Rodin’s “The Thinker” — credit: Protoplasmakid

Intellectual Honesty

A Field Guide to One of the Most Important Traits You Can Have

Authenticity is important — whether you’re establishing your own personal brand, or just establishing yourself as a person at a party. But there is a trait that might be more important than authenticity. Without it, it’s really hard to actually be authentic. That trait is intellectual honesty.

So what does that term mean? A useful and simple definition comes by way of Jonathan Koomey:

Someone who is intellectually honest follows the facts where ever they may lead, and does so in spite of discomfort, inconvenience, or self-interest.

Being intellectually honest has never been more important, but it’s also never been more difficult. We live under tremendous pressure to not only know a great deal of information, but also to have an opinion on a great deal of it. It’s no longer enough to merely know that Donald Trump won the US presidential election; you are also expected to have opinions about it. Reserving judgment is viewed as a cop-out. But that is a mistake — one of many.

Why Be Intellectually Honest?

Why be intellectually honest? My answer is this: because it’s the right and prudent thing to do.

It’s right because forming judgments with little grounding is dangerous — both to you, and to others. Beliefs inform behavior. False beliefs feed questionable or hasty behavior. When you act on false beliefs, you take actions that you most often regret later.

It’s prudent because one of the unsung currencies in the world today is trust. When someone trusts you, they will go to great lengths for you — to defend you, to help you, to work with you, and (sometimes) to fund you. When you are intellectually honest, and people are aware of it, they will tend to trust you. That trust can be the most helpful advantage that you have.

So, how do you do it? How do you become and stay intellectually honest. Below is a list of things I’ve found helpful. It’s by no means exhaustive, but I hope it’s a start.

Learn How to Recognize and Admit When You Don’t Know

Both of the verbs here are key: recognize and admit. It’s okay to not know, even when you’re an expert — especially when you’re an expert.

You’d be surprised what this can do for you. It may end up helping you to actually come to know something because others will point you toward information that can help you gain that knowledge.

Withhold Judgment for a While

In a time like ours, it’s so tempting to make quick decisions, and to have a “hot take” about current events. Do what you can to avoid this. Wait for a bit. Read more. Ask questions. Think of more questions you didn’t ask.

Nothing closes the door on new knowledge faster than thinking that you already know. Keep that door open for as long as you can by withholding judgment, and deciding not to form a solid belief.

This doesn’t mean to not have an inclination. You can be leaning to one judgment or another, but that leaning should never be too hard. Leave yourself room to adopt a new hypothesis as you learn more.

Don’t be Afraid to Change Your Mind

This is a big one, mostly because social media makes it incredibly difficult for someone to change their belief about something. But this is so terrible a mistake on our part that it almost literally pains me. We should encourage people to change their minds, and welcome their decision to do so — not call them a “flip-flopper”, indecisive, or weak.

We should prefer that leaders, experts, and decision-makers change their minds with ease — so long as it is in light of newly discovered information and valid logic. I could not imagine a better trait for leaders to have. I also could not imagine a worse trait for a leader than the opposite — a rigid refusal to change one’s mind, despite all new information and analysis. There is literally no faster way to lose trust and credibility.

Give Credit Where Credit is Due

Let’s face it: while you may have come up with some great ideas, it is highly likely that they came to you from somewhere. Give credit for that inspiration — as much as possible. Be generous in that vein. Even if you think you came up with an idea, take a few minutes and look for other people who may have talked about something similar (Google is your friend here).

Even if your idea seems to be genuinely uncharted territory, give credit to your readers — who may be aware of similar ideas. State your idea simply and humbly. Don’t claim that it is going to change the world and revolutionize everything — let other people do that for you. Doing it yourself is just a bad look.

The point is, you’ve got to stay humble about your ideas. It will pay you back in dividends.

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