It’s strange that in a time of so much uncertainty and upheaval, many of us are convinced that we’re right about a lot of things. Admitting incomplete knowledge, let alone doubt, is out of favor. Certitude and snap judgment abound. People seek out sources that affirm their beliefs so are rarely pressed to rethink them. Instead of wrestling with nuance, many people are quick to pounce on those whose views deviate from their own. I sometimes find myself falling into this mode, and I know I’m not alone.
The stakes feel high, as we’re not just averse to opposing views and to data that complicate our own. We’re also righteous about being right. That makes it hard to have open-minded conversations with people who see things differently. Assumptions about the other side go unexamined, perception gaps widen, and caricatures take center stage in our mind’s eye. We’re living in an era of what author Amanda Ripley calls high conflict.
A few key norms, mindsets, and skills could make a big difference towards building a more relational, pluralist culture in America—which has become a key pillar of our strategy at Einhorn Collaborative. Empathy, deep listening, a spirit of goodwill, a belief in our shared humanity, and a pragmatic willingness to work together amidst our differences are a few examples of what a relational, pluralist culture looks like in action. All easier to name than to put into practice, yet many organizations and leaders are helping people embrace these ways of being.
Seeing how devotion to our own beliefs fuels our divisions, I’ve come to appreciate another key ingredient: intellectual humility. Our colleagues at the Templeton Foundation, who do rigorous work on the topic, describe intellectual humility as, “recognizing and owning our intellectual limitations in the service of pursuing deeper knowledge, truth, and understanding.” It’s not just an awareness of one’s blind spots; it’s a stance of curiosity toward new and even opposing ideas.
I’ve been trying to embrace this virtue more as I encounter greater viewpoint diversity through our participation in New Pluralists. The collaborative is purposefully comprised of funders with varied ideological views, core priorities, and institutional contexts. From the outset, we’ve tried to practice the pluralist norms we’re trying to spread through the work. That includes an openness to divergent views and respectful disagreement. Enacting these norms is hard and at times tense, but on balance it’s remarkably positive—for our shared work and for the relationships we’re building. These aspirations extend to the Field Builder community, a group of leaders we’re working closely with who bring a range of perspectives, strengths, and backgrounds.
Several Field Builders are themselves ardent practitioners and advocates of humility and curiosity. I cite the wisdom of a few of them below—David French, Jacqueline Novogratz, and Trabian Shorters—and link to a handful of practical resources from organizations in the Field Builder community.
In his book, Divided We Fall, writer David French describes humility as an essential quality in this moment of national rupture. “Humility reminds us that we are not perfect,” he writes. “Indeed, we are often wrong and will ourselves need mercy. As the apostle Paul reminds us, we ‘know in part.’ ‘We see through a glass darkly.’ Especially when tackling immense and complex challenges, we should face the task with resolve, but also with open hearts—ready to receive and hear criticism.”
I find that one of the hardest parts of intellectual humility is admitting when I’m wrong. That’s not surprising, I’ve learned, since many of us see our beliefs as an expression of who we are. The attachment is both intellectual and emotional. In his recent book Think Again, organizational psychologist Adam Grant writes, “To unlock the joy of being wrong, we need to detach.” He explains:
“Most of us are accustomed to defining ourselves in terms of our beliefs, ideas, and ideologies. This can become a problem when it prevents us from changing minds as the world changes and knowledge evolves. Our opinions can become so sacred that we grow hostile to the mere thought of being wrong, and the totalitarian ego leaps in to silence counterarguments, squash contrary evidence, and close the door on learning.”
Holding particular views lightly doesn’t mean setting aside deeply held values. And recognizing how confirmation bias constricts our thinking isn’t a sign of weakness. It’s being clear-eyed about our innate wiring and the gaps in our knowledge. Dialing down certainty makes it easier to open up to alternative perspectives and fresh evidence. Taking in new ideas and data may not always lead us to revise our beliefs. Yet it invites us to adopt a growth mindset about knowledge—to see it as in-process rather than fixed. And when we do update—or even set aside—beliefs in response to new learning, that’s a sign of flexibility and discernment, not fickleness.
At times, it’s also necessary to steer by principles that may feel at odds with one another. In her book, Manifesto for a Moral Revolution, Jacqueline Novogratz, founder and CEO of Acumen, describes this as the skill of holding opposing values in tension. “Effective leaders looking to bring about change have no choice but to hold opposing values without rejecting either,” she writes. “In a world of interdependence, we will flourish only if we move to ‘both-and’ thinking… For each of us, the first step is to reach across the wall of either-or and acknowledge the truths that exist in opposing perspectives.”