Embracing Intellectual Humility


Embracing Intellectual Humility

A friend of mine often recites a translation from the Confucian Analects that has always stuck with me: “True knowledge is understanding the difference between what you know and what you don’t.”  On some level, we implicitly acknowledge the truth of this statement every time we see a doctor, consult a lawyer, or utilize an accountant.  We recognize that some people are specialists and therefore welcome their expertise.  At the same time, being a “know-it-all” is not a desirable trait we seek in others and know-it-alls often become punch lines known for their constant “one-upping.”

Yet, the business and artistic world perpetuate one-upping with slogans like “fake it ‘til you make it.” “I don’t know” is taboo because we succumb to the pressure of being “in the know” and pass on the opportunity to humbly admit our knowledge deficit and listen to someone who may know more than we do.  What makes this worse is that humans have a proclivity to overestimate how much they know thereby exacerbating the “know-it-all” mindset.  Thus, even though we know a know-it-all is annoying and undesirable, our survival instinct tells us to act like one.

Why does this matter?  It matters because we are robbing ourselves of the opportunity to embrace intellectual humility and consequently understand the true limit of our own knowledge.  Inc. recently reported on a study conducted with regards to intellectual humility and good decision making.  Intellectual humility is “the willingness to accept that you might be wrong and to not get defensive when arguments or information that’s unfavorable to your position comes to light.”  The study found that those who lack intellectual humility make markedly worse choices.  This makes sense as many sources have reported that fast learning requires a willingness to admit error and a state of openness to new ideas is key to effectively engaging in civil discourse.

New York Magazine explains that one of the biggest obstacles to intellectual humility is the way a person thinks about the nature of intelligence:

Those who hold a “fixed mind-set” — a term coined by Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck — believe that everyone is born with a certain amount of intelligence, and that because of this, there’s little point in trying to improve yourself. A person with a fixed mind-set and a high IQ, for example, might take on an arrogant stance, presuming they “already know everything” and therefore inadvertently holding themselves back from learning something new. Someone with a fixed mind-set and a lower IQ, along the same lines, might have a defeatist attitude (“I’m bad at math, and I’m always going to be bad at math”), dampening their drive to succeed…. People inclined toward a fixed mind-set can experience feelings of inferiority, causing them to latch on even more tightly to their opinions, or become defensive when questioned.

The article suggests that the easiest way to display intellectual humility is to listen.  Really listen.  Intellectual humility is cerebral empathy, or empathy with the emotions removed.  Like empathy, intellectual humility is about listening over talking.  Most importantly, it’s the attempt to define where your knowledge ends and your lack of knowledge begins.  Not only will intellectual humility improve your decision making it will decrease the likelihood that you’re labeled as a dreaded know-it-all.

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