On Intellectual Humility: Being Called ‘Booksmart’ Says More About Them Than You

‘Rabbi Studying Torah’, Alfred Lakos, 1913.

“Booksmarts aren’t everything” always makes me wonder, “Is the problem that I’m too booksmart, or is it that you are too comfortable being loud and wrong, instead of informed?” Perhaps the real issue is that I pass the mic when it comes to communities or topics of less familiarity, and instead speak and write only on issues I understand well. So when I do share an opinion, people who often skim the surface of complex issues — and get passes because their audience doesn’t know any better — misperceive the depth of my analysis and reflection as “too booksmart”.

After getting comfortable around me, several people have confessed, “I took you for a know-it-all, since you’ve gone to all those fancy schools. You’re actually so much more chill, down to earth, and humble than I thought you’d be.”

The most likely reason why? While I never underestimate myself, I also never overestimate myself. As quick as I am to share what I do know, I’ll tell you without any embarrassment or hesitation, “You just taught me something new, because that’s my first time hearing that” or “I don’t know much about that, but it’s making me rethink the assumptions I learned from biased textbooks and the mainstream media. Can you share more?”

I’ve been interviewed several times throughout the year, but I’ve also turned down several speaking requests by admitting, “I’m somewhat familiar with that topic, but I could learn a lot more before publicly speaking or teaching on that. Someone with more firsthand experience could do more with this opportunity, so I’m going to pass. I just don’t want to shortchange your audience. But I really appreciate the offer, and thank you for considering me.”

When I stick to speaking and writing on what I know best, my clarity, competence, and thoroughness are undeniable — I mean, unless you’re a hater. It’s clear that I’ve labored not just to regurgitate booksmarts, but to comprehend and digest my learning, and then integrate and synthesize it with all my pre-existing knowledge. It’s like the difference between simply memorizing the definition of a word, versus knowing how and when to skillfully use the term, instead of a very similar, but subtly distinct, synonym.

In interviews about topics I’ve studied and worked on for years, I appear calmer, less nervous, more prepared, and I stutter and trip over my words less. My writing about topics I grasp well is often layered with helpful resources, little-known historical facts, research from peer-reviewed journals, and personal stories that illustrate the many angles and dimensions of a multi-faceted issue. And it takes time for me to avoid generalizations by acknowledging exceptions and valid counterarguments, to tell full, well-rounded stories, and to verify every data point or fact I cite to support a claim. Creating or preparing any lesson to be as factual and impactful as it can be takes patience and time, even solitude.

People who fly by the seat of their pants, and speak on anything and everybody, misperceive that depth and thoroughness as arrogance: the old school teachers stereotyping younger generations, anti-LGBTQ+ preachers making sweeping generalizations about LGBT+ people as if there’s no within-group diversity or individuality, men speaking over women about sexism, white people posturing as experts on non-white people, rich people lecturing poor people about saving their way out of poverty, folks who don’t fact-check conspiracy theories. The list goes on and on and on. Many people’s egos are so inflated, they don’t even care about sounding misinformed to the point of embarrassing themselves. At the same time, these people are also a little insecure, which is why they call people who do their due diligence “booksmart”.

As for me, I’d much rather showcase my knowledge on fewer occasions, than consistently prove my willful ignorance. That would basically ruin my own credibility. I’d rather shine occasionally, than consistently look like a contrary jackass, debating experts on igloos in Alaska, when I ain’t ever visited Alaska, or even heard much about it. And I’m much more comfortable speaking or teaching on an unfamiliar community or topic, after first listening to more informed individuals, first reflecting on their constructive criticism and feedback without defensively misconstruing it as a personal attack, and first figuring out if I may need to unlearn something to make room for the learning.

Becoming “booksmart” actually requires the utmost humility, because the more you know, the more you realize even a lifetime is not sufficient to master the infinite amount of knowledge that exists. Despite all my degrees, I remain humble because more than anything, my studies put in perspective the insignificance of my exposure. The deeper I’ve delved into certain subjects, the more realistic my self-assessment became, and the more I hesitated before speaking on whatever or whomever seemed even slightly unfamiliar. Reading more helped me discern when my ideas were developed, versus ego-centered and half-baked.

Actually taking the time to read carefully and widely also teaches you that knowledge across disciplines, across places, and across time, is all interconnected. You almost develop a voracious appetite to connect more and more dots, and it’s the possibility of drawing unlikely connections that excites you most. You’re actually not motivated to sound smart at all, just to understand how things fit together and work, and most importantly to enrich your life and soul with deeper meaning and purpose.

While Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. cited the Old Testament prophets as an inspiration, he was also deeply transformed by his stay in India, where iconic pacifist Mahatma Gandhi taught him about Hindu non-violence. King also credited secular philosopher Henry Thoreau for inspiring his passion for civil disobedience, writing in Letter from Birmingham Jail, “Civil disobedience refers to the active refusal to obey certain laws, demands and commands of a government or of an occupying power without resorting to physical violence. One has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws.”

“Booksmarts” is never just about facts and figures, but you only know that if you take the time to become well-read. It also builds emotional and social intelligence, endowing you with insight about yourself and others. In the words of queer Black writer James Baldwin, arguably the nation’s most prolific and under-appreciated genius, “You think your pain and your heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world, but then you read. It was books that taught me that the things that tormented me most were the very things that connected me with all the people who were alive, who had ever been alive.”

I’m so glad that my mother instilled in me the love of reading, not for the purpose of storing up useless information to sound smart at dinner parties, but to grow as a person. I’m thankful she steered me to spend summers during middle school volunteering at Houston Public Library, where I got first dibs on summer reading, discovered the vastness of human knowledge as I shelved hundreds of books, and even gained immense respect for the studious homeless readers who never let snickers derail their concentration. And it’s probably because she’s so booksmart, with a collection of theology reads that probably numbers or exceeds a hundred, that she understands how accepting her queer son is the Christian thing to do.

Araya Baker is a counselor educator, critical suicidologist, and social policy analyst.