Early in my career, I almost let my desire to win and be “right” sabotage my young software company. What snapped me out of this path of self-destruction was a friend who taught me the concept of intellectual humility.
In the early 2000s, I owned a software company that specialized in developing customized software to manage large data. And, to our surprise, a large, well-known telecommunications company hired us to build them a software tool. It was a huge contract, more significant than we could have hoped for at the time. However, all was not smooth sailing. After a considerable amount of work had gone into developing the application for them, the client requested a change that, if implemented, was sure to undercut their data integrity.
It was immediately evident to me that the request was ill-founded, and I fought hard against it. I spent days and weeks producing evidence that I was sure would convince them that the request was misguided, reckless and patently the wrong thing to do. When, to my surprise, my well-crafted arguments failed to gain traction, I complained to everyone around me that the client wasn’t listening to me nor considering all the ramifications of the request.
One day while patiently listening to me express my frustrations, a friend asked a straightforward question, “Do you want to be right, or do you want to make money?”
His query jolted me out of my fixation on protecting the data integrity of the product and caused me to rethink my motivations. It was then that I realized I had to be willing to sacrifice being right to achieve my larger goal of preserving our revenue from the business. But to do so, I would have to admit that it was not their request, but rather my previous resistance to change which was ill-founded. I would have to be intellectually humble.
To hear Mark Leary, a social and personality psychologist at Duke University put it, intellectual humility is “the recognition that the things you believe in might, in fact, be wrong.” It is the willingness to admit that you don’t know what you don’t know.
This is not to be confused with being shy or lacking confidence in your position. In fact, to be intellectually humble means having the courage to take in new information continually, and the confidence to reevaluate your views when the evidence points to a superior position. When they realize that they have less certitude in their previous convictions, the intellectually humble admit it.
Intellectual humility is not about being smarter than others. Instead, this skill is centered around being in a state of perpetual curiosity, asking yourself time and time again, “what am I missing?”
Social psychologists associate a practice of intellectual humility with other valuable character traits such as being more open to hearing opposing views, paying more attention to evidence and having a stronger self-awareness when they answer a question incorrectly. Research also does not indicate that being intellectually humble reflects poorly on us. Dr. Adam Fetterman of the University of Texas-El Paso produced several studies which reveal even in that rigorous, peer-review arena that admitting you were wrong isn’t judged harshly.
He says there is little evidence, “that when you admit you’re wrong, people think you are less competent.”
Ultimately, instead of causing people to view you as less intelligent, competent, or trustworthy, intellectual humility tends to garner more respect and trust from others. The majority of us avoid being wrong, let alone owning it publicly, and we know it takes courage. But conceding to your own mistake puts you in a much better position than waiting around for someone else to call you out.
Perhaps there might be a few people who troll you for admitting your mistakes, especially if you post something on social media. But if they do, then you’ll know precisely how you can trust them to act in the future.
With my big telecom client, I embraced the idea of intellectual humility and re-evaluated the situation. I asked myself what I was missing and how could I think of this situation differently, where everyone could “win?” Unburdened by my need to be right, I soon figured out a new solution to the problem, and I admitted to the client that I had been wrong. I fell on my sword and confessed to my narrow-minded thinking and resistance to understanding the client’s point of view. Then, I suggested a compromise that could both fulfill their request, while maintaining the integrity of the system.
The email I got back was one of appreciation. My client contact seemed relieved that I had heard and valued him and was amenable to a compromise. My willingness to shift my thinking saved the project and, more importantly, the relationship and that created a foundation that allowed us to work together for many years after that.
In today’s culture of “winning” memes, tribalistic mindsets, and general divisiveness, it can be easy to slip into thinking that our way is the best way, and to employ behavior patterns that attempt to force our strategies on others. But rarely, if ever, is this strategy successful in the long run. Real, lasting leadership — whether in the office or at home — isn’t about force, persuasion, or keeping up appearances. Instead, it’s leadership that is steeped in curiosity, that seeks out new information every day to either bolster or refute its current views. When true leaders discover their previous position has been unhinged by new details, they own up to it and change direction.
When we are willing to leave behind being “right,” “winning,” and having things our way, the world opens up for us in unexpected ways. Living a life of intellectual curiosity and humility can actually result in learning new techniques, expanding your horizons, opening up new opportunities, and deepening relationships. By giving up the narrow goal of being “right” for the larger goal of finding solutions that work for everyone, you may also find more people are in alignment with you, and life itself runs a little smoother. It’s the difference between force and flow.
This week try on a little intellectual humility for size. First, think about any fears you have related to admitting mistakes or being mistaken and write them down. Then, throughout this week, pay attention to situations in your life where you feel defensiveness around an idea, stance or belief. See if you can shift that defensiveness to curiosity, and perhaps find opportunities to adjust your position based on new information. You may want to start small with your family and friends and work up to practicing intellectual humility in the office, where the stakes are higher. At the end of the week, review that list of fears and re-evaluate if they are actually real or unfounded.
“It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.” – Josh Billings (ironically, often people will insist it was Mark Twain)