That might seem like an unusual question to consider. Why would we need courage for humility? Or, why would we even want to be humble?
In “Could a lack of humility be at the root of what ails America?” Frank McAndrew, Knox College psychology professor, said: “There are a lot of reasons behind the political polarization of the country and the deterioration of civic discourse. I wonder if a lack of humility is one of them.”
Psychologists Everett Worthington and Scott Allison studied humility and found after generations of self-focus – the “do your own thing” of the 1960s and the push for “high self-esteem” in the 80s and 90s – the need for humility has increased.
McAndrew noted other factors – the growing distrust in experts as well as news outlets and social media serving as echo chambers, “where like-minded individuals reinforce each other’s worldviews.”
In a time when being right seems to be more important than listening, having the courage to change can be difficult. But I also think humility has been misunderstood.
Indian philosopher Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan believed that “humility is the non-judgemental state of mind when we are best able to learn, contemplate and understand everyone and everything else.”
Dr. Tim Soutphommasane, University of Sydney sociology professor, said humility is needed for human flourishing: “(It) is required not only for us to improve ourselves, but also for us to treat others well.”
Elder Dieter F. Uchtdorf said humility does not mean thinking we are worthless: “Humility directs our attention and love toward others.”
Until recently, humility wasn’t discussed outside of religion. However in the early 21st century, Worthington and Allison write, “the need for humility burst through church doors into the halls of corporate power” as a result of the fraud and dishonesty found in cases like Enron, Freddie Mac, the Lehman Brothers and Bernie Madoff.
Looking beyond religion, Duke University psychologist Mark Leary conducted a series of studies exploring intellectual humility or “the recognition that the things you believe in might, in fact, be wrong.”
Vox science reporter Brian Resnick wrote about Leary’s studies and explained it isn’t about being a pushover or lacking confidence. “The intellectually humble don’t cave every time their thoughts are challenged. It’s about entertaining the possibility that you may be wrong and being open to learning from the experience of others. It’s about asking: What am I missing here?”
According to McAndrew, Leary discovered “those who score on the high end of intellectual humility process information differently from those who score on the low end. They’re more tolerant of ambiguity and realize not every problem has a single, definitive answer or outcome. When they hear a claim, they are more likely to seek out evidence and prefer two-sided, balanced arguments. Unfortunately, most people do not score high on intellectual humility.”
The good news is that Leary said it doesn’t require a high IQ or a certain set of skills to achieve intellectual humility, but simply a desire to acknowledge your limits.
So if it’s possible for any of us to achieve, then the next question would be do we actually want to increase our intellectual humility? Do we want to be better citizens and neighbors? Or, are we comfortable sitting where we are right now?
Sometimes we might not even realize there’s a problem which is why humility is so important.
Soutphommasane said, “For there to be recognition that one may be in the wrong, even when one doesn’t necessarily mean to be, there must first be humility. Someone must be willing to acknowledge their current ways may not necessarily be right or the best.”
This idea of humility is not just about political polarization or civic discourse. In the business world, for example, Fortune 500 coach Melody Wilding says: “Research proves humble leadership works. Not only are self-aware leaders more effective, but they also impact the bottom line.”
The case for humility can be found in other fields, relationships and experiences as well.
But are we willing to try it out? Are we willing to accept we might be wrong?
Courage is the ability to do something you know is difficult or dangerous. It can be found in small acts or grand feats but also in ways which seem insignificant but are life changing.
Facing fears. Standing up for others. Doing the right thing when no one is watching.
And … choosing humility.
I believe humility has the power to solve a lot of problems.
Do we have the courage to be humble?