I think the only way we are going to address the many complex challenges that face society today are through curiosity and humility. Sparking curiosity is possible, with the right supports and environments. In addition, curiosity trumps knowingness — already knowing and not looking for disconfirming data. Curiosity and humility combine to make us better learners, and better leaders.
Daryl Van Tongeren, associate Professor of Psychology at Hope College, says that there is a curious joy in being wrong.
“First, there are social, cultural and technological advances to consider. Any significant breakthrough in medicine, technology or culture has come from someone admitting they didn’t know something – and then passionately pursuing knowledge with curiosity and humility. Progress requires admitting what you don’t know and seeking to learn something new.
Relationships improve when people are intellectually humble. Research has found that intellectual humility is associated with greater tolerance toward people with whom you disagree.
For example, intellectually humble people are more accepting of people who hold differing religious and political views. A central part of it is an openness to new ideas, so folks are less defensive to potentially challenging perspectives. They’re more likely to forgive, which can help repair and maintain relationships.” —The Conversation 2023-12-26
According to the book Humility is the New Smart (2017), “The crucial mindset underlying NewSmart is humility—not self-effacement but an accurate self-appraisal: acknowledging you can’t have all the answers, remaining open to new ideas, and committing yourself to lifelong learning.”
The need for humility, especially amongst those wielding power, is increasing.
“[Jean] Boulton strongly believes, as we do, that the complexity worldview can help us navigate our world as it is, not as we believe it to be or want it to be. Practicing humility and curiosity helps us on our journey to unpacking complexity because we can never know everything, but we can learn enough to gain some clarity and perspective. Boulton explained that complexity ‘is a middle ground theory between saying we know everything and we know nothing’. It’s about learning to be comfortable with uncertainty, because inevitably things will not go according to our plan. We can adapt by becoming more resilient and refraining from our command and control methods.” —The Complexity Worldview (2018)
Humility needs to be part of the entire education system.
“We are not new in needing humility in the way we look at hard conversations. Philosophers have been suggesting for millennia that we need to be humble. Socrates, after being called the wisest man in Athens by the Oracle, responded that he knew nothing… thus confirming that he was the wisest man in Athens.
That humility, giving the space that there might be other perspectives that aren’t yours, that you don’t understand, that you don’t know about, gives room to the people around you. It also is, I think, the only response to what Rittel and Webber called wicked problems. Some problems are so huge, so complex, so intertwined, that you can only ever work on part of the problem. In some cases, you can only make something better by making something else worse. You can decide to approach those problems with a wrecking ball, ignoring your impact on the whole ecosystem, or you can approach it with humility.” —Dave Cormier (2024) We can’t teach humility
Many of our systems and institutions are broken. So how can we survive in these? The answer may be in adopting an ironic sense of humour, coupled with honesty and humility. Sensemaking through irony, and not falling into a state of anger, frustration, or apathy, can lead us toward envisaging new systems. When people in the roles of decision maker, expert, & resource controller — traditional bottlenecks for knowledge flow in organizations — adopt these perspectives then “distributed, iterative sense-making, decision-making, and action-taking” can be enabled.
It starts with curiosity and humility.