I’m sure it was agonizing to watch.
I writhed in humiliation, scanning my mind for some scrap of an idea to prove that I knew enough to answer my professor’s unnecessarily-complex question. After a series of “um’s” and “I think’s” followed by some off-topic answer, I had a subtle yet liberating realization.
I could have simply said, “I don’t know.”
But wait, “I don’t know” connotes laziness and indifference—I’m supposed to be better than that. Of course, this is what our ego tells us: that we need the answer now, and if we can’t formulate an answer out of thin air we’re unintelligent.
It’s time to call bullshit on this.
Used strategically, “I don’t know” is a tool of humility, and ultimately a tool of power. The moral philosopher Publilius Syrus once said that it’s better to be ignorant of a matter than half know it, and there’s a reason why that saying survived over 2,000 years. Scrambling for answers to questions we’re unprepared to answer not only makes us look dumber than if we admitted ignorance, it makes us look insecure as well. Too often our ambition often seizes us and we indebt ourselves to opinions that we’re unqualified to defend.
Fortunately, we have this alternative.
The idea that you don’t have to pull an answer out of your ass is freeing. It saves you from weak answers that start with “I hope,” “maybe,” probably,” and “I think.” You’re off the hook. And after five minutes, nobody will care or remember that you said “I don’t know.”
But what do we really mean when we say we don’t know? Not that we’re devoid of ideas or theories – everyone has their two cents. “I don’t know” is an easier way to communicate that that you haven’t tested your assumptions enough to make a compelling case. It isn’t an excuse for not learning, it’s buying time to learn more.
Certainly, there’s something to be said for contributing to group discussions and brainstorming. But we cross into dangerous territory when we place too much confidence in ourselves and forget how difficult it is to be truly sure.
That impulse to be sure is perpetually enabled by a world that values instant gratification. It takes constant effort to rewire our brains, come down to earth, and embrace humility.
“I don’t know” is underrated. It’s like your Fifth Amendment right for daily conversation. Let the others aimlessly run their mouths until the dust has settled – until you know.
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