The most entertaining after dinner speaker I’ve ever heard was, to my surprise, the late comedian Bob Monkhouse. While I shared the widely-held view that he seemed a bit smug on television, he was a great comic writer, performer and even a serious actor, across many media. In a TV show on Saturday night, a tribute to his life and work, we were told that he once described himself as “a difficult man to ignore, but well worth the effort.”
I rather like that sort of self-deprecating humour, the kind often favoured by the upper classes. The singer James Blunt, a former Army officer and pupil of Harrow School, was once asked how it felt to have been voted the third most annoying person in Britain. He replied “I’m gutted that I didn’t win.” He was also asked if it was true that during the war in Kosovo he’d kept his guitar strapped to the outside of his armoured personnel carrier. “Yes. I wanted to keep it on the inside,” he said “but my superior officers told me I had to keep the men inside.” See here for a funny spoof of one of his videos; he strikes me as someone who would enjoy the joke.
A previous boss of mine, Angus MacDonald, is also an ex-Army officer, what I would call ‘landed Scottish’ and a master of the self-deprecating joke. When he was CEO and owner of Financial News, once a quarter he’d have a talk with all the new employees to introduce himself as the “chap who makes the coffee.” But beneath his modesty was a sharp business brain – he sold the company for about £80m.
What I like about self-effacing humor is that it implies a modicum of humility, confidence and the ability not to take oneself too seriously – it’s the opposite of bragging even if it is false modesty.
It’s easy to underestimate modest people, and I love it when an underestimated person wins the day. Four years ago in Costa Rica, a tour group of elderly American tourists from a cruise ship was held up by three armed muggers. The thieves thought these old people were easy prey until one of the old men got hold of a mugger in a headlock and broke his neck, killing him, prompting the other two bandits to run away. The old man was a former marine. (I wrote a film script based on that story which got some interest from Eon Productions, the makers of the James Bond films, but that’s another story).
I like to be underestimated (rather than ‘misunderestimated’ as Dubya called it), and in work I prefer to under-promise and over-deliver rather than the opposite. As a freelancer, the problem with under-promising is that sometimes you don’t win the work in the first place because it often goes to the best salesman rather than the most honest.
Wealthy people can be modest more easily than the rest of us: you don’t need to blow your own trumpet when you own an orchestra.
My last blog about 11:11 and guardian angels attracted about four times the traffic I usually get. Before that, ‘Nemo sex change shock’ was the most popular and still regularly gets hits from Google searches – goodness knows what they are hoping to find. 11:11 also prompted a lively debate on my Facebook page, started by my step-mother Rosemary who pointed out that if you add the year of your birth to the age you will be on your birthday in 2011, it always adds up to 111. Example:
If you were born in 1970 and will be 41 this year: 70 + 41 = 111.
Someone even sent me the mathematical equation to prove it.