Just Let Them Think You’re Stupid: Choosing Humility

By a quirk of our schooling, report cards and grades catechize us into perfect certainty of (at least) one thoroughly false lesson: that our ability to demonstrate understanding of something is more important than the understanding or the thing itself. Mixed with our natural inclination toward that frightened state called selfishness, this lesson curves back our conversations toward ourselves for the rest of our lives.

Because of long exposure to this lesson, an insufferable sickness dominates (especially among the well-educated): the need to demonstrate our value and knowledge. Like any good behaviorist can tell you, rewarded behavior tends to become thoughtless habit. Thoughtless habit, of course, tends to become vice.

It is everywhere. Who hasn’t watched those two terrible words flounce unbidden off her own tongue, dragging behind them some “demonstration” of knowledge? Those two little words that stifle further learning, further companionship, and further humility – “I know.” (Furthermore, who hasn’t been injured by them?) “I know that already; I’ve read War and Peace three times.” Or, “I know: I’ve been going to church since before I was born.” Or, in some other way, “I know, already, what you’re trying to teach me. I’m, in fact, better than you think I am.”

Finding ourselves in a museum with the painting of an artist we studied in Art History I as college freshmen, we appreciate getting to tell whoever is with us that we’ve studied this artist. I always find this inclination strongest with artists I know a little, but don’t really, deeply know. Famous and posh artists that “I know” are the ones I’m likeliest to “demonstrate.” We tend to turn conversations about half-known works of art into conversations about ourselves, via our demonstrable knowledge. We tend to be the least likely to defer to their merits, exalting our own (necessarily limited) knowledge of them as the highest merit.

On the other hand, artists that I know enough to love are the ones about which I’m least likely to say “I know.” Less drawn to demonstrate myself through them, I genuinely want to demonstrate their work and beauty and greatness. I don’t want to brag about Dante; I want to talk about Dante, because the most amazing thing about Dante is not my knowledge of Dante, but Dante, himself. When talking about Dante, I would be grieved to hear someone say, “Wow, Alicia, you know a lot.” I’d much rather hear, “Wow, Dante knew a lot.” The irony is clear – the artists about which I could demonstrate the most knowledge are the artists about whom I wish to demonstrate the least. When we try to demonstrate intelligence, then, we tend to demonstrate ignorance. Further, by loving Dante, I find myself less prone to demonstrate about other artists, for fear that it will change the way my conversations about Dante will go.┬áLove is a matter of stepping aside so that your shadow can’t obscure anyone’s view of the beloved.

The lingering sense of a G.P.A., I’m afraid, obscures the view of the beloved. The G.P.A., which dominates our dominant instructional setting from ages 6 to 16 (or 26), teaches us nothing about love and humility. It teaches us about demonstration; getting an A on a geometric proof teaches us less about proving a mathematical concept than it teaches us about how to prove ourselves. After all, chronologically and logically, the student knew the concept before the grade existed.

The ripples of our grade-induced lessons flavor our conversations, making us believe that conversations about things studied or known are primarily about ourselves, instead of about the thing known. You will hear, in a college cafeteria, genuine conversations that express interest in the subject of conversation, proving love for the people conversing. But, you’ll also hear conversations of demonstration, wherein the conversationalists are simply making use of the conversation’s object to “one up” one another.

The cure for demonstration will not be easily effected. Our educational conditioning trained us that demonstration is vital to our value; our fallen state combined this with our deep-seated, natural pride. The roots are deep.

Yet, the cure is logically simple: let people think less of you.

What if, when someone began to tell you something you already knew, you didn’t counter with a demonstration? What if you allowed them to teach you, trusting that they may have more to say about it than you know? Expelling “I know” from our vocabulary allows people to think we know nothing, which – paradoxically – opens us to the possibility of knowing more. To cut off someone with “I know” guarantees that you exit the conversation in the same state in which you entered it. For the lover of the subject, this is a tragedy; why would we ever dismiss the slightest chance to learn about the beloved? No, employing the fast-lipped “I know” serves a single function: preserving the self at the expense of the subject.

But, it does us no harm to accept the seat of lowest honor at the table. From there, we have everything to gain.

A coworker asked what grade I’d received in statistics. I shrugged, “Grades distract me, so I don’t look at them. I learned a lot from the course, though.”

Instantly, I saw it on her face. I read it in a smugness of her tone as she responded: she thought I was getting bad grades and didn’t want to look at them.

How could she?! I wanted to find the grade out right then. I wanted the old, familiar, demonstrable proof of myself. My heart groaned, and I yearned to explain, “No, no, I’m not getting poor grades! I’m probably getting good grades. I’m submitting every assignment and studying hard.”

Purposefully and uncharacteristically choosing humility, I managed to bite my tongue. It does me no harm, after all, to let her think I failed statistics. Her misunderstanding will probably make her feel more comfortable offering me aid in the future than if I demonstrated my abilities with some arbitrary letter grade. And, I’ll never know enough about statistics for me to be in a place to reject any aid.

Often, when I manage to bite back that insufferable “I know,” I learn something. When I let someone go through five sentences of familiar information, the sixth usually blesses me with some new insight. The more frequently I let the conversation be about the subject at hand, without trying to commander it to being about me, the more I can love the subject at hand and the more I love the person who taught me about it.

  • Simple Man

    Thanks so much, great post, this is definitely something God has been teaching me lately; to stay humble and be teachable. It is also something I remember my father telling me time and time again growing up…. took awhile to sink in, but he was right all along.

  • Chris

    Thank you. By God’s grace, reading this was very convicting.

  • Humility

    The greatest goodness is a peaceful mind.
    The greatest patience is humility.
    The greatest effort is not concerned with results.

  • edj1

    This is insightful and useful. Thank you.

  • rumblebuffin

    “Purposefully and uncharacteristically choosing humility, I managed to
    bite my tongue. It does me no harm, after all, to let her think I failed

    This is not being humble. This is being passive-aggressive. By “letting her think” you are putting yourself in a supurior position. It is dishonest. There are plenty of ways of telling her that you didnt fail statistics without belittling her.

  • Alicia

    @rumblebuffin – I am grateful for your point. Passive aggression does seem to be a tipping point on the other side of humility. It’s another form of pride, and – though I have not caught myself being passive aggressive as often as I have caught myself being boastful – that may well mean it is a blind spot for me. I appreciate your corrective; it was a side I hadn’t considered, and I will add prayers about passive aggression to my self-examinations.

    It seems both hard and necessary to reconcile the avoidance of potential passive aggression with the pursuit of our call to make ourselves like Christ who, though He was in the form of God, did not deem equality with God something to be grasped, but rather emptied Himself, being born in the likeness of man. He calls us to take the lowest seat at the banquet table even if we think we deserve better, to give someone our shirt, too, if they ask for our cloak, to turn the other cheek when struck; such an action could so be done passive aggressively if it isn’t made to mirror Christ’s own beautiful passion through love and joy. In my first thoughts about this balance, that is what springs to mind as a corrective. The love shown on the Cross seems to be the way to reconcile our tendencies to become passive aggressive with the verses about humbling ourselves: in short, humble actions must come for love for the other person rather than love for self. Does that seem like the appropriate balance?