Humility is the New Smart! Rethinking human excellence

Supercharge individual and organization learning and performance improvement.

The CDPH Way
Book review
Psychological safety
Team skills

California Department of Public Health


October 22, 2017


This is part of the series The CDPH Way—Becoming the best at getting better.

For background, here is an overview slide set and lean reporting templates.

Humility is the key to unleashing and supercharging personal and organizational performance improvement. However, not everyone feels comfortable introducing complex topics like cultural humility. I was fortunate to discover Professor Edward Hess’ book “Humility is the New Smart: Rethinking human excellence in the smart machine age” [1]. I believe his book is a non-threatening, practical, and inspiring way to introduce humility to your staff. Based on Hess’ book, the article below is an excerpt from our population health lean reference document.1 … Tomás J. Aragón

Redefining what it means to be “smart”

Our world is changing fast! Automation, machine learning, and artificial intelligence—the Smart Machine Age (SMA)—are disrupting and displacing the workforce. Transdisciplinary teamwork is the new norm. People skills, creative and critical thinking, innovation, and improvement are more important now than ever!

Unfortunately, our native cognitive abilities have not evolved at the same pace [2]. Our brain is wired to sense “dangers” and react based on perceived threats and emotions. Our brain is wired for efficiency: it defaults to personality traits, fast decisions via nonconscious schemas or learned mindsets. We resist new ideas that demand new cognitive effort. Our decisions are suboptimal due to cognitive biases: (a) protection of mindset, (b) personality and habits, (c) faulty reasoning, (d) automatic associations, (e) relative thinking, and (f) social influences [3].

Humans are prone to defensiveness from our innate drive to protect our ego2 and to avoid our fears (vulnerability, uncertainty, risk, intellectual or emotional exposure, uninvited scrutiny). Science shows these behaviors impede creativity, critical and innovative thinking, reflective listening, and emotionally engaging others [1]. We mitigate these biases using brain science. We start with a new definition of “being smart” (“NewSmart”). We must embrace intellectual humility, honesty, and courage and redesign organizations for this new age. Professor Edward Hess’ NewSmart Humility has four interdependent components:

  1. NewSmart principles,
  2. Humility mindset,
  3. NewSmart behaviors, and
  4. NewSmart organization [1].

The “NewSmart” principles

“To change our mental model for the SMA,” Hess writes, “we first need to accept a quality-based definition of ‘being smart’—a NewSmart—that we define as excelling at the highest level of thinking, learning, and emotionally engaging with others that one is capable of doing. NewSmart is a measure not of what you know or how much you know but of

  1. the quality of your thinking, listening, collaborating, and learning;
  2. how good you are at “not” knowing and decoupling your beliefs (not values) from your ego;
  3. how good you are at being open to continually stress-testing your beliefs about how the world works;
  4. how good you are at trying out new ideas and ways to accomplish your objectives and learning from those experiments” [1].

“So what does the high-quality thinking, learning, and emotional engagement underlying NewSmart look like in practice?” The NewSmart principles are worth committing to memory:

  1. “I’m defined not by what I know or how much I know, but by the quality of my thinking, listening, relating, and collaborating.”
  2. “My mental models are not reality—they are only my generalized stories of how my world works.”
  3. “I’m not my ideas, and I must decouple my beliefs (not values) from my ego.”
  4. “I must be open-minded and treat my beliefs (not values) as hypotheses to be constantly tested and subject to modification by better data.”
  5. “My mistakes and failures are opportunities to learn.”

This Table compares the “old smart” to the NewSmart.

Old smart NewSmart
I know I’m good at not knowing
I tell I ask
Defend my views Improve my views
Seek confirmation Seek truth
Close mind Open mind
Insecure if beliefs are challenged Insecure if beliefs are NOT challenged
Mistakes are bad Mistakes are learning opportunities
Perfectionism Learning

The Humility mindset

We embrace two definitions of humility:

  1. Dickson defines humility as “the noble choice to forgo your status, [and to] use your influence for the good of others before yourself,” [4] and
  2. Hess defines “Humility as a mindset about oneself that is open-minded, self-accurate, and ‘not all about me,’ and that enables one to embrace the world as it ‘is’ in the pursuit of human excellence” [1].

