Intellectual Humility

Recognizing the limitations of your knowledge

Strength of mind

“When we set out upon the search for truth we should not assume that we already know for certain what truth is…”

—Mary McLeod Bethune

Why does intellectual humility matter?

When you approach life with intellectual humility, you open your mind to learning. You are able to learn from opposing views and have more constructive discussions, even when you disagree. No matter how old you are, with intellectual humility you become wiser. It helps you be less judgmental of others, learn more in school, and be a better leader.

Pulse Check

Think about yourself. How many of these things are true?

  • I question my own opinions, positions, and viewpoints because they could be wrong.
  • I reconsider my opinions when presented with new evidence.
  • I recognize the value in opinions that are different from my own.
  • I accept that my beliefs and attitudes may be wrong.
  • In the face of conflicting evidence, I am open to changing my opinions.
  • I like finding out new information that differs from what I already think is true.

How do I encourage purpose in others?

Model it. Engage in activities that connect to your own purpose, such as meaningful work, volunteering, or creating art—and invite young people to participate with you. Talk about your goals and why they are important to you: “I volunteer at the library because I think everyone should have free access to books and information.”

Celebrate it. Praise and support actions that serve a larger purpose: “I love that you participated in the local cleanup day—picking up litter makes the town better for everyone.” Point out connections between activities and long-term goals: “It makes sense that you’ve joined the Girls Who Code club at school, since you’ve always been interested in computers and can now help teach younger kids.”

Enable it. Encourage young people to talk about their values and the kind of person they want to be. What do they want to contribute to the world? Notice sparks of potential purpose in children’s interests and guide them toward opportunities to engage with them in meaningful and productive ways, such as volunteering or joining a club. No matter their age, children can be helpful to others.

About the Author

Tenelle Porter is a Character Lab scientist-in-residence and a post-doctoral researcher at the University of California, Davis where she studies intellectual humility, motivation, and learning. Her work has been featured in Vox, NY Magazine’s The Science of Us segment, and won an Open Mind Award from the Heterodox Academy. She has also written about intellectual humility for Behavioral Scientist. She has a PhD from Stanford University, and a Master’s degree from the University of Oxford.

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Character is more than just intellectual humility.

There are many other strengths of heart, mind, and will.