Einstein was a humble genius. While he provided contributions that allowed theoretical physics to make tremendous strides, he always maintained that he was ignorant of how the universe really worked. It didn’t matter how complex his mathematical descriptions got or how profound his insights were, he saw that there was always more to learn.
Einstein (and many other great thinkers throughout history) have taken this perspective of “not knowing” for a reason. It’s not about being humble for the sake of it. Instead, it comes from an appreciation of the intellectual hazards of the human mind. They understood that it was all too easy for people to fool themselves into believing they know things they don’t.
The founder of Western philosophy, Socrates, understood this proclivity all too well. Living in ancient Greece circa 500 BCE, he noticed that many great thinkers of the day claimed to have knowledge that they didn’t. They would make all sorts of wild assertions about nature and each other.
Observing this, he went about developing a system of tools that he could use to find out more about the world around him. He saw that being child-like in one’s approach and asking as many questions as possible was a good place to start. In so doing, Socrates shunned firm conclusions in favor of openness and skepticism.
Such intellectual discipline is essential. As genius physicist Richard Feynman once noted, people who leave no room for doubt leave no room for progress or learning. “There is no learning without having to pose a question. And a question requires doubt,” he once remarked.
This point was particularly poignant because it came from Feynman himself. If anyone was at risk of developing an arrogant intellect, it was Feynman, widely regarded as perhaps the greatest physicist of the second half of the 20th century. The man was a womanizer, a bully and an extrovert of the highest degree. And yet, deep in the recesses of his mind, he saw that the only way to pursue knowledge was to do so with utter humility.
In this respect, Feynman was very much an outlier. Experts – particularly in academia and medicine – often wed themselves to conclusions and resist any evidence to the contrary. The problem is so bad that academics often quip that revolutions in university subjects only occur when the existing faculty dies.
This is precisely what Socrates was trying to warn us about. Even 2,500 years ago, he saw that people had a propensity to fool themselves into thinking that they had knowledge when they didn’t.
We’ve seen the problems of this psychological weakness play out in countless ways throughout human history. National, religious and personal conflicts often arise when don’t leave the door open to other perspectives. Rage and contempt replace curiosity.
But that doesn’t mean it has to be that way in your life. It turns out that practically anyone can apply the Socratic method, asking questions and never assuming that they know everything in advance.
The benefits of adopting the mindset of the humble genius can be tremendous. Socratic wisdom can improve the way you think and relate to the people around you. It stops you from clinging to your beliefs and conclusions and gives you breathing space to explore other people and the rest of the world more fully.
Given the pace of change of modern society and the abundance of new ideas, having a Socratic approach to knowledge is almost essential. We need people who are prepared to become better versions of themselves. The only way the world will transform is if individuals change how they approach their understanding of reality. They must accept that there are always untold stories – things that they can’t see. They should treat everything that they know as provisional.
To become a humble genius, you must always begin from a position of skepticism. Don’t assume that you or anybody else knows anything. Then use your questions as a base to carefully construct an understanding, always reminding yourself that new evidence could come along at any time.
Also, examine yourself. Whenever you make conclusions, ask why you are so committed to a particular point of view and how your feelings might be clouding your judgments. The better you know yourself, the more fulfilling your life will become.
Once you adopt this frame of mind, your curiosity will increase and your intellectual life will improve, whether in your day-to-day life or in your professional career.