“Humility is a mindset that results in not being so self-centered, ego defensive, self-enhancing, self-promotional, and closed-minded—all of which the science of learning and cognition shows inhibit excellence at higher-order thinking and emotionally engaging with others” [1].

The NewSmart behaviors

The NewSmart and Humility mindsets drive behaviors that are supported and improved with evidence-based skills. Hess clusters them into four behavioral categories:

  1. Quieting Ego,
  2. Managing Self (one’s thinking and emotions),
  3. Reflective Listening, and
  4. Otherness (emotionally connecting and relating).

(a) Quieting Ego

“Quieting Ego is how we can deliberately work to reduce our reflexive emotional defensiveness; have empathy and open-mindedness; engage in Reflective Listening; and proactively seek other people’s feedback and perspectives to stress-test our own thinking. Quieting Ego is a way of practicing and operationalizing Humility. To quiet our ego is to perceive others and the world without filtering everything through a self-focused lens and to tamp down on negative or self-protective”inner talk” that is driven consciously or subconsciously by our fears and insecurities” [1]. Quieting Ego starts with four evidence-based behaviors:

  1. mindfulness,
  2. mindfulness meditation,
  3. daily Quiet Ego reminders, and
  4. practicing gratitude.

(b) Managing Self (one’s thinking and emotions)

“Managing Self—our emotions and thinking—aids us in engaging in the higher-level thinking and behavior required … . It’s necessary to remain open-minded and be willing to test our beliefs and modify our points of view if presented with better data. It’s also how we’re able to overcome our fear of mistakes in order to take ownership of them and learn from them, and helps us more effectively relate to and collaborate with others” [1].

“Managing Self comes from the science of ‘self-regulation’ and ‘self-control,’ which are broad psychological concepts that mean to monitor and manage one’s emotions, thoughts, and behaviors” [1] and start with these practices:

  1. slowing down,
  2. managing thoughts,
  3. managing emotions, and
  4. emotional intelligence.

For managing thoughts, Hess’ “thinking toolbox” starts with familiar concepts from population health lean (PDSA problem-solving, root cause analysis, etc.). We also highly recommend reading Richard Nisbett’s Mindware: Tools for Smart Thinking [5].

For managing emotions, “We’ve discussed how ego and fear are the two big learning inhibitors and explored our reflexive tendency as humans to be emotionally defensive and self-protective. We’ve discussed how negative emotions can undermine our behavior and thinking and how positive emotions can improve them. Stress, anger, and anxiety can cause narrow-mindedness and the fight-flee-or-freeze syndrome. … Positive emotions, on the other hand, have been scientifically linked not just to higher health and well-being but also to broader attention, open-mindedness, deeper focus, and more flexible thinking, all of which underlie creativity and innovative thinking. Positive emotions also improve decision making and general cognitive processing.”

Hess’ “managing emotions toolbox” includes effective techniques such as

  1. psychological distancing,
  2. reframing,
  3. positive memories,
  4. positive self-talk, and
  5. if-then implementation plans.

See Hess book for illustrative examples [1].

Emotional intelligence (EI) is “the ability to monitor one’s own and others’ feelings and emotions, to discriminate among them and to use this information to guide one’s thinking and actions. … Sensitivity to other people’s emotions has been found to be a key to effective collaboration.” The EI model includes these abilities:

  1. Perceive and differentiate emotions in self and others.
  2. Use emotions to facilitate reasoning, aid judgment and memory processes, problem solve, communicate with others, and facilitate open-mindedness.
  3. Understand emotions by analyzing the emotions of yourself and others.
  4. Manage emotions in self and others.

(c) Reflective Listening

“Reflective Listening is so important because it underlies all [other skills]. Why? Because your thinking and learning are limited by cognitive biases, emotional defensiveness, ego, and fear. You need, then, to truly listen to others to open your mind, push past your biases and mental models, and mitigate self-absorption in order to collaborate and build better relationships. [We know from] evidence that it’s hard for any of us to critique our own thinking and truly think critically. We’re just too wired to confirm what we already believe, and we feel too comfortable having a cohesive simple story of how our world works. We need to have thinking ‘partners’ who force us to confront those biases, and we need to listen to them” [1].

Reflective Listening includes these practices:

  1. preparing to listen reflectively,
  2. listening with a Quiet Ego and an open mind, and
  3. inquiring with genuine curiosity, humility, and respect (humble inquiry).

