What Trait Could Change Your Life (for the better)?

What Trait Could Change Your Life (for the better)?

very long time ago, I searched wide and far for role models. I just plain needed someone to believe in. At one point, I heard my role model say, “The quality of your questions will become the quality of your life.” I was, of course, a bit immature, full of myself, and definitely younger back then. I said to myself, “Yeah, sure. Sounds like a lot of Philosophy 101. I’ll pass on it.”

Little did I know that my arrogance would come back to haunt me again and again (as it does with most young people.) Being arrogant and thinking one knows a lot can be a big problem, either at home or school. The answer to the arrogance? Hang on… I will unveil this soon.

After all these years, I only recently discovered a powerful trait that you might be curious about, as well. In this issue, you’ll learn how to rewire your brain for the better. Learn the one trait that will open doors, increase options, and allow you to embrace new joy in life. Do you want to know the trait that will help you have a better life every day? If so, the trait in this post is for you.


Here is this month’s insight. Your brain can be altered, trained, and sculpted to help you thrive daily. And it begins with asking better questions.

First, let’s try out a question with a novel angle. Would you like to be known as the educator with a closed mind, poor growth mindset, unable to tolerate other points of view and unbearable dogmatism? I would hope not. That description sounds like a person unlikely to be serving students very well.

So, what’s the one trait that, if you foster it in your job and personal life, will help things be better?

The one trait you’re about to learn is the “Antidote” to those depressing and life-throttling traits. The trait is intellectual humility.

Intellectual Humility (IH) refers to the recognition that your personal beliefs, including your opinions and even your unverified “facts,” may be wrong. It means you ask honest questions from inside instead of spouting narratives from the media.  Intellectual humility is associated with greater openness, ongoing curiosity, tolerance of ambiguity, and low dogmatism. If you recall from the 70’s TV show “All in the Family,” this would be the opposite of Archie Bunker.

Seems like the media is guilty of this continually pushing an “us vs. them” mantra, as well as “we are the good guys and they are not” theme nearly every day. It is arrogant, divisive, and often tears communities and countries apart.

The process for brain-training this month is learning to ask questions that keep doors open, foster a growth mindset, and improve harmony in your life. I am inviting you to delve into a daily, powerful way of influencing yourself, your family, and your students. Yes, there are some who already have this trait; but as I ask myself the hard question, “Who do I know that is truly intellectually humble?” The answer is, “Not many and not enough.”

The Research

First, if we want to encourage intellectual humility (IH), let’s define it. The likely features of IH have been revealed as both cognitive and interpersonal (Leary, et al., 2017). Many researchers have more refined definitions; here are two of the most well-done and valuable studies.

Among these two studies we see that many sub-traits overlap. Each study has its preferred combination of IH traits. Both base their model on theoretical descriptions of intellectual humility, expert reviews, pilot studies, and other analyses (Krumrei-Mancuso & Rouse, 2016).

This first scale measures four distinct (but correlated) aspects of intellectual humility (since there appears to be multiple contributing factors.)

They are:
*independence of intellect and ego (in other words, no matter how ‘smart’ you think you are, you will admit you don’t know it all)
*openness to revising one’s viewpoint (“Earlier I thought A, but now I agree with B.”)
*respect for others’ viewpoints (“I can see your point; that does make sense.”)
*lack of intellectual overconfidence (“I make mistakes all the time; I could be wrong on this.”)

Does that seem like everything is ‘covered’?

Actually, it might not be. In another well-done large study (I am trying to demonstrate IH now…) there is a differing point of view (Alfano, et el., 2017). This study’s four core dimensions were researched and validated, also.

They included:
*open-mindedness (as opposed to Intellectual Arrogance: “I have a lot to learn..”)
*engagement (as opposed to Boredom: “I’d like to learn more about their point of view.”)
*intellectual modesty (as opposed to Intellectual Vanity; demonstrated with “Instead of saying, “I know for a fact…” or “I am certain…”, you choose to say, “I think…”, or “I believe…”, or even, “As of today, what I might say is…”)
*corrigibility (a ‘tough skin’, as opposed to Intellectual Fragility; if you fall apart when someone pokes holes in your logic, do you: a) thank them, b) fire back, or c) curl up and want to hide?

As you can see, between the above sets of trait definitions, there are variations. And yet we also have similarities. Can you see the traits of engaged curiosity and modesty within both? I do. Curiosity is a powerful and positive trait for educators (Roman, 2011). In fact, many studies show it can be life-changing in multiple positive ways (Turner, 2014 and Russell, 2013).

As a kid, I heard the expression, “If you’re going to open your mouth on a subject, you better know almost everything or admit you know nothing.” My takeaway was simple. Be modest about what you know; there’s a pretty good chance you’re NOT the city, state, national or global expert on that topic.

For example, as a young person, as long as I knew more than my peers, I thought I was pretty smart. That’s a low bar and it tells you that my peers were likely experts in different things than me. I should have been more curious about their expertise. Takeaway: if someone shares a counterthought, argument, or story that you believe is untrue, be curious (and avoid being mean or intrusive).

Early in my career, when I was sharing the value of brain-based learning (BBL) to others, I thought I was an expert on the topic. I got into many debates about BBL, some that were published in journals. Maybe I was or maybe I wasn’t an expert. But I discovered I sure had a lot more to learn. Recently, Liesl McConchie and myself re-wrote Brain-Based Learning (3rd edition). We both needed to go back into the topics and re-think many concepts I now know were under-researched at the time. Yes, I continue to promote brain-based learning science and strategies because it is reliable and authentic. But I will keep up my curiosity; I have so much more to learn. And yes, (growth mindset) I am still a subscriber to The Journal of Neuroscience (out every two weeks) and I read it cover to cover!

