The Power of “I Don’t Know”

Not knowing and our ability to admit it lets us get to learning and all the gloriousness of being human.

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If you don’t know and

know you don’t know

and know that you need help getting to a point of knowing, then just say, “I don’t know.”

There are major gifts embedded in saying it–besides learning what you need to know then and there.

When a friend’s son said, “I don’t know,” to a boss’s question, in front of his team and several others, he felt relief.

His stomach had dropped to his knees when the boss called his name. It was only a month since he had started.

But he didn’t know and couldn’t hide.

He shared what his only way out, “To be honest, I’m totally lost.”

His stomach returned home.

The boss led him through the problem. He listened.

When asked the question again five minutes later, he got it right.

Wait—the story gets better!

When he got off the Zoom call, more than 15 co-workers had texted him. Some had been cheerleading him in real time.

Others offered to help with any knowledge gaps or admitted to being lost too.

Many thanked him for making it ok to not know.

Many applauded the “grace and poise under pressure.” Later that evening the boss emailed to express a job well done.

Maybe this feels a bit dream like.

Probably because not knowing is more the stuff of nightmares, especially with people we don’t know well and with whom we want to make a good impression.

We aren’t in the habit of saying we don’t know.

We think not knowing is bad.

Not knowing is what we are always preparing to NOT have happen.

Add in the wish for good grades that lead to good job placements or right answers that lead to promotions and we are very attached to knowing or appearing to know.

Knowledge is form of gate keeping and we don’t want to be left outside the gates. And please don’t have the folks inside the gates looking out at us in some wasteland. That is the nightmare.

Now don’t get me wrong, being prepared is a wonderful, necessary thing. Studying is good. Reading up, yes. Being informed absoutley. Reviewing and anticipating, you bet. Doing your best, I’m all for that.

What we forget is that we carry around a narrow way of looking at what a good impression is. And seeing not knowing as a fault. A weakness.

People aren’t only impressed with right answers. They also don’t expect them all the time. Our not knowing and our ability to openly admit lets us all get to the glorious business of being human.

This young employee earned the respect of his classmates and boss.

He let everyone exhale. They know they too can now say they do not know.

A more collaborative spirit was born.

The people we hang out with in the classroom, in the conference room, on the golf course, or around a dinner table benefit when the costume party with the theme: Come as the Smartest Person in the Room, is cancelled and the new dress code is: Come as You Are.

This is the party we all want to be at.

Real connection, learning, and growth happen when we are authentic.

The smartest in the room costumes are rather restrictive. Some people don’t speak for fear of not knowing. Some folks take a pass at attending since they don’t want to be “found out” as not being the smartest in the room or aren’t interested in pretending to be.

That party always has some people saying anything so as to appear to know something. Or the knowledgeable talk a lot, happy to show their expertise. Yes, I’m exaggerating a bit. With Come as the Smartest Person in the Room as the theme, empathy, curiosity, exploration, and creativity don’t stand a solid chance. The individual and collective miss out.

And don’t forget, people like to help!

Think about when people have asked you for help.

Sure sometimes you are busy, or simply want to be left alone.

Sometimes the ask for help only irks because you know that your child knows where to find those darn hockey skates or could find them if she looked a little harder.

Or your colleague is asking for the equivalent of finding the obvious placed hockey skates. You know help isn’t really needed. He knows.

None of that is really someone in need of honest to goodness help.

When someone really needs help, even if it’s not convenient, we offer a hand.

The words, “I don’t know,” like all words when spoken from truth, are the best way to create forward momentum. Try them when needed. They’ll bring you the answers you need and more.

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