Here’s a preparation checklist for Reflective Listening:

  1. Is my mind clear? If not, take several deep, slow breaths.
  2. Am I calm emotionally? If not, take a few more deep breaths, focusing on breathing in for four seconds and very, very slowly breathing out for four seconds.
  3. Say to yourself a couple of times:
  • “I am not my ideas.”
  • “It’s not all about me.”
  • “Don’t be defensive.”
  • “Ask questions before telling.”
  • “Don’t interrupt.”
  • “Stay focused.”
  • “Critique ideas, not people.”
  • “Listen to understand, not to confirm.”

(d) Otherness (emotionally connecting and relating)

Hess writes “We need others because we can’t think, innovate, or relate at our best alone. To relate to other people you first have to make a connection with them. It is by building a relationship over time that you build trust, and when you have caring trust, you have set the stage for the highest level of human engagement. … So how do you get better at connecting and relating? It’s quite obvious that connecting and relating to people is inhibited by arrogance, self-absorption, self-centeredness, not listening, closed-mindedness, lack of empathy, emotional defensiveness, and the ego protection and fear that flow from the Old Smart mental model. Accepting NewSmart and Humility as well as practicing Quieting Ego, Managing Self, and Reflective Listening lays the groundwork for relationship building with others.”

Otherness behaviors include:

  1. using the fives keys to connecting,
  2. building trust and conveying caring,
  3. preparing for meetings,
  4. choosing words wisely.

The five keys to connecting are

  1. be present,
  2. be genuine,
  3. communicate affirmation,
  4. listen effectively, and
  5. communicate support.

Prepare for meetings with this checklist:

  1. be really present,
  2. genuinely smile—a big smile,
  3. make eye contact,
  4. be positive,
  5. listen reflectively,
  6. stay fully present, and
  7. do no harm.

Choose your words wisely: use “Yes, and” instead of “Yes, but” to build on the ideas of others; use “I believe” instead of “I think” to acknowledge your ideas are hypotheses open to critique and testing; use “I want to” instead of “I have to” and “I won’t” instead of “I can’t” to emphasize the power of choice.

NewSmart organization

Finally, design your organizational culture and environment for learning, adaptation, innovation, and improvement leveraging established psychological concepts:

  1. positivity (promote positive emotions, minimize negative emotions);
  2. self-determination theory (promote intrinsic motivation by supporting innate human drives for autonomy, relatedness, and competence); and
  3. psychological safety (feeling safe to speak freely; to experiment, fail, and learn; to seek and give constructive feedback; to challenge others’ thinking, including the “boss”).

The Table below summarizes the new cultural ways of a NewSmart organization.

Old Cultural Ways New Cultural Ways
Individuals win Teams win
Play cards close to the chest Transparency
Highest-ranking person can trump Best idea or argument wins
Listening to confirrm Listening to learn
Telling Asking questions (humble inquiry)
Knowing Being good at not knowing
IQ IQ and EQ (emotional intelligence)
Mistakes are always bad Mistakes are learning opportunities
Compete Collaborate
Self-promote Self-reflect


Hess E. Humility is the new smart: Rethinking human excellence in the smart machine age. Oakland, CA: Berrett-Koehler Publishers, a BK Business Book; 2017.
Kahneman D. Thinking, fast and slow. New York: Farrar, Straus; Giroux; 2011.
Spetzler C, Winter H, Meyer J. Decision quality: Value creation from better business decisions. 1st ed. Wiley; 2016.
Dickson J. Humilitas: A lost key to life, love, and leadership. Zondervan; 2011.
Nisbett R. Mindware: Tools for smart thinking. New York: Farrar, Straus; Giroux; 2016.


  1. Aragón TJ, Garcia BA. We will be the best at getting better! An introduction to population health lean.; 2017. Available from↩︎

  2. Ego is best understood as “self-concept” which is a collection of beliefs about oneself, including our many identities (gender, racial, professional, etc.). “Self-concept is made up of one’s self-schemas, and interacts with self-esteem, self-knowledge, and the social self to form the self as whole. … The temporal self-appraisal theory argues that people have a tendency to maintain a positive self-evaluation by distancing themselves from their negative self and paying more attention to their positive one.” (source: Wikipedia. Self-concept; 2017. Online. Available from:↩︎