During Jeff Bezos's tenure as CEO of Amazon, what was the No. 1 quality he looked for when hiring people? Hard work and past accomplishments certainly mattered. But when the then-Amazon boss spoke at Basecamp, he stressed another quality as most important: intellectual humility.
Bezos has "observed that the smartest people are constantly revising their understanding, reconsidering a problem they thought they'd already solved. They're open to new points of view, new information, new ideas, contradictions, and challenges to their own way of thinking," Basecamp founder Jason Fried reported Bezos saying.
To reach your maximum potential, you need to be willing to learn and improve. And that necessarily entails admitting you don't already have all the answers. Which is why Bezos (and others) actually like hiring those who have tried, failed, and learned from their errors. It shows you are open enough to new and contradictory information to be as successful as you can possibly be.
It sounds intuitive enough, but it's a well-established fact in psychology that humans in general are actually pretty bad at intellectual humility. As Duke University psychology professor Mark Leary recently explained on UC Berkeley's Greater Good Science Center, this makes intellectual humility a powerful advantage in reaching your goals in life.
All the ways intellectual humility helps you get ahead.
In the course of this deep dive into the subject, Leary outlines a heap of research on the benefits of intellectual humility. "One of our studies showed that people high in intellectual humility were more attentive to the quality of the evidence in an article about the value of dental flossing, more clearly distinguishing good from bad reasons to floss," he writes.
Other studies show the intellectually humble give more careful consideration to evidence that contradicts their views, and end up with a better understanding of those they disagree with (which can't hurt when it comes to empathy, persuasion, and negotiating compromises). They're also better at eliciting creative and varied ideas from others.
"Intellectual humility is also associated with the desire to learn new information. People who are high in intellectual humility score higher in epistemic curiosity, which is the motivation to pursue new knowledge and ideas," Leary adds. "People higher in intellectual humility like to think more than people low in intellectual humility do."
On the flip side, those low in intellectual humility are more likely to get emotional with those who disagree with them and are rated as unlikable by others. They are less likely to compromise and even less likely to end up in satisfying relationships.
Jeff Bezos was right.
All of which can be summed up in all of four words: Jeff Bezos was right. Intellectual humility might not be the most discussed trait, but research shows it's an essential precursor to almost any kind of excellence.
So how can we temper our natural human tendency toward overconfidence and nudge ourselves to be a little more humble about the limits of our knowledge? I've suggested a couple of ideas here on Inc.com before, but Leary uses logic to try to talk people around to a little more humility.
"People must see that approaching the world in a more intellectually humble fashion is both rational and beneficial," he writes. "Intellectual humility is rational in the sense that we can't all be right in most of our disagreements, we are often irrationally overconfident, and the evidence on which our beliefs and viewpoints are based is often rather flimsy. So why would rational people be as sure of themselves as most of us are?"
It's a pretty compelling argument for taking a long, hard look at whether you're as open to new information and ideas as you should be. And if it helps, you can also remind yourself that this quality will certainly help you get a job with Jeff Bezos too.