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The unknown can be scary, but it doesn’t have to be

I was skiing recently and waiting in a longer-than-usual lift line when I noticed a sign that said “CAUTION: Unmarked obstacles exist.” I thought that was quite an existential message to read as I was loading onto a lift. Of course, that sign is there for liability reasons—the resort wants to inform you at every turn that skiing and snowboarding are not inherently safe sports, proceed with caution. I’ve seen that sign a hundred times skiing throughout my life, so I know that there are many treacherous, unmarked obstacles—ice, rocks, and weather, just to name a few. But that sign struck me differently the other day. As I was waiting to get on the ski lift, I started thinking about other “unmarked obstacles.”

This led me down the path of thinking about all things I don’t know. I remembered an infographic I saw on LinkedIn, posted by organizational psychologist Adam Grant from his book, Think Again.

So how can we proceed in life and work knowing that we don’t know most things, and that the list of things we don’t know is limitless? Sounds exhausting. But fear not, because there are a whole host of benefits to intellectual humility aka, acknowledging that you don’t know everything.

You’re more motivated to learn

A study conducted by researchers from UC Davis and the University of Pittsburgh found that intellectual humility can actually improve learning outcomes. Researchers had students rate themselves on statements like “I am willing to admit it when I don’t know something” and “I acknowledge when someone knows more than me about a subject.” They found that students who were more “intellectually humble” were more motivated to learn and were more likely to use meta-cognitive strategies (like quizzing themselves) to learn and retain information. Takeaway? Next time you’re going into a learning situation, evaluate those statements and try to increase your own intellectual humility for a more robust learning experience.

You’re more open to hearing opposing views

The same research also found that there is likely a link between intellectual humility and a willingness to hear opposing viewpoints. Openness to opposing viewpoints not only makes for richer discussion and deeper understanding, but it also paves the way for more creative problem-solving. Productive working relationships require thoughtful engagement with those with whom we disagree. When we are not willing to voice disagreement, we miss the opportunity to bring all ideas and points of view to the table. Fostering a culture of open dialogue and thoughtful discourse, you’re more likely to hear all the opinions and ideas that are out there, not just the popular ones.

You’re more likely to admit when you’re wrong

Everyone drops the ball now and again. A well-worn adage says “It’s not your mistake, but rather how you handle your mistake that determines what kind of person you are.” A study of 3,100 employees from 13 countries found that  81% of respondents said that having a leader who will admit to being wrong is important or very important to inspiring them to give their best efforts at work. But of those respondents, only 41% said their supervisors could be trusted do so consistently—a gap of 40%. Researchers have also found that this score impacts employee satisfaction. Admitting when you’re wrong fosters trust and happiness in your relationships, and the first step to doing it successfully is being intellectually humble and curious. Next time you’re in a position to admit you were wrong, start by remembering there are many things you don’t know.


In skiing, as in life, unmarked obstacles exist. It’s impossible to acknowledge or plan for obstacles that we don’t even know are out there. However instead of fretting about the unknown, try taking comfort in acknowledging that it’s okay to not know.

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