Jonathan Gruber -

Sep 29, 2021

Opening Your Mind and Getting Curious

a page of text focused in on the words open-mindedIt’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.”

“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.”

—Jacqueline Novogratz, founder and CEO of Acumen

If intellectual humility were the norm in our culture we might see more searching, civil, and fruitful engagement in our politics and the public square. But let’s be honest: America is deeply divided not just because we disagree about ideas. We also demonize people we disagree with. When we see others merely as foes, threats, or crude labels, we fail to see their full humanity. If we want to build a more relational, pluralist culture, we need to foster humility and curiosity about diverse beliefs, to be sure—and towards people whose diverse life experiences and identities shape the beliefs they hold.

As with intellectual humility, an openness to truly seeing people we often view as “other” is easier said than done. It doesn’t help that most narratives—in the news, in popular culture, on social media—present reductive, one-dimensional sketches. In her famous TED talk, “The danger of a single story,” writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie explains why that’s problematic: “I’ve always felt that it is impossible to engage properly with a place or a person without engaging with all of the stories of that place and that person,” Adichie says. “The consequence of the single story is this: It robs people of dignity. It makes our recognition of our equal humanity difficult. It emphasizes how we are different rather than how we are similar.”

It’s also distorting when entire groups of people are mostly described as their supposed deficits. If you don’t have a sense of a person’s strengths and aspirations, it’s impossible to know them in a real way. Trabian Shorters, founder and CEO of BMe Community has pioneered asset framing as a way to craft narratives—especially about Black people—that transcend this trap. “If you acknowledge that aspiration before going into my various challenges, you’re telling a truer story about me,” Trabian explains. “Whatever that person’s aspiration is, if you haven’t bothered to acknowledge that aspiration before you’ve engaged them, then you’ve made them an object in the sentence… They are not a person.”

We need more affirming stories to upend narrow, negative assumptions. We’d also do well to check ourselves when we think we’ve got someone pegged. In a recent On Being interview with Krista Tippett, Rabbi Ariel Burger offered a celestial metaphor about the humility we need when we think we know the other:

“One of the things I’ve been thinking about is the way in which light from a distant star arrives at our planet, arrives at the human eye after such a vast period of time. Light takes time to travel. And so, at a very, very micro, nano- scale, the same thing is true when I’m standing two feet away from someone and looking at them. There is some lag, there’s some time lapse between the light from their face reaching my eyes and when it originated in their face, which means there’s a way in which I’m never seeing you. I’m seeing you a moment ago, even though we can’t measure that. And that means that I’m always a little bit behind, and my ideas about you are always a little bit obsolete, because in that micro, nano-, nano-, nanosecond, you might’ve changed. And you might’ve grown in some way. And to me, that’s pointing us to a great sense of openness to one another, if we could really hold that place of not-knowing… to allow a little bit of space, at least, for not knowing and the possibility of being surprised.”

Rabbi Burger’s call to allow ourselves to be surprised is one worth heeding. When we temper certainty with curiosity, we see the people and ideas we encounter more vividly. We might even come to see ourselves through new eyes.

If you are interested in building your own humility and curiosity muscles, here are some resources you might check out from a few of the organizations I’ve found to be a source of inspiration and guidance as I try to strengthen my own:

Braver Angels Online Debates: substantive, civil debates about timely, charged issues – always thought-provoking and learning-rich.

Greater Good Science Center Bridging Differences Playbook: research-backed bridging skills, several of which focus on expanding one’s views about the other.

Interfaith Youth Core resources on appreciative knowledge: concrete ways to cultivate positive inclinations in learning about other religious and ethical traditions.

Millions of Conversations Listening Guidebook: strategies and techniques for listening deeply and understanding the perspectives of those you may disagree with.

OpenMind learning tools: interactive, psychology-based tools that foster the mindset and skills—e.g., humility, empathy—to engage constructively across difference.

StoryCorps One Small Step: opportunity to have a humanizing conversation with a stranger who holds different political views.

Jon Gruber leads Einhorn Collaborative’s Building strategy. Learn more about our work in Building and more about Jon. Sign up to receive our monthly newsletter and be the first to read Jon’s blog posts.