Author Daniel Pink, who has written some really compelling books about human growth and motivation, does a two-minute podcast called The Pink Cast, which he distributes free of charge. In one of these Pink Casts, Daniel Pink offered a quick consideration of the value of intellectual humility and offered four questions from Warren Berger’s book The Book of Beautiful Questions that Pink thinks can help lead us to intellectual humility. A short definition of intellectual humility gleaned from the podcast is, “Being open and recognizing we all have cognitive blind spots.”
These are the four questions from Berger’s book:
- Do I think more like a soldier or a scout?
- Would I rather be right, or would I rather understand?
- Do I solicit and seek out opposing views?
- Do I enjoy the pleasant surprise of finding out I’m mistaken?
Let me delve into each one of those a little bit. That first question is a great place to start, and I can think of a lot more soldier heroes who have been popularized than scouts. I do remember James Fenimore Cooper’s Natty Bumppo, and people like the adventurous spirit of explorers like Lewis and Clark. When it comes down to our intellectual humility, though, I think more people are like soldiers, defending their positions, than like scouts, exploring new territory. Even for people who embrace “life-long learning,” it can be difficult not to become entrenched. And trench warfare was a truly horrible thing, as I am learning while reading Joseph Loconte’s book A Hobbit, A Wardrobe, and a Great War. A trench is nowhere to be caught! It takes an open mind and some humility to entertain new ideas and to be open to considering that we may be wrong.
That leads me to question two. I am positive we have all talked to someone who just had to be right, perhaps right at any cost. If we had a little intellectual humility, we would realize that we can’t always be right. If we were right all of the time, we would never grow. It takes some maturity to put aside being right in the pursuit of new knowledge. Learning leaders can do this, and they are better for it.
As I consider question three, I am reflecting upon the lack of reasoned discourse today and the tendency to seek out echo chambers, places where people can just have their beliefs confirmed and never questioned. In the media and the political realm today, how often do people genuinely seek out opposing views? My short answer would be, not nearly enough. People inherently have a confirmation bias. We seek and find the data, examples, people, and situations that confirm what we already believe or want to believe. It takes a lot to be truly open minded. It takes intentionality. We have to consciously “solicit and seek out opposing views.” If we are set on being right (See question #2.), then we certainly don’t want to seek out things that call our stances into question.
I love the language of question four: “Do I enjoy the pleasant surprise of finding out I’m mistaken?” I’m from the “Happy Days” watching generation and also share a first name with “The Fonz,” and I remember well the episode when Henry Winkler’s character could not physically make himself say he was wrong. With a mighty effort, he was able to verbalize the “w” and the “r.” There might not be another character for whom image and coolness was as important as it was for the Fonz, and being mistaken just wasn’t part of the formula. We can laugh at that, but for many people there is a fear of being wrong.
I think I understand some of the reasons for fearing being wrong. Our society loves to mythologize and build up public figures, partly because it’s so much fun to rip them to shreds when they make a mistake or when a years’ old tweet is unearthed. Carson King is a good case in point. A creative ploy for some beer money became a very noble undertaking and then a scandal before common sense kicked in. Carson King owned his past mistake immediately, but we can see why some people are afraid of making a mistake. Unless people are confident of their abilities, clear about their motivation, and willing to make mistakes and learn, they are going to avoid risks and keep their heads down because our social media culture is savage.
I am going to work to cultivate intellectual humility. Not only will this help me to be a better person and leader, but it will also help me to be more tolerant and understanding. I hope you will join me on this journey!