Intellectual Humility

Reading time ~ 2 minutes

I love having conversations with people I respect, look up to and know are an expert on a subject I’m interested in (and usually ten others besides).

Every now and again I’ll find myself nodding sagely as they reference some great wonder, piece of writing, language, blog, book, person that they assume I know about.

There’s a good reason that I nod along…

I don’t want to interrupt the flow of what they’re saying, it’s interesting and I want them to continue uninterrupted as I take what they’re saying on board.

There’s also a bad reason…

My intellectual ego is seeking their respect and validation. It’s preventing me from admitting that I’m struggling to comprehend.

Unfortunately in a group situation, this momentum can carry us too far. Once the thread has reached a suitable stopping point, how often are we willing to go back and ask for an explanation, more context or admit that we “don’t know” something that someone else assumed we do.

Watch out for rooms full of people listening to something they don’t understand and nodding, not wanting to interrupt and secretly not willing to be the first in the room to break the seal on their lack of knowledge.

What time do we waste walking away not understanding the full picture and having thrown away the best opportunity to seek clarity?

When you don’t know the answer or don’t understand, don’t pretend.  Lead by example and others will also be encouraged to ask or research and share. This in turn will build a stronger knowledge culture for your teams.

There’s no such thing as a dumb question. If you thought of something to ask in a room full of people I guarantee at least one other person will have as well.

Avoid playing intellectual chicken, be proud to ask the first dumb question of the day and get people to respect your intellectual humility rather than your intellectual ego!

2 thoughts on “Intellectual Humility

  1. Hi Mr Pirate

    Love the post.

    There are also great risks with this strategy. Many moons ago when I was a student at Newcastle studying engineering I went to visit a friend of mine studying History at Cambridge.

    His friends seemed to play a curious game. They would keep switching subjects until they found one in which only two of them were an expert. The two of them could then dominate the conversation. If only one person knows the subject they would become a bore so it was important to find a subject that two people knew so that they could have a conversation. A two man game.

    One day the conversation started with Russian literature. Too many people knew that so they moved onto German literature. The conversation went something like…

    “Gunter Grass is simply wonderful.” said literature student 1.
    “Oh I agree” said literature student 2.
    “Which is your favourite book?” student 1.
    “The Tin Drum is a classic!” student 2.
    “A book famous for its use of metaphor.” student 1.
    “Speaking of which. What do you think the horse’s head represents?” engineering student.
    “Which horse’s head?” student 1.
    “The one they fish with on the beach.” engineering student.
    “Err, I’ve not actually read the book so I don’t know.” student 1.
    “Me neither.” student 2.


    I had read the book because my friend studying history had lent it to me as a “must read classic”. It was a hard read and I only found out afterwards that my friend had not read it. I refused to return his copy out of disgust. I’m sure he snorted with laughter when they got caught out. I also suspect he set them up somehow.

  2. It’s also your counterpart’s responsibility to care about you understanding (and being interested in) what they say. If they don’t, they’re probably talking to you like they could be talking to a gold fish, a goat, or talking to themselves. Too often, people don’t “talk to you”, they just “talk”.

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