Intellectual Humility – The Counter-Intuitive Approach to Self-Improvement, Inner Peace & The Good Life

Unfortunately, humility isn’t a sexy idea. We mistakenly think it’s submissiveness or the act of putting oneself down. We turn our backs on humility because we think it is a weakness. We assume it runs counter to the idea of being perceived as strong, intelligent and confident. Incorrectly, we think it’s the same as humiliation, shame or embarrassment.

These misconceptions have turned humility into the virtue that no one really wants, but humility is none of these things and is something else entirely different. It’s a forgotten super-power that’s been with you since day one. Like the character in a story, who lives a very ordinary life, until one day they discover, they have superhuman abilities. That is what humility can do for you.

Humility can be your shield and defender, your greatest source of strength and your golden ticket. My promise to you is, cultivate a humility practice and all your hearts’ desires and more will come true.

I say this with conviction because humility is at the heart and center of everything that is good and true about our humanity. Described by Irish poet Thomas Moore as “that low, sweet root, from which all heavenly virtues shoot.” Humility is the alpha and omega. It is our connection to both the beginning and to the end. It is the reason we say “my humble beginnings” and “from ashes to ashes and dust to dust.”


How then do we define intellectual humility? The dictionary says humility is “the state of being humble.” However, since we can act humble on the outside but not feel humble on the inside, our first attempt at defining humility makes this distinction. “Intellectual humility is the state of being humble on the inside”.

Sometimes for the purposes of familiarity or for the sake of not being too repetitive, I may interchangeably use both humility and intellectual humility, but I mean the same thing. The focus is on how to process our thoughts and feelings with humility, rather than acts of humility like bowing down.

Yes, our actions are important, but they are a consequence of our thoughts and feelings. Therefore, focusing on what is going on inside of us, teaches us a lot more, because we are going to the source.

This idea would change the phrase WWJD to WWJF. Because what’s really valuable to our growth and evolution isn’t so much what someone did, but what they felt. So when trying to model behavior, it’s not what would Jesus do, but what would Jesus feel?

Our actions are just the tip of the iceberg because it’s our thoughts and feelings that are largely responsible for shaping our destiny. Intellectual humility is what makes us act more intelligently no matter the reason or season. During our ups or downs or our in-betweens, processing our thoughts and feelings with humility is a powerful cure-all and panacea for the human experience.

Our History of Humility

Intellectual humility as a path to inner peace and the good life is not a new idea. From the beginning of time, humility has been the central message and the defining trait of our greatest teachers. Jesus, Buddha, Lao-Tzu and every great teacher since then has been defined by humility.

Every major religion and spiritual practice advocates humility. Jesus sought the company of little children unlike the accredited teachers of his time who were mainly interested in status. When his disciples asked about rank and importance he said “Whoever humbles himself as this little child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven” – Matthew 18:4

Buddha was born into royalty, but he abandoned his riches as a prince to live a life driven by humility. In Zen Buddhism, intellectual humility is equated to having “the beginners mind”.

Connection to The Truth

Throughout our history, our poets and prophets have used different ways to help us understand intellectual humility. And they’ve used different metaphors to explain the same idea. Whether it’s the beginner’s mind or having the mind of a child or emptying your mind like an overflowing teacup. The common thread in their teachings and the true purpose of humility is to keep us receptive and open to reality, and the truth of our existence.

Intellectual humility is our connection to the truth, and indeed “the truth shall set you free”. Use humility to process your thoughts and feelings and it will set you free from your mistakes and failures. Free from anxiety and depression. Free from resentment and anger. Free from both your past and your fate, and free from the feeling of being stuck in a rut.

Practice intellectual humility and you will emancipate yourself from emotional and mental slavery.

Intellectual Humility Defined

Intellectual Humility is a way of thinking that curbs our desire for self-importance and accepts that we are not above everything or anyone. It’s a way of thinking that is accepting of reality and one that makes room for imperfection. Intellectual humility is a non-judgemental way of way thinking that helps us value learning and growth above our desire to be right or good.

Intellectual humility is not an end, but a means to an end and the goal is to keep us continuous learners. Because if we stay open to learning, everything will take care of itself. Like a rockstar, learning always travels with an entourage. Everything we desire, happiness, joy, meaning, fulfillment, purpose, resilience, courage, success, the whole kit and caboodle, all show up only when learning shows up.

Intellectual humility is a way of thinking that creates a conducive environment for learning. And when I talk about learning, I’m talking about something bigger than the knowledge found in our schools, books or videos. Your experience of life will always be your best teacher, and to seek learning is to simply stay open to learning from every interaction you have with life. And there is no higher institution or university that can give this to you.

