By Tobias van Schneider Published October 26, 2016
It feels good to say that. I used to speak at a lot of conferences, and at most of them there would be a Q&A session at the end. The questions were usually not a problem, but here and there I would get a question I just didn’t know the answer to, at least not at the time. I always struggled with it. Because the real answer was that I didn’t know, but for some reason I feel like I should know.
"I’m a professional," I would tell myself. "I should know the answer." I grew up in a society where admitting that you don’t know was always something bad. Something you got punished for in school. So even if I didn’t know the answer, I always came up with some bullshit that I hoped seemed like I did.
But then I started being more honest at these Q&A sessions. For the first time I answered “I don’t know” in front of hundreds of people. It made me feel like a fraud. It made me vulnerable because I was admitting my ignorance on a particular topic in a large social setting.
The first time I proudly said “I don’t know,” it was followed by an awkward silence that got deep to my bones. But it felt so good and refreshing, I almost enjoyed it.
I don't know. Why do we fear these three simple words so much? What’s wrong with admitting that you don't know everything?
There are many reasons. The fear of feeling stupid, the fear of losing authority, especially in a moment where you’re in front of a large group of people.
Fear is what motivates us to tell lies, to come up with bullshit just to avoid admitting that we really don’t know. I sometimes wonder how many questionable decisions, in our private lives or in politics, have been made simply because someone was too proud or fearful to admit they simply don’t know the answer.
The higher a person's position, the less likely you will hear them say “I don’t know." Not because they know, but because we use little lies and rhetoric to escape the shame that comes with not knowing.
“I am the wisest man alive, for I know one thing, and that is that I know nothing.” ―Socrates
The pressure is high, especially for those in the lead. Not knowing means weakness, it could mean losing our social rank and respect. But we often don’t even know what happens when one prideful lie builds on top of the other. We’re building a complex construct where everyone is ashamed of admitting they’re the fool.
One of my favorite examples of this is the the story of THE EMPEROR’S NEW CLOTHES. If you haven't heard of the story, make sure to read it real quick before you continue.
The story of the The Emperor’s New Clothes is the perfect example of a lie becoming so complex because nobody wants to be the fool, that everyone is made the fool.
The irony is, admitting that you don’t know can have so much more impact on you and other people around you. Admitting that you don’t know will set us at peace with ourselves and at the same time level the ground between us all. It makes us all come closer together and create a closer connection rather than distancing us from each other.
It's the smartest people in this world who know that they actually don’t really know anything and there is so much still to learn. Only being able to admit that you don’t know something will open you up to learn something new.
And while it seems awkward and shameful to say “I don’t know," it often opens up a completely new path of the conversation.
For example, now when I say “I don’t know” I usually continue with the following options to end the awkward silence:
1. I don’t know, but I will find out, because this is an interesting question and I’d like to know myself.
2. I don’t know, but what do you think? Let’s talk about it.
3. I don’t know, but I know someone who might know the answer.
Saying “I don’t know” doesn’t have to shut down the conversation, but can open it up to greater potential than before. Today I promise myself to say “I don’t know” more often.
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Have a fantastic week,
Hi, I'm Tobias, a German designer living in New York. I'm the author of this blog, nice to meet you!