Intellectual Humility: The Secret Recipe in the Art of Learning

earning is an inextricable part of the human experience. Every action we can perform, every word we can speak, every quick fact we can regurgitate was learnt at some point in our lives whether intentionally or subconsciously. Learning is, in fact, a Darwinian phenomenon as it is considered a prerequisite for the survival of any species.

In our case, we learn for a number of different reasons: to stay relevant, to become smarter, or to simply avoid being rendered obsolete. But, as we grow older, our ability to learn diminishes in varying degrees of severity. We find it harder to pick up new skills, to learn a new language, or to learn a new concept. This is not because we become dumber as we age, but because of something we develop that psychologists refer to as intellectual hubris.

The concept is simple. As we grow older and accumulate more knowledge and experience, we start to view the rest of the world more sceptically from the vantage point of our own experience and understanding, rather than with the livid curiosity we had when we were much younger. The more we learn, the more opinionated we become.

Therefore, once our strong ideas and opinions solidify after years of reinforcement, we become more confident in their accuracy and, therefore, less willing to unlearn them even if we are presented with more accurate opposing opinions.

This unwillingness to alter our points of view and/or acknowledge our ignorance is what is meant when we speak of intellectual hubris, which makes it harder for us to learn because we find it hard to say “I might be wrong” or “I don’t know”.

This isn’t surprising considering that we often find ourselves in spaces where we feel pressured to appear smart and to have strong opinions. We then end up internalising that pressure by forcing ourselves to be consistent with the expectations that others have of us.

This then makes it much more difficult for us to concede to not having the right answers or not having any answers at all. As a result, we inadvertently inhibit our ability to learn something new simply because we think we already know it. This is what, Epictetus, the stoic philosopher, cautioned against when he said:

“It is impossible for a man to learn what he thinks he already knows.”

As a renowned scholar himself, Epictetus argued that for one to learn, one must acknowledge and accept that one doesn’t know. As simple as this might sound, it is with this act of humbling ourselves to accept our ignorance that most of us struggle. At least, I know I do.

For me, the only thing I hate more than not knowing is having other people know that I know not. It makes me want to grab the kinky hair on my head by their roots and pull until they dislodge from my scalp.

But as I’ve gone through several stages of my learning journey, I’ve come to learn that at the heart of my resistance to confront my ignorance is my ego. I’m often too proud to have myself appear unknowledgeable. So rather than actually making efforts to know (i.e. learning), I content myself with simply pretending to know. Hence, ending up not knowing. It slowly started making sense why Ryan Holiday gave his book the apt title of ‘Ego is the Enemy’.

Ego deceives us into thinking we know things we actually have no clue about. It forces us to approach new topics with preexisting assumptions of what is entailed. It feeds our intellectual hubris, which makes us unable to admit when we’re wrong or when we don’t know.

Antithetical to ego, however, is humility, which replaces our hubris with a meekness that allows us to rekindle the same child-like curiosity that allowed us to learn so much in such little time. This intellectual humility makes it easier for us to entertain the possibility that we’re wrong and, hence, opens us up to learn from others. To show how this can be applied in the real world, researchers in this field of intellectual humility developed the concept of a beginner’s mindset (grounded in the Buddhist concept of ‘shoshin’ i.e. beginner’s mind) which has been found to heighten creativity and overall performance.

Melody Wilding, a professor of human behaviour at Hunter College, explains that the beginner’s mindset is built on the premise of approaching situations with an open and curious mind, free from imprinted prejudices. The benefits of this, she explains, range from being more receptive to alternative ideas to even proactively seeking out feedback that includes opposing viewpoints.

To practice this beginner’s mindset and ultimately cultivate intellectual humility, it is recommended that we do the following three things:

  • Get better at appreciating our cognitive blindspots
  • Need to be braver about acknowledging the scope of our ignorance
  • Choose our convictions wisely

Appreciating Our Cognitive Blindspots

It is significantly difficult to appreciate our cognitive blindspots because we are mostly blind to them. This is the classic case of not knowing that we don’t know. In other words, we think we know but we really don’t. We instead assume that our viewpoints is, in fact, the truth and all other perspectives are either myopic of flat-out laughable.