Learning is something to be experienced, but our modern ways of understanding and processing our experience of life is the reason for all our suffering. The reason the old dog cannot learn new tricks isn’t due to age, but because he is caught up in either resentment, anger, judgment, shame, fear, guilt or regret.

Intellectual humility is a way of thinking that quiets our minds and lowers our anxieties, so learning can happen. Thus making it possible for the old dog to learn the latest trick.

Developing Intellectual Humility Through Practice

Intellectual humility can be developed through practice. In ancient Rome, a slave would continuously whisper ‘Memento homo’ (remember you are only a man or you are mortal) in the ears of victorious generals as they paraded through the streets of Rome celebrating their victory.

We all need a dose of humility in our moments of glory because the ‘high” can get to our heads. Whether it’s winning a hard-fought battle or getting a promotion, we need humility to ground us to reality otherwise, we can screw it all up. We start to look down on others, get complacent and make the most elementary mistakes.

We also need a dose of humility during our “dark nights of the soul” because the sorrow and sadness too can get to us. Without humility, our pain becomes our identity. And even after the darkness abates and daylight breaks, we find it hard to let go because are still caught up in our suffering.

Sometimes what doesn’t kill us, doesn’t always make us stronger. Sometimes it does enough damage for the next thing to finish the job. Humility is what allows us to go through the valley of suffering, and become a better person because of it.

If you are starting to taste some success in your life, intellectual humility will keep it coming and if you are down, intellectual humility will not only lift you up but turn your life around. Regardless of the good, the bad or the in-between, humility will keep you open to learning and therefore evolving.

The Romans were onto something but instead of having a slave follow me around reminding me of my mortality, I’ve developed a humility practice more relevant to our modern times.

My rediscovery of humility as a powerful force for change was inspired by observing my daughter Imara grow up. I believe all our babies are here to teach us something, and one of those things is to remind us of our humble beginning. At some point, even Shakespeare had to learn his ABC’s.

Babies evolve because they do everything in the name of learning. And my humility practice reminds me to stay open to learning despite life’s current conditions. It has helped me let go of the fear of failing and helped me get out of my own way. It has helped me overcome self-sabotaging behavior like procrastination, perfectionism, and self-medication.

It’s a practice that has helped me accept the realities of life and one that reminds me of the truth; that I’m not above everything or anyone, that I too can make mistakes and suffer the same fate as another. It’s a practice that embraces non-judgemental thinking and as a result, forgiveness both for oneself and others comes a lot easier.

My promise to you is that if you practice intellectual humility, it will free your mind and lighten your heart. Allowing you to get down to the business of what brought you here.

The Humility Practice

It involves the use of 3 ways or tools for cultivating intellectual humility.

1) Humility Breath – A mindful way of breathing that trains one to focus on humility. Focus and learning are tied at the hip and you can’t have one without the other. As your focus on humility improves so will your learning ability. Practicing your humility breath at any time during the day will help keep you focused on humility and open to learning.

2) Humility Script – These are words and phrases that remind one to process their thoughts and feelings with humility. The human mind is a language machine and there are certain phrases that can help us better infuse our thoughts and feelings with humility. Turning this into a practice helps us think, feel and act more intelligently.

3) Humility’s Questions – Three questions that help cultivate an attitude of humility. When it comes to learning, questions are the answer. The more questions we have, the more learning we do, and better questions lead to better learning. Humility’s three questions are designed to help to keep one open to learning from their experience of life.

There is More

Over the past 2 years, I have amassed over 250 pages of notes on intellectual humility. I’m in the process of sorting and condensing all my research and I would like to create a practical guide that delves deeper into the different aspects of intellectual humility, and how to create your own humility practice using the 3 tools I mentioned above.

The working title is “Intellectual Humility – The Backdoor to Your Creative Genius – A counter-intuitive approach to problem-solving, self-evolution, enhancing creativity and living the good life.”

I think this guide will be especially helpful if you have a creative spirit because creativity thrives when there is humility. Ancient conquests were won by generals on the battlefields, modern conquests are won by those who bring their creative ideas to life. Your creative spirit will be served well by whispering this modern version of “Memento homo” into your own ear. Your life and creativity grow because of it.

I would like to ask for your help as I put this guide together. If you have a minute to spare, please click the survey link to answer the 3 questions below that can help me during the creation and delivery of the content.

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Please fill out the survey by going to this link. If you are interested in the guide, enter your email and I will let you know of the survey results and as soon as the guide is ready. Those on the interested list will get the first peek at it before I release it to the general public.

Periodically I will send to those on the interested list more of my thoughts on the practical applications of intellectual humility. It’s is a life-changing practice and I hope you give it a chance.