The Humble Attitude of Learning

I had a teacher once who talked about the communication tools of successful people.

His idea was that successful people would be moving from one situation to the other as they demonstrated their competence. Thus, a successful person might find herself in new settings frequently.

He said that most new people felt a need to demonstrate their competency by telling what they knew. He cautioned us to resist that tendency. Instead, he said you would be more effective in a new spot if you took on these two strategies: Listen rather than talk. Ask questions rather than supply answers.

His reasoning was this: When you are a new one to a situation, you know what you know already. The way to add to that knowledge is to dig in and find out what new knowledge is available to you. As you acquire that knowledge by asking questions and listening, you are able to better deploy your knowledge and experiences in a fresh and unique way.

At the time I heard this lecture, I was in a new environment. While my ego was screaming at me to go show them what I could do, I decided to be patient, slow down, ask questions, listen and learn.

I was astonished at how it worked.

By staying quiet, I learned all sorts of things. First, I learned my initial impressions of who was smart and who was the lead influencer in my new environment were wrong.

I learned who was most knowledgeable about my new environment and who had the most accurate view of the world there. Thus, I found myself relying on a different person to teach me than I would have chosen.

I learned that my initial impression of how I would be most effective wasn’t correct. I found out some of the skills I thought would be best received were already within the group. And, the skills were deployed better than I could deploy them. I was saved the embarrassment of touting myself as an expert only to be found wanting by folks more expert than me.

It toned down a healthy bit of cockiness I was carrying around at the time. The lesson I carried going forward was that it was better to be quietly confident than brash about what I was bringing to the table. It was better to have my competence quietly revealed over a longer period than to try to get my new colleagues to believe it out of the box. It was better to prove I could be a “player” by playing and letting my talent shine through as compared to telling everybody how good a player I was.

I’ve tried to cling to that strategy ever since. When entering a new environment, I try to adopt the humble attitude of learning: ask questions rather than provide answers and listen versus talk.