Why Humility Is the Key to Smart Machine Age Skills

“I feel coming on me a strange disease—humility.” —Frank Lloyd Wright


Falling Water shows more humility in its deference to nature than its designer’s famous larger-than-life persona.

Frank Lloyd Wright, famed mid-century architect of such iconic buildings as Falling Water and the Guggenheim Museum and more than 500 other structures, made this comment at the age of 83 while accepting the Gold Medal Award of the National Institute of Arts and Letters. He would pass away just a few years later in 1959. Prior to this, Wright’s only other reference to humility was much earlier in his career when he denounced it as superficial. Echoing many a public personality’s unapologetic admissions of hubris—from Napoleon Bonaparte to Kanye West—Wright said, “Early in life, I had to choose between honest arrogance and hypocritical humility. I chose honest arrogance and have seen no occasions to change.”

In many ways, Wright, whom many consider to be the greatest architect of the 20th century, represents a quintessential American success story. He was a visionary of modern and functional styles of design, in stark and controversial contrast to the rigid Victorian-era aesthetic that dominated at the time. He was talented, outspoken, and self-promotional. Wright had a larger-than-life personality, refuted convention, and persevered through numerous financial, professional, and personal setbacks.

The combination of his creative genius, arrogance, and tumultuous personal life has fueled a Ken Burns documentary and plenty of biographies. His originality and unapologetic belief in his own greatness despite criticism early in his career served as the inspiration behind Ayn Rand’s ideal man and protagonist in The Fountainhead—her literary ode to individualism over collectivism. Like other American heroes that Ken Burns has documented on film—Thomas Jefferson, Lewis & Clark, Teddy Roosevelt—Wright was committed to honoring a uniquely American way of life informed by the country’s rebellious founding and philosophy of trailblazing and personal freedom coupled with rugged self-reliance.

It seems to have taken Wright a lifetime to realize the value of humility. Even then, he was—as we can speculate from his referring to it as a “disease”—a bit perplexed by it. With all that is going on politically and socially at the moment, I venture to guess that anyone reading this might be perplexed by and suspicious of the power of humility as well.

Unfortunately, unlike Wright, most of us don’t have the luxury of waiting our entire careers to develop humility. The Smart Machine Age will demand that we learn this lesson much earlier, because as my co-author and I explain in Humility Is the New Smart: Rethinking Human Excellence in the Smart Machine Age, humility is what underlies all the skills necessary for humans to maintain relevance and succeed in this transformative new age.

Advancing technologies will take over much of what humans are currently paid to do, istock_000016741093smallup and down the socio-economic spectrum (The best research to date from Oxford University and the Bank of England indicates a high probability that technology will replace 47% of US jobs or displace as many as 80 million U.S. workers within the next ten to twenty years). The consensus view is that in the foreseeable future humans will be needed to perform those skills that either complement technology or constitute what machines can’t yet do well, and that list includes critical thinking, innovative thinking, creativity, and the kind of high emotional engagement with others that fosters relationship building and collaboration. Most of us aren’t great at these skills because we are naturally biased in our thinking, emotionally defensive, fearful of mistakes and failures, and we focus on ourselves entirely too much.  It’s a problem of human nature and our culture. Having more humility would help us overcome those obstacles.

Humility: The Unsung Hero of Higher Level Thinking and Learning
When we first came to the conclusion that all the research we had done on (1) the increasing displacement of both manual and cognitive work by smart machines and artificial intelligence; (2) the future of human jobs and skills; and (3) the science of human learning, thinking, and relating all pointed to humility as the key to human success (not just being modest and nice to people, but actual Gandhi-would-approve humility), we thought, well, no one will believe us. With the global economy more competitive than ever, and amid all the other popular advice to expand our social networks, market ourselves, and “lean in,” we’re going to suggest humility as the key to business skills? We’re going to tell people to take their feet off the gas pedal of self-promotion, step back, and quiet down in order to get or stay ahead?

Everything I myself have been told and shown up to this point indicates that in many ways the exact opposite of humility is necessary to succeed in our fast-paced, competitive, modern, (post-factual?) world and that to stop believing in our own greatness and to stop self-promoting and instead acknowledge and accept our weaknesses is itself a weakness.

I went to a competitive law school and worked in cutthroat climates in corporate America. I see the increasing professional pressure to broadcast ourselves on social media. In these environments, I admit to some short-term advantages of self-interest, assertiveness, confidence, and, yes, a little bit of arrogance. The world of work is changing in fundamental ways, however, and the march of technology is reaching a point at which none of us can rely on the old rules of success and sacrifice long-term planning for short-term strategies.

What we are getting at in Humility Is the New Smart is that a belief in a new kind of smart that isn’t based on how much you know but on how well you think, learn and collaborate with others; that an understanding of the need for a Big Us rather than a Big Me mentality and a full-scale behavioral change that enables everyone to stop obsessing about themselves and start opening their minds and focusing outward and on others is tantamount to survival in the Smart Machine Age. Only then can you truly prepare yourself to engage in the more expansive thinking, learning, and human connection that everyone will need as individuals and in order for organizations to thrive.

The Psychology of Humility

Humility has not received nearly the attention and focus in the social and psychological sciences as other psychological constructs and personality states and traits. Part of the problem is that the true meaning of humility is so confused in common parlance. While we often equate humility with “lowliness” or low self-esteem, most interested theologians, philosophers, and psychologists have a much different take. Psychologist June Price Tangney defines humility as having

  • An accurate (not under- or over-estimated), stable sense of one’s abilities and achievements;
  • The ability to acknowledge one’s mistakes, imperfections, gaps in knowledge, and limitations;
  • Openness to new ideas, contradictory information and advice;
  • Relatively low focus on the self or a tendency to “forget the self”; and
  • Appreciation of the value of other people.

There has been a recent and growing focus, on defining, assessing, and measuring a universal concept of humility and a growing body of psychological literature that correlates humility with higher physical and psychological well-being and intrapersonal and interpersonal advantages, particularly in the context of intellectual concerns, metacognitive abilities, leadership, and relationship building.

All of that goes to the heart of our uniquely human advantages over ‘bots and algorithms.

If humility is a strange “disease,” let’s hope it’s very contagious.