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Are You Intellectually Humble?

Being willing to admit you "don’t know" can help you thrive.

  • Intellectual humility is an openness to new ideas and sources of evidence.
  • The “need to be right” can keep someone stuck on a false belief and prolong arguments.
  • Reflective questions such as "Would I rather be 'right'—or would I rather understand?" can serve as reminders to stay intellectually humble.
Gerd Altmann/Pixabay
Source: Gerd Altmann/Pixabay

In his excellent book Think Again: The Power of Knowing What You Don’t Know, the author and Wharton School psychologist Adam Grant posits that in today’s turbulent world, it’s increasingly important that we be able not only to think and learn, but to rethink and unlearn.

As Grant’s book explains, to do this, we must develop particular cognitive skills, a more open and curious mindset, and a humble attitude about what we actually know and don’t know. We must be willing to let go of ideas and beliefs we’ve held for a long time. (Not an easy thing to do, as Grant wryly observes: “We laugh at people who still use Windows 95, yet we still cling to opinions we formed in 1995.”) Hardest of all, we must be willing to admit occasionally that—gasp—we may have been wrong about something.

There’s a term for this that has gained popularity in recent years: intellectual humility. It has been the subject of a number of articles and books, but the term got an especially big boost a few years ago when Google executive Laszlo Bock publicly announced that one key quality Google looks for when hiring is intellectual humility.

Defined as “a state of openness to new ideas and a willingness to be receptive to new sources of evidence,” intellectual humility is seen by one of its champions, University of Virginia professor Edward Hess, as the key to thriving in the days ahead. We can’t compete with artificial intelligence unless we humans keep learning, experimenting, creating, and adapting, Hess says. And we can’t do any of that unless we assume the lifelong role of humble inquirer. As Hess puts it, “Humility is the new smart.”

But it’s not easy being intellectually humble. As Grant points out, it’s not simply a function of intelligence. In fact, intelligent people can easily fall into the trap of assuming they know more than they do—and they may actually use their "smarts" to effectively argue for ideas that are flat-out wrong.

Hess believes the key to becoming more intellectually humble is to avoid being overly invested in our own knowledge, ideas, and expertise. “I must decouple my beliefs from my ego,” Hess explains. So instead of taking pride in what you already know or believe, you begin to take pride in your willingness to learn and evolve.

In Think Again, Grant writes that we should aim for “confident humility—having faith in our capability while appreciating that we may not have the right solution or even be addressing the right problem.” It’s a delicate balance of admitting “I don’t know” while also being confident that “I can find out.”

How Can You Stay Intellectually Humble?

So how can you encourage or remind yourself to stay intellectually humble? I tend to think (as always) that questions are a handy tool for the job. In writing The Book of Beautiful Questions, I landed on a set of four questions that you can ask yourself periodically to check on your own intellectual humility. The first of these questions was borrowed from Julia Galef, co-founder of the Center for Applied Rationality, who offered up a clarifying metaphor in the form of a beautiful question. As we make judgments and decisions, Galef advises, we should ask ourselves: Am I thinking more like a soldier or a scout?

The mindset of a soldier is very different from that of a scout. A soldier’s job is to protect and defend against the enemy, whereas the scout’s job is to seek out and understand. These two distinct attitudes can also be applied to the ways in which all of us process information and ideas in our daily lives.

The mindset of a scout (or any type of explorer) is rooted in curiosity. “Scouts are more likely to say they feel pleasure when they learn new information or solve a puzzle,” Galef says. “They’re more likely to feel intrigued when they encounter something that contradicts their expectations.” In other words, scouts have intellectual humility.

To maintain that "scout" mindset, another question to ask yourself is: Am I soliciting and seeking out opposing views? Too often we express opinions and expect others to agree. Instead, we’d be better off inviting others to disagree—and ask them to explain why so that we can fully appreciate a different point of view.

And then there is this critical question: Would I rather be "right"—or would I rather understand? If you place too much importance on being right, it can put you in "defense" (or soldier) mode and close off learning and understanding. The “need to be right” can lock you into one position or belief for far too long.

We see it play out in business, where a company leader may be loathe to admit and correct a mistake; in politics, where people stubbornly refuse to acknowledge they may have been wrong about a candidate or issue, despite mounting evidence; and in personal relationships, where the need to be right can keep arguments and feuds going far too long. There’s no doubt that pride plays a big part in all of this: It feels good to think you’re in the right and to be told so by like-minded others. But it doesn’t do much to improve your learning, understanding, decision-making, or progress in general.

If we really want to improve our judgment as individuals and as societies, Galef says, we have to try to let go of the joy of being right. “We may need to learn how to feel proud, instead of ashamed, when we find we’ve been wrong about something, or to learn how to feel intrigued instead of defensive when we encounter some information that contradicts our beliefs,” she says. This leads to one final question to ask yourself: Do I enjoy the "pleasant surprise" of discovering I’m mistaken?

(These four intellectual humility questions are brought to life nicely in the two-minute video “How to Boost Your Intellectual Humility,” produced by the author Daniel Pink.)

Rethinking Your Own Deeply Held Beliefs

If you occasionally ask yourself those four questions, I believe it can remind you to stay intellectually humble (yet confident!) in your thinking. And if you’re looking for more tips on how to be more open-minded and better able to “rethink,” Grant’s book is chockful of practical strategies and takeaways. He explains, among other things:

  • How to think like a scientist.
  • How to combat your own biases.
  • How to dismantle stereotypes.
  • How to avoid confusing confidence with competence.
  • And how to encourage the people around us to be more open-minded. (The book has a section in which Grant shows how to get Yankees fans to root for the hated Red Sox!)

Reading Think Again actually encouraged me to rethink one of my own deeply held beliefs, involving one aspect of the power of questioning. I don’t have the space to get into the details of this mind-shift here (I plan to explore it in a future post). But I will say this: I think I was wrong about something—and I don’t mind admitting it. In fact, it feels pretty good.

References

Grant, Adam (2021). Think Again: The Power of Knowing What You Don’t Know. NY: Viking.

Hess, Edward D., & Ludwig, Katherine (2020). Humility Is the New Smart: Rethinking Human Excellence in the Smart Machine Age. Oakland, CA: Berrett-Koehler Publishers.

Berger, Warren (2019). The Book of Beautiful Questions: The Powerful Questions That Will Help You Decide, Create, Connect, and Lead. NY: Bloomsbury Publishing.

Galef, Julia (2016). Why You Think You’re Right Even If You’re Wrong. TEDxPSU.

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