This intellectual superiority complex is a result of what is called naive realism: the human tendency to believe that our perspective of the world is true and objective, while those of others with opposing views are uninformed, irrational or biased. As a result of this, we are unable to see how our own thought processes might be blatantly flawed.

The first step to appreciating our cognitive blindspots is therefore to recognise them. To pause when having a disagreement and engage in a metacognitive analysis of our own thoughts and logic to discover where we could be wrong. By doing that, we create room for us to learn from the other person.

Acknowledging the Scope of Our Ignorance

The first part dealt with addressing how we could be wrong, but this second part involves addressing the fact that we don’t know. This is a particularly difficult thing to do in today’s hyper-connected world where every interaction, online and offline, is made to feel like a performance under the watchful eyes of the ‘internet police’: online citizens who feel a sense of righteous obligation to call out the knowledge gaps of other people for the purpose of ridicule rather than enlightenment.

With our ‘knowing’ so tightly interwoven with our identity, admitting that we don’t know could plunge us into a mini-episode of an identity crisis. To avoid this, most people conceal their ignorance by making an excessive show of knowledge while, at the root of it, they don’t fully understand what they’re talking about. This is part of what is referred to as the Dunning-Kruger effect: overconfidence in our ignorance and an overestimation of our knowledge.

However, learning can only occur when we’re able to summon the courage to admit our ignorance or our lack of understanding. Remember the earlier words of Epictetus?

At one of my internships, my manager told me that in the final round of the recruitment, they had to decide between me and another candidate from a much more prestigious institution. This candidate also had a much more glamorous resume than I did. But in the end, they decided to pick me because I wasn’t shy to admit I didn’t know the answer to some of the interview questions, but the other guy pretended and tried to bullshit his way through the questions.

This was years after I’d started working on my intellectual humility as I’d previously been the guy who liked to be a know-it-all. I had to unlearn the need to have the answers. At each point in time, I asked myself the question: “What’s the worst that could happen if I admitted that I don’t know anything about this?” Most times, it wasn’t anything significant.

I also noticed a pattern with the books I read. I seemed to understand a book much more thoroughly when I go start with a beginner’s mindset. Books that I start reading with the thought that “Oh, I already know what you’re about to say” never end well; I most likely never finish them.

Pointing out the ignorance in others is easy. What is hard is acknowledging our own. However, this is something that must be done before any form of learning can occur.

Choosing Our Convictions Wisely

Every single one of us has beliefs that we hold dear. These beliefs could be religious, political, philosophical, or anything really. I for one have strong beliefs about race, sexuality, and the institution of marriage. These beliefs are a key part of who I am and what I’m about. The thing about these beliefs is that because they’re directly linked to our core values, divorcing them is usually a herculean task. Charles Duhigg, in his book Smarter Faster Better, explains that:

“When strong ideas take root, they can sometimes crowd out competitors so thoroughly that alternatives can’t prosper.”

This is why, for example, homophobic people whose anti-LGBT views are based on their religious values find it extremely difficult to tolerate the idea that queer people are not an abomination. They’ve formed a very rigid opinion, which no matter the soundness of an opposing argument that is presented to them, they remain unyielding. This is what convictions do.

Our convictions determine the extent to which we open ourselves up to learn new information. Depending on the strength of our convictions, we could inhibit our ability to learn more valid truths (think: flat-earthers). This is why it is crucial that we critically evaluate our opinions before they solidify into convictions.

Applying intellectual humility, in this case, demands that we constantly question our convictions and remain open to modifying and unlearning them in the event that we find them flawed or backward. This is a hard thing to do, but if we do it, we’ll be able to enhance our ability to learn and improve the quality of what we learn.

This piece was originally published on my blog.

Written by

Content Designer at Facebook • Incoming Stanford MBA • ALU ’20 • Co-founder at EarlyAdmit & Designish

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