Practical Applications

Here are three tools you can begin using immediately to foster IH. Plus, you can soak in the specifics of what and when to say it, too. Let’s figure out how we might implement IH.

1) Be engagingly curious. Start with body language. Turn to face the person. Smile when you talk. Lean in when you listen. Use gestures to show you really are engaged. For the verbal messages, use phrases such as, “I was wondering what you meant when you said…” Or, “I had not heard that before. Can you tell me more about it?” Maybe you say, “Sounds like I have a lot to learn to get up to speed. Do you have a resource, a webpage, newsletter, or book you’d suggest?”

2. Be Modest. On the huge bell-shaped curve of expertise in your subject matter (leadership, parenting, teaching, etc.), the true experts would be in the top 10%. As I did my doctoral work on poverty, I discovered so many others who addressed the topic from a different point of view and were amazing experts. Knowing the quality of the large research community helped me foster modesty.

In today’s world, many who get a brief news feed about the pandemic are quick to share it. Doing that gives you status as a ‘giver’ and as one who is ‘connected and smart.’ Unfortunately, over the last two years, much of what has been shared has been distorted, late to the party, or even wrong. But how often did you admit you were wrong about what you said? “But they were the ones who were wrong!” That’s a common response I hear. That response lacks modesty.

To be modest, find common ground. Mentally place yourself on the bell-shaped curve of expertise. There is a good chance that many are your equals or have even more experience or expertise in the topic. Start using phrases such as, “I respect your thinking.” Or, “I would agree that ____ is true.” “I can tell I have so much to learn about this.” And, if you disagree, say, “It seems as if you have a good point. I am not there yet, but I have respect. Seems I have some homework to do.”

3) Be Kind. Being kind around others takes very little effort, just authentic intention. Be a good listener. Listen more than you talk. Give a genuine smile while you make a point or ask a question. It is contagious and can brighten someone else’s day. Kindness means never interrupt others when they are talking. Let them finish unless you have a genuine emergency. Be patient when you listen; no fidgeting or eye rolling. Use a slower, thoughtful voice. And maybe, most importantly of all, give compliments. Thank the other person for sharing. Be appreciative that they listened to you. Maybe it becomes one of the highlights of their day.

Kindness means you use intellectual humility to bring others into the conversation. Maybe you say, “Sam, we haven’t heard from you. I’d love to hear what you are thinking.” Or, you say, “This is so good, hearing all the different viewpoints. My head is spinning. I have a lot to think about.” Thank everyone present for joining in because “each of us rounded out our group” (or maybe just one additional person MADE a group of two). Here, you see the interplay between gratitude and kindness; each feeds off of the other.

Let’s sum up what we have.

Our topic was a core trait for your life: intellectual humility. It is the opposite of one with 1) a closed mind, 2) poor growth mindset, 3) unable to tolerate other points of view, and 4) unbearable dogmatism. If you want to avoid being ‘that person,’ here’s a great way to start your new year. Be aware of how you are around others. Notice when ego gets in the way or you are certain you are right (you might not be right.) Be curious, modest, and a bit more kind this year.

That’s it for this month; it’s closing time. Now for my biggest fear. Maybe you still use the ‘time bias.’ Many will read this newsletter and then respond with, “I’m just too busy; I’ve got no time for those changes to help myself and my students soar like eagles.” If you feel that way, I am sorry – I have failed you. I failed to activate your choice of playing the ‘long game.’ Biases are shortcuts to save time and are often about the ‘short game.’

You see, life goes by so fast that many would say, “Live in the moment, smell the roses, life is short.” And they’re right. Life is about savoring the smell of the flowers, eating a great meal, and enjoying hugs from friends and family.

But most everything in life that’s worth having over a lifetime also requires the ‘the long game.’ At school, it includes building relationships and fostering cognitive capacity. At home, the list includes maintaining relationships, appreciating the daily blessings, and saving for retirement. Choose right now; what have you decided on… long or short? Then begin… right now.

Alfano, M., Iurino, K., Stey, P., Robinson, B., Christen, M., Yu, F., & Lapsley, D. (2017). Development and validation of a multi-dimensional measure of intellectual humility. PloS one12(8), e0182950. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0182950
Krumrei-Mancuso EJ, Rouse SV. (2016). The Development and Validation of the Comprehensive Intellectual Humility Scale. J Pers Assess. 98, 209-21.
Leary MR, Diebels KJ, Davisson EK, Jongman-Sereno KP, Isherwood JC, Raimi KT, Deffler SA, Hoyle RH. (2017). Cognitive and Interpersonal Features of Intellectual Humility. Pers Soc Psychol Bull.43, 793-813.
Roman B. (2011). Curiosity: a best practice in education. Med Educ. 45, 654-6.
Russell BH. (2013). Intellectual curiosity: a principle-based concept analysis. ANS Adv Nurs Sci. 36, 94-105.
Turner MS. (2014). The power of curiosity. Science. 344, (6183):449.
Eric Jensen is a former teacher with a real love of learning. He grew up in San Diego and attended public schools. While his academic background is in English and human development, he has a real love of educational neuroscience. For over 20 years, he has been connecting the research with practical classroom applications.

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