Monday Musings, On Leadership, Recommended Readings
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Humility is the new smart

Humility Is the New Smart

Research shows that “more than 85 percent of a message we communicate to others is conveyed not in the words but in the tone and manner in which they are delivered.”  I saw this first hand in a recent meeting when one of the participants made it very clear—in body language, tone, and language—that she was going to be disagreeable.  Arms crossed, with no attempt to bring others into her point of view other than by sheer force and with every sentence beginning with a negative, she ensured that her point of view was going to be heard.  It was tiring and not very satisfying for others trying to participate in the conversation.

This non-approach to communication was highlighted in a book I’ve been reading entitled Humility Is the New Smart:  Rethinking Human Excellence In the Smart Machine AgeIn an era when the best research indicates that 47 percent of U.S. jobs will be replaced by technology within the next ten to twenty years, authors Edward D. Hess and Katherine Ludwig make the case that humans must change how we think, work, and communicate to survive and thrive. McKinsey & Company research suggests that not even the highly skilled/highly paid are immune, as current technology could be adapted to replace at least 20 percent of a CEO’s work activities. Smart machines will have “no biases (except through human design), no egos, no emotional defensiveness, and no fears of making mistakes or looking stupid or not being liked.”  In order to compete effectively and complement these smart machines, humans will need to overcome our “cocoon of self-absorption.”

Humility is often confused with modesty. Humility is not being meek, subdued, or thinking that you are not a worthy person. In fact, someone who is self-deprecating is often making a show on the surface of modesty while in reality their statements are hyper-focused on themselves. In place of that approach, the authors define humility as “a mindset about oneself that is open-minded, self-accurate, and ‘not all about me,’ and that enables one to embrace the world as it ‘is’ in the pursuit of human excellence.”  Interestingly, the idea of humility as a key to continuous learning is an old one, going back at least to the philosophers of ancient Greece.

To excel in areas such as critical and innovative thinking, creativity, and high emotional engagement with others—skills that are not (yet) among the things technology does well—we need to move beyond a response to the outward world that is inwardly focused and self-protective. The authors note that humans often “operate more like a defensive closed system than a system open to disconfirming information, differing opinions, or new information.” One way to move beyond this defensive posture is by quieting our ego.  Ed Catmull, the co-founder of Pixar, explains how that innovative company deals with ego and self-absorption:

“You are not your idea, and if you identify too closely with your ideas, you will take offense when they are challenged. . . (Likewise) our mental models aren’t reality. They are tools, like the models weather forecasters use to predict the weather.  But, as we know all too well, sometimes the forecast says rain and, boom, the sun comes out. The tool is not reality.”

Quieting your ego, managing your thinking and emotions, reflective listening, and emotionally connecting and relating to others are all keys to a humble approach to learning—an approach that in the words of the book’s authors, increases the quality of our thinking and learning, decouples our beliefs (not values) from our ego, opens us up to continually testing our beliefs about how the world works, and learns from our mistakes as we try out new ideas and approaches to problem solving.

As I face milestones in my life, this book has me thinking a great deal about my approach to learning and communication. Continuous learning and insatiable curiosity seem to be critical to ongoing growth and engagement with the world around us.  We can get there by quieting our ego and letting humility take over.

Have a good week.

More to come…



I am David J. Brown (hence the DJB) and I originally created this personal blog more than ten years ago as a way to capture photos and memories from a family vacation. After the trip was over I simply continued writing. Over the years the blog has changed to have a more definite focus aligned with my interest in places that matter, reading well, roots music, and more. My professional background is as a national nonprofit leader with a four-decade record of growing and strengthening organizations at local, state, and national levels. This work has been driven by my passion for connecting people in thriving, sustainable, and vibrant communities.


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