How can you tell if someone is super smart? School trains us to offer a knee-jerk answer to this question: Does he or she know the answers on the test? This is an attitude that many of us carry over into our adult lives. Intelligence equals having all the answers, we assume.

No wonder so many of us approach each day with the aim of getting to bedtime without revealing ignorance or errors. We aim to appear smart by showing we're right all the time.

That's a dumb way to go through life, argues Stephanie Vozza in a thought-provoking recent article for Inc.'s sister publication, Fast Company. She offers a simple but powerful alternative.

The incredible, IQ-boosting power of intellectual humility

Drawing on the work of Hal Gregersen, the executive director of the MIT Leadership Center and author of a new book on smarter problem solving, Vozza insists that if you're striving to get smarter, you should stop trying to be right and instead aim to figure out where you're wrong.

"Going about your day being more answer-centered and right-focused is like living in an isolation chamber," Gregersen explains. "You stay in a space with people who reinforce what you already know. Acknowledging where your thinking is wrong, however, is how you stay in question mode. The longer we stay in wrongness, the more likely we are to stumble over catalytic questions that others have not yet thought to ask."

This quality of always being aware of your potential wrongness and looking for ways to uncover your presumed errors also goes by the name of intellectual humility. Gregersen is far from the only one who believes this attitude should be a lot more celebrated in our culture in general, and among leaders in particular.

Jeff Bezos has called the quality a hallmark of true intelligence. During a stop at the offices of startup Basecamp, Bezos "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," CEO Jason Fried reports the Amazon founder said.

In other words, the smartest people aren't always trying to demonstrate their rightness. Instead, they're looking for new information that might prove them wrong. Academic studies agree with Bezos, showing that those with intellectual humility (aka an understanding that you're probably wrong about a whole lot of stuff) make significantly better decisions and learn faster

A simple trick to cultivate intellectual humility

So how do you cultivate this intelligence-boosting mindset in yourself? Vozza harvests a simple suggestion from Gregersen. Instead of waking up every morning and going with a default aim of proving your smarts, choose to consciously embrace doubt and curiosity.

"Instead of waking up trying to confirm what you already believe, adopt a growth mindset," Gregersen recommends. "Go into your day saying, 'I know there's some corner of my mental model that's off. How and when am I going to surface that? What can I do today to reframe something I see in a way I wouldn't have otherwise?'"

In short, look for ways to prove some part of your thinking wrong every day, rather than for ways to show off how right you are. Your ego might not thank you for the switch initially, but your brain certainly will.

Published on: Jan 29, 2019
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