Intellectual humility: knowing we do not know much

Something that I read about early on in my career was emotional intelligence. It was trending around the time I got into the “real world” and I took the opportunity to get familiar with that concept. As someone who was more fascinated by Maths and working on “hard things”, the knowledge about emotions and empathy aka “soft skills” was a breath of fresh air. I am no expert on this topic. However, it did help me navigate some of the challenges of work and life.

Something that has been trending lately is the concept of “intellectual humility”. I’m just getting started exploring this idea, and I believe engineers (and others too) will find this idea really beneficial.

According to Mark Leary, Ph.D., intellectual humility is “the recognition that the things you believe in might, in fact, be wrong”.

According to this article on Vox, intellectual humility is not the same as overall humility or bashfulness, or about being a pushover; it’s not about lacking confidence, or self-esteem. Instead, it’s a method of thinking. It’s about entertaining the possibility that you may be wrong and being open to learning from the experience of others.

Here are some examples I have been thinking of how we can practice intellectual humility:

  • Junior Engineer in a legacy codebase. Having the humility to know there is a reason it has been done a certain way. Not being brash but also not being complacent – so asking questions in a thoughtful way. Someone fresh out of college may sometimes know more about the syntax and algorithms and may try to be smarter. However, someone who has been with the codebase for a longer time will know better of the specifics of that codebase and why a certain architectural decision was made. Laurie Barth says in her article, “… the person with the most familiarity in a given codebase will always be the most senior engineer for that software”.
  • Getting help from a senior. Being humble enough to always consider oneself to be a student and gain knowledge and experience from those who have been on the same path that you are taking. Remembering to thank them for their time and energy.
  • Being able to understand and respect others’ points of view. Accepting the diversity of ideas and thoughts of those around you and those who you work with. The more we are connected, the more we will be exposed to different ideas and cultures. A person who is more understanding of the differences between people and is less judgemental of them will be the one who will get to perform better in their job and life.
  • Not paying too much attention to who got it right first, but recognizing who saw the whole thing through successfully. This is crucial because someone can get it right because of luck and feel like they have contributed something great. Whereas there could be someone else toiling to achieve the same outcome and still be not getting the same recognition. We could instead consider the input from folks who put in the work consistently to see things through completion.
  • Being humble is not the same as being weak. Do not be a pushover or let anyone take advantage of your gentle demeanor. Do not feel guilty for doing the right things.
  • Being able to accept one’s mistakes quickly. When you learn that your idea was wrong, you are quick to adapt to the new knowledge that you just learned. And not holding back to what you held up as the truth. And not going in search of information that only goes in line with your current understanding.
  • Using social media mindfully. Not creating content with the sole intention of going viral. Helping someone find a solution to whatever they are facing, using uplifting language, and being a kind and supportive friend – even when you are disagreeing on something.
  • Recognizing how much we do not know (the extent of our ignorance). There is so much knowledge in the world and what we know is a tiny tiny fraction. The way we learned in school to regurgitate information will soon be outdated. The person who knows most (and thinks they are the smartest) will probably be outsmarted by the person who continues to learn.
  • Letting go of the need to add value every time. High achievers sometimes overvalue their contribution to a project or goal. When someone brings in an idea, they often love to “pitch-in” their thoughts even when it is not called for. This would make the person who brought in their idea value their own idea less and have a lesser sense of ownership of the project. At these times, the high achiever can just listen and observe – which will be better for everyone.
  • Not winning every argument. Those who are competitive by nature have a need to win every argument and to have the last say in every discussion. This will be detrimental to one’s success and make oneself think too much of themselves. As James Clear says in his article, letting go of the need to prove a point opens up the possibility for you to learn something new. Approach it from a place of curiosity: Isn’t that interesting. They look at this in a totally different way.

These are things that I am still learning. Think of these as my notes on this journey, and I hope to practice these good traits in my own life first.

I came across this quote recently, which pretty much sums up this post:

“Be curious, not judgmental.”

Once we realize how little we actually know, we can perhaps begin to appreciate the little we do know and make use of it.

What thoughts and ideas do you have about this topic? I’d love to hear! Feel free to leave them in the comments below.

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