with family while they struggle to have enough to eat.

        I’d prefer other solutions, such as an organized residency system for young lawyers. But I understand it. Now this gentlemen in question isn’t struggling, so he doesn’t have that excuse. Instead, he’s an academic at a school I’ve not heard of, and wants to be important. He’s more like what’s her name in Florida trying to get attention with her internet laws.

        1. SHG Post author

          That’s the race to the bottom problem, with each lawyer behaving progressively poorer to out-showoff the one before him and maybe score the case. But the need to make money and the willingness to behave shamelessly need not go hand-in-hand. And as you see, immodesty exists independently, as it’s become a behavioral norm on its own.

  5. PRC

    It seems to me that the the death of modesty has been more of a long, progressive illness rather than a recent phenomenon that can be attributed to the “look at me; I’m a special frickin’ snowflake” generation. When confronted with the glaringly immodest, self centered behavior of a Chad Ocho Cinco, it’s easy to forget that Billy “White Shoes” Johnson was dancing the funky chicken in the end zone in 1975.

    1. SHG Post author

      I agree that it’s been coming for a long, though I dread the thought that it’s the product of the funky chicken.

  6. ModestGenXer

    “But Floyd Abrams . . . doesn’t need to blow his own horn to let people know it. It’s too bad that such modesty has gone out of fashion.”

    Well, the modest and non-Millennial Mr. Abram’s page at the Cahill website is not just a name and a phone number. It includes ten paragraphs that refer to things like the Floyd Abrams Institute for Freedom of Expression at Yale Law School and how Senator Moynihan once said he is “the most significant First Amendment lawyer of our age.”

    Admittedly, it doesn’t refer to him making the 30 under 30 list.

    1. SHG Post author

      A webpage is blatant marketing, as I sought to make clear in the post. It’s different, and not a good example or analogy. It’s the one place where we lay it all out, shamelessly, because that’s its sole purpose.

      1. ModestGenXer

        I don’t see the distinction. Your blog is a webpage that has multiple ABA Blawg 100 shoutouts on the right-hand side. Abram’s law firm bio is a webpage with many shoutouts. Blackman’s blog is also a webpage with occassional notes that someone praised him.

        Blackman offered a bit of praise to Abrams and you treated is as a sign of deep Millennial disfunction, that he just couldn’t see the tidal wave of modesty. So, it’s tacky to say, “I’m swell.” But the more standard approach is to sometimes (not constantly) say, “Someone else said I’m swell.” Everyone — you, Blackman, and Abrams — appears to be doing the same thing. Yes, you eventually mentioned hypocrisy and feeling shame. Maybe Blackman is also feeling a little shame. Maybe even Abrams is feeling a little shame, despite earning some exceptional praise. This whole post is a back-in-my-day-things-were-different grouse. I doubt it.

        Here’s an alternative take on the modest Mr. Abrams’ Wall Street Journal mini-bio: He couldn’t fit the 10 paragraphs of praise into it that he uses for his official bio anyway, but even if he could have used more, he chose to highlight only two things, one of which is what law firm to call to hire him and one of which is his new book, now available for sale. That’s not modesty. That’s good marketing.

        1. SHG Post author

          And I’m not surprised that you don’t see the distinction, which is pretty much the point. I can explain it to you, but I can’t understand it for you. That’s what makes this so terribly sad and pathetic, that people confuse their inability to discern a problem with the absence of a problem. But it happens all the time.

          By the way, this is not my “webpage.” This is a blog. The ABA badges are for the blog. I have a website, and the ABA badges aren’t there. It would probably be helpful for you to know what you’re talking about before announcing that you don’t get it. At the very least, we would be discussing the same things if you use the right words.

        2. Andrew

          I’m a millennial and SHG’s point seems totally obvious to me. I think you’ve missed the part that gave rise to this post, that Blackman thought it significant enough that Floyd Abrams used such a modest bio that he wrote a post of his own about it. Perhaps if you gave this some more thought, you wouldn’t find it nearly as difficult to comprehend.

          1. SHG Post author

            The Dunning-Kruger Effect is hard to challenge by definition. Once someone is determined to disagree, it’s very hard to get them to go back to the beginning and think it through again.

          2. ModestGenXer

            What was the plausible alternative to the “modest” bio? Ten paragraphs of praise? The Moynihan quote? Why isn’t a plug for the law firm and the new book the obvious choice for anyone, even an egotistical Millennial?

            1. SHG Post author

              You’re asking the wrong questions. Better to ask: why then did Josh Blackman find Abrams’ bio so unusual as to make it worthy of a blog post about his modesty? But then, that question doesn’t suit your opinion, so you wouldn’t be inclined to ask it.

  7. ModestGenXer

    I’m pretty sure that, to most people, websites and blogs are both made up of individual webpages. Also, blogs are types of websites.

    “It would probably be helpful for you to know what you’re talking about before announcing that you don’t get it.”

    True enough, in part. I did not research what potentially idiosyncratic meanings you attach to the terms “website,” “webpage” and “blog” before posting my comments. In any event, the ABA badges are praise you put on the blog. (“This is a blog.” This, this thing we are on now. We all agree; it’s a blog.) Blackman referenced praise on his blog too, right? Same type of place. If most of his posts were self-congratulatory, I would agree that it’s tacky. That doesn’t appear to be the case.

    “That’s what makes this so terribly sad and pathetic, that people confuse their inability to discern a problem with the absence of a problem. But it happens all the time.”

    There is also a problem of people detecting a problem where there really isn’t one. Which category we in now is the question. We obviously disagree. Your position, however, is like the old joke with the psychiatrist: the patient can admit the problem or deny the problem, but both confirm there is a problem.

    1. SHG Post author

      That you disagree with me is fine. That you support your disagreement (particularly as a pseudonymous commenter who chose not to provide a real email address) by creating your own definitions and normative reality is not fine. When it comes to what’s what on the internets, I win.

      But I do like your psych joke.

      1. ModestGenXer

        “That you support your disagreement (particularly as a pseudonymous commenter who chose not to provide a real email address) by creating your own definitions and normative reality is not fine.”

        If you want to double-down on the position that a blog is not a type of website or that websites, including blogs, are not made up of webpages, then I think we have reached an end point!

        I’m sure I’ll continue to value the legal commentary, but I’ll remain a skeptic of Greenfield’s Rules of Etiquette, at least until you get an endorsement from Miss Manners. Of course, if you do get a Miss Manners endorsement, please, please, don’t toot or badge it.

        But I’m too modest to take credit for the psych joke. I got it from TV.

        1. SHG Post author

          Maybe someone else can take a try of explaining this to you so that you better understand. I see I’ve failed. And Ms. Manners thinks I’m the ginchiest, but she doesn’t give out badges. Too gauche.

  8. Alli G

    In theory, I think it’s better to be modest and to let others to sing your praises (that is, assuming you deserve any praise). And as a personal matter, I have a strong inclination to tune out self promotion (strengthened in the last few years thanks to the proliferation of online self-praise about things that don’t seem to be a big deal at all). But in practice, I think gender continues to play an unwelcome role in the way we (both men and women) view people and acknowledge them for their accomplishments. I never wanted to think this and I didn’t think it at the beginning of my career, but having seen too many female colleagues ignored or passed over in the face of incredible work and accomplishments, I reluctantly acknowledge it.

    Gender aside, to some extent it is the luxury of the successful to be so modest. It would be interesting to compare the modest bios of the successful to bios early in their careers.

    1. SHG Post author

      A few years ago, I sat through an awards dinner for women in law. I pondered what would happen if there was an awards dinner for men in law. I know there’s none for parents in law.

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