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What the Classroom Taught Me About Humility and Learning

Visiting a campus never fails to ground me. It’s not only invigorating to be around students who are at the beginning of their adult lives, but it also brings me back to fond memories and important life lessons. I recently had the chance to speak to a group of business undergraduates at the University of Colorado in Boulder who were taking a leadership class about moral courage.

While preparing my remarks, I couldn’t help but recall one of the most important decisions I made after earning my undergraduate degree in accounting. I had enjoyed a successful start to my career but soon began to realize that if I was going to challenge myself, I needed to go back to school. I decided that an MBA would broaden my credentials and introduce me to an entirely new network of professionals—people like me who were also looking to grow.

Graduate school more than met the expectations I had for professional development and expanded my circle of colleagues, but in retrospect, a surprising factor was also at play that influenced my growth. While I had surrounded myself with new peers and was consuming new ideas faster than I could say MBA, I realize now it was humility that propelled me to be a better learner.

Let me share with you about my first day of class to explain why. Many of you are familiar with the Socratic method of instruction that’s highly participatory. It’s a rigorous teaching style that requires constant student interaction. On that first day, after one of my colleagues was asked to lay out the assigned case study, the instructor opened the discussion for other comments. Out of 90 students in the class, more than 70 hands went up around me. I was stunned.

Having not raised my hand to begin with, I continued to observe during the rest of the class while almost every student followed the previous one by weighing in with their own thoughtful interpretation of the case. I went back to my room a little deflated. Two humbling thoughts dawned on me: 1) I was going to school with a bunch of barracudas! 2) I was determined to keep up and learn from my peers.

Humility is the first step towards learning. You can’t learn until you are humble enough to realize there is something for you to learn.

— Robert T. Kiyosaki

It turns out there’s a concept related to my thought process after class. It’s called intellectual humility. Postdoctoral scholar from UC Davis, Tenelle Porter, explains that humility boosts learning. When we have intellectual humility, we recognize that our assimilation of new ideas can be improved by an openness to others and a willingness to collaborate.

During Laszlo Bock’s tenure as the Senior VP of People Operations at Google’s award-winning workplace, he said intellectual humility was one of the top four traits he was looking for in new hires. With a fast-paced company like Google, he clearly saw the value in leaders who could learn and relearn from their own mistakes or by consulting others without letting ego get in the way.

When you’re in a classroom with people like I was day after day, it raises your game. And if intellectual humility helps you realize there’s often much to gain by listening to others’ ideas around you, then you’re someone who will never stop learning.

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  1. Harry Barfoot

    Walt, couldn’t agree more. The challenge is to exhibit humility while also being confident in one’s abilities and also one’s team. Those barracuda’s you saw were confident yet showed their desire to demonstrate their knowledge and skill in what was a highly competitive program. One should be confident but demonstrate humility over the long-haul. One’s ability to learn from mistakes, listen to others, and yet also know when and how to make decisions is a fine balancing act!

    Reply to Harry Barfoot

  2. Dennis Jeffery

    I couldn’t agree more. Thank you for this article. Substantive, well written, and vital to healthy leadership. Well done!

    Reply to Dennis Jeffery

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