Intellectual humility will get you hired in 2017

Dec 30, 2016 06.00PM |

by Suhaile Md

INTELLECTUAL humility is a buzzword these days when it comes to hiring. Grades matter, of course, but they’re not everything – your willingness to learn is another measure of how valuable you are to a company in the long run.

Earlier this year, Goldman Sachs announced that it would be looking beyond the usual on-campus interviews at elite universities like Yale and Harvard. Instead, candidates from any school can apply, and they will be screened via a video interview, reported Human Resource Magazine in June. The bank wanted to hire candidates with a wider variety of background, not just elite schools.

“Smart people tend to think they know it all and that prevent [sic] them from learning. People who are not from elite background [sic] tend to be more adaptive to learning that is important for the company to grow,” said Mr Darren Tay, director at executive search firm BTI Consultant, in the HRM article.

In other words, intellectual humility.

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Being curious

The idea is not new. Two years back, the person in charge of Google’s hiring processes, Mr Laszlo Bock, spoke about the need for intellectual humility at an interview with the New York Times.

Said Mr Bock: “Without [intellectual] humility, you are unable to learn.” Humility is also required to be able to explore ideas different to your own. The point is to come up with the best solutions to problems.

Furthermore, successful candidates who are too used to winning don’t know how to deal with failure. They “commit the fundamental attribution error, which is if something good happens, it’s because I’m a genius”. If something bad happens, they tend to blame others and not reflect on their own mistakes.

It’s a sentiment echoed by 42-year-old Mr Tan Choon Ngee, CEO of aZaaS, a Singapore-based Information Technology firm with subsidiaries in Hong Kong, Taiwan, and China.

When TMG asked for the most important quality he looked for in candidates, he said it was the “willingness and ability to learn”. A candidate, no matter how qualified, “would become obsolete very fast” if there’s no intellectual humility. Having the humility to continuously learn throughout the career is important.

While Mr Tan requires candidates to have at least a diploma due to the “technical nature” of the work, he said there is no “huge preference between diploma or degree… we have diploma holders outperforming degree holders”. Learning does not stop when school ends.

“Our industry experiences high rates of change. Learning, admitting to mistakes, and re-learning is critical to success,” he added.

It’s not just the IT industry that has such demands. Mr Wesley Gunter and Mr Marc Bakker, who head a public relations and marketing firm, wrote in a commentary for TMG last month: “It would be useless for us to hire someone who thinks he/she knows everything based on their degree, compared to someone who is less qualified yet willing to learn.” It’s the “humility to accept guidance that sets [candidates] apart and allows them to grow”.

Again, these views echo that of Google’s. The most important quality Google looks for is “learning ability”, said Mr Bock.

Real-life successes

This principle of lifelong learning was underscored by former Minister for Education Heng Swee Keat at the Committee of Supply debate last year. He said that we need to “shift our mindsets about education”.  There’s a need to go “beyond learning in school, to learning throughout life”.

So it’s a good thing many Singaporeans have not stood still. Over 80,000 people have signed up for the SkillsFuture initiatives in the first eight months of this year, reported The Straits Times on Tuesday (Dec 27). Of these, 62 per cent are above 40 years old. SkillsFuture, a skills development framework that supports lifelong learning from school days to working life, was introduced by the G last year.

But SkillsFuture is not the only avenue for continual learning. There are other opportunities to learn, at the workplace for example, or online, and even the library.

Ms Amanda Ong, for example, picked up copywriting and marketing skills from books she borrowed from the library, and a year-long online course which she paid US$100 (S$144) for. She had graduated with a Political Science degree from the National University of Singapore and worked at the Ministry of Defence for over a year before leaving, as she wanted more flexible working hours.

She was giving tuition to earn her keep at first, and picked up copywriting skills on the side. It paid off, the 27-year-old is now fully employed as a copywriter at Wordplay, a copywriting and marketing firm.

Even though she has secured a full-time job, she’s still continuing with her self-education. She has just spent $400 on a self-study sales course. She wants to understand what motivates buying decisions and so on.

Her efforts are already paying off. Ms Ong said she can now “close sales with clients independently”. Previously, she needed help from her boss to do so.


This article is part of a series on SkillsFuture, in collaboration with MOE and SSG. Read the other pieces here: