The Power of Saying ‘I Don’t Know’

Three words that are harder to say than you think

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Photo by Timo Volz on Unsplash

These three words are some of the hardest for many of us to say. But why?

Why is it so hard to admit that we are ignorant in some aspects of our lives? We all have blind spots whether we like it or not. Even the cleverest people know little about certain subjects.

A lot of it comes down to ego. It’s uncomfortable to admit that you don’t know something if you take pride in knowing as much as you can. The ego gets damaged in this scenario, to have all the answers is important it believes.

However, this is a fallacy straight off the bat. It is impossible to know everything about anything and the importance of this is overstated. No one has all the answers and they never will.

Life is a constant journey of learning and self-introspection. If there is one ironclad guarantee in life it is that we will be consistently ignorant about very many things.

Rather than regarding this a curse we should regard it as a blessing. Being able to acknowledge that you have areas where you are lacking knowledge is a sign of humility.

It also offers the opportunity to learn something new, broaden your horizons and acquire that knowledge that has so far escaped you.

Modern life makes us think that we should have an answer for anything, to utter the words ‘I don’t know’ is to look foolish and stupid. The reality is that the opposite is true.

True confidence in life is acknowledging that there is no way to be an expert in anything. Humility is always better than hubris.

You Don’t Know What You Don’t Know

The inverse of not knowing is knowing everything. Think about this for a second. What would it be like to know every little detail of everything that there is to know?

While it may seem like a brilliant idea on the surface, once you dig a little deeper the idea becomes shallow. One of the greatest aspects of life is that there is so much to discover and learn.

If you knew everything life would be mundane. There would be no desire to learn anything because there would be nothing left to learn. It’s very hard to discern meaning and purpose from life when you know everything.

It would be a hollow and unfulfilling existence. Contrast this with having blind spots in your life and the picture becomes stark. It’s much better to have something to learn, something to work towards than to be stuck on a plateau.

Ignorance is as old as humanity itself, yet it is a trait that has become frowned upon in recent times. This is despite humans being more ignorant than ever.

The world has become more complicated and chaotic than ever before. There is simply no comparison between the world we inhabit know and the one our hunter-gatherer ancestors did.

Back then, they would have known where their lunch would have come from. They would have gathered it themselves. They would also have more idea about how their pension fund was doing because it would be playing nearby. Unlike now, the only pension fund a primaeval hunter-gatherer had were their children.

Nowadays, we barely know anything about the food we eat gets onto our plate. We have little idea of the processes involved or where it comes from.

Likewise with pension funds. The financial market becomes more complicated year after year. The average person has little understanding of what their money is doing, what fund it is in and whether the money is secure or not.

The system is set up so that those who want to exist in blissful ignorance, while those who want to discover the truth will have a very difficult time doing so.

The average person who wants to discover the exact steps involved in their food making its to their plate will struggle to do so. Indeed, it’s barely worth the effort. Do you really want to know the practices that are involved?

It’s clear that ignorance is prevalent across society, but why do we persist in proclaiming with confidence that we know more than we do?

Is it hubris? Or is it because it is deemed a social faux pas to come across as ignorant?

Embrace Your Ignorance

We all like to think we know more than we do, but why is this the case? Are we afraid to look foolish in front of friends when they are talking about that goes over our heads? Or is it because our ego is damaged by the notion that we have blind spots in our knowledge?

In many respects, it is a combination of all of these points. We often attribute competency with people who vision and can mobilise others behind their vision.

Donald Trump is a good example. He can command a large following because of his the declarations and vision that he offers. He has also adopted the trick of repetition. That is if you repeat something enough, regardless of whether it is factual, it becomes accepted as fact.

The irony is that it’s hard to write a sentence with Trump and competence in the same sentence. Despite all of his grand protestations and tweets, he is as ignorant as anyone, no matter he denies it!

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Photo by Joao Tzanno on Unsplash

The mistake Trump is making is to equate information with knowledge. Nowadays, information is easy to come by. All we have to do is open our phone, head to google and we can have an answer for anything.

Yet, information by itself does not make us knowledgable it is what you do with that knowledge that does. Being to rationalise and synthesise all the information is much a harder skill than simply acquiring it.

The desire to know it all constrains us from using our curiosity to look at the information from different angles and open your mind to different strands of thought you hadn’t considered before.

Shakespeare famously wrote “The fool doth think he is wise, but the wise man knows himself to be a fool.” This is a good strategy to adopt in life. By acknowledging what we don’t know, we can proceed with humility and prosper.

Ignorance Is Bliss

When we proclaim that we know more about something than we do we create an illusion. The problem with illusions is that they do not last long. By doing this, we are only fooling ourselves.

Instead of treating these moments with trepidation with dread, we should welcome them. We should take on the mindset of a child. They are not afraid of asking questions when it comes to something they don’t know.

Their curiosity compels them to find out more about something they don’t know. We need to recapture this mindest and utilise it going forward.

We were all ignorant about a very may things at once. How did we get to this point? By admitting our ignorance and asking those around about what we don’t know.

This is the best way to learn. To use the knowledge of others to further your own. The person who blindly thinks they have all the answers will walk into a scenario where one day they have none and the illusion is shattered.

Be honest with yourself, and more importantly others, with what you don’t know. You’ll find people are more willing to engage with you when you admit you don’t have all the answers.

When it comes to saying ‘I don’t know’ and recognising gaps in our knowledge, it’s important to echo the words of Socrates:

“The only thing I know is that I know nothing.”

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