Orders of Humility

Alex Komoroske and I had a great generative conversation today and as usual, I have a new framing to write down.

We often look for a humble attitude toward new information in those who we collaborate with. It signals to us that they are willing to listen and shift their perspective, to see what we see — even if temporarily. We recognized that there might be two different kinds of this humility, seemingly stacked on top of another: the first order and the second order.

The first order of humility feels like this general sense of curiosity, a hunger for new information, excitement toward it. People with strong first-order humility are information sponges, asking more questions, pulling on threads, actively engaging in conversations, seeking insights and incorporating them into their understanding of the world. They have enough confidence in this understanding to the degree that they aren’t experiencing much angst in the presence of disconfirming evidence. 

This confidence also conceals the limit of the first order of humility. Even though I might be eager to take your new idea for a spin, I only do so to enrich and reinforce my current understanding. In this order of humility, my understanding of the world remains largely immovable, a vessel that I am happy to pile my new insights into, sorting useful ones into one pile, and the useless ones into another.

At the second order of humility, this illusion is shattered. Usually through lived experience, a person who acquired this kind of humility has watched that vessel turn into mush, or disappear, break down, and eventually emerge as something completely different — taking all those piled-on useless insights and Copernican-shifting them into a whole reality.

Lost is the confidence in the concreteness of the world, and with it, the ease of sorting insights into useful and useless. Disconfirming evidence is met with wonder and awe, as a possible precursor to another metamorphosis.

We also noticed that orders of humility seem to correlate with horizontal and vertical development framing. Both are representative of the acceptance and appreciation of development. The first order of humility seems to correspond to commitment to horizontal development (“learning makes you better”), and the second order of humility to vertical (“learning transforms who you are”).

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