Published on Mar 14, 2020

Intellectual Honesty


I’ve discovered a superpower, admitting that I don’t know what’s going on. I know it doesn’t sound like much, but it is actually quite powerful. When confronted with a challenging problem with no obvious solution, I now find it much easier to admit to innocence rather than trying to pretend to know the answer.

I believe that we’re all fooling ourselves all the time, consciously and unconsciously and this can have a pretty dramatic impact when dealing with uncertain situations. Having intellectual honesty is the only way I’ve found to stop deceiving myself and try to get to the right answer. It’s also a powerful social signal to show humility and let others know that the truth is the only thing that matters.

When faced with a business problem though, it’s largely a matter of probabilities rather than one singular right answer. There’s a typical gradient scale that can be applied; is the issue operational or strategic in nature? It resembles the certainty / uncertainty curve. Strategic questions are usually uncertain and have a high degree of variability. These are usually big important questions like where are we headed, who should we hire, what’s the next acquisition we should make, etc and only the people running a company can tackle. A leadership team needs to avoid bringing a false sense of bravado and ego when faced with these types of decisions.

Intellectual honesty & probability

Leadership teams large and small can benefit from trying to eliminate bias in their decision making. One way to neutralize the uncertainty component is with probability. Map out the degree of confidence for each potential course of action and dissect the question at hand. One simple technique our team uses is Wardley Mapping. It is a map of the structure of a business or service, which maps the components needed to serve the customer or user. Mapping is a great way to dive deeper into a particular challenge and get everyone around the table to debate each of the underlying components.

Having a high degree of intellectual honesty is a short of ninja mind trick. It helps eliminate bias when faced with important problems. It also sends a signal to the person that you’re dealing with that you’re only searching for the best possible solution. Socrates said it best, “The only thing I know, is that I know nothing.”

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