I don't know


“What you don’t know, you don’t miss” — Cecelia Ahern

Do you say, “I don’t know”? We rarely say and if you observe it is mostly to our inner circle. It is the place you are not being judged. We feel confident when we are not constantly being judged. We all want to look good to others. Furthermore, we dress to impress and tune our body language to look confident. We like to impress, so we get to hear good things about ourselves from others. Many people’s idea of a leader involves someone who has foresight and insight—someone who is able to see what others don’t. This can often translate to never saying “I don’t know.”

External Pressure

Being judged and trying to impress everyone makes you not being yourself. You succumb to peer pressure. So you avoid saying, “I don’t know”. It is not impressive to say you don’t know. I am not saying that you should not work to impress, but that should not be the target. It is a side effect of doing a great work. We need to look for great work and not carried away by people impressing or saying nice things to you.

Focus is always to win the game and not about individual score.

More you focus on winning the game, more the side effects of it grow. Side effects being respect, financial security, growth and lot of learning.

People can take anything away from you but not your learning.

Great sportsmen don’t focus on result rather they focus on process and learn. They optimize the process in a way that team can be their best. They are crucial to the success of the team, but they are subtle. Ex-Teammate of Cristiano Ronaldo says,

He’s always there in the right moments, he makes important decisions, he’s brave and he assumes responsibility in big moments.

The book Art of War says, great leaders don’t play for others or themselves, they play for the team. Leader makes all the decisions for team’s betterment. They question their decision up until last moment before they start the execution. Once executing, it’s all in and move on towards the goal.

Peer pressure or act of impressing is setting yourself up for failure. You might go a distance before getting stalled. As Goodhart law states,

When your measure becomes the metric, it ceases to be a good measure

Continual Learning

We hire people, who we found are fit for the role. But if we expect them to impress us, we are curbing their potential. We are not raising the bar. If you are working towards impressing people around you, its ceases to be a good target. Instead, they should work on proving one’s solution is strong enough to move forward.

Some of the leaders I worked with, and I currently work with do say “I don’t know” more often and use that as an opportunity to learn and come with better questions. Constant learning is a hallmark of many great leaders.

Elon Musk on learning,

“One bit of advice: it is important to view knowledge as sort of a semantic tree – make sure you understand the fundamental principles, i.e. the trunk and big branches, before you get into the leaves/details or there is nothing for them to hang on to.”

Questioning the Assumptions

When we say, “I don’t know” we can pause and consider. We can question what we assume to be fact. The moment you say I don’t know, you start to get the facts and then see if that fits your narrative. You can course correct early on and change the strategy.

Fallacy of Know all

We always want to put ourselves as person who knows everything. It is a badge of honor we pin to ourselves. But as Shakespeare says,

“The fool doth think he is wise, but the wise man knows himself to be a fool”

It is practically impossible to know everything. Leader first knows oneself well, before he presents himself to others. One should discover one’s strength and weakness. He can then act accordingly to process the information and be comfortable to say, “I don’t know”.

How can we say “I don’t know” in a better way

But you can say “I don’t know” in variety of ways to make it sound better. Below are some recommendations. If you notice most of the recommendations are in format , " Ok, you dont know, and what are you going to do about it”. You take action to find out the facts.

  • I’m not sure, but I’ll find out and let you know.
  • I’ll find out.
  • I’ll look into it and get back to you with what I find.
  • That’s a good question and I want to get you the right information. Let me get back to you by end-of-day.
  • Before I answer, could you share a few more details about what you need/what you’re looking for?
  • Here’s what I know and here’s what I don’t know…
  • I’m not sure I’m the best person to answer that but… I know who knows this well.

Story of an Empty Cup

There is a proverb in Arabic,

“Saying I don’t know is half of the knowledge.”

No one wants to look stupid. But at the same time, pretending to know can also backfire. Not knowing something is a quick ways to gather and gain knowledge. You can fill an empty cup with ease.

In fact there is a story about it in Chinese Philosophy. There was once a master who many sought for knowledge. One day a person came to this master and asked him many questions. Before master could finish answering, this person will come up with ideas and alternatives. At some point Master said, " Let’s have a tea”.

Master started pouring tea and continued even after filling it. The scholar cried “Stop! The cup is full already. Can’t you see?”. Master responded, you are like this cup, so full of ideas that nothing more will fit in. Come back to me with an empty cup.”

Bruce Lee sums it up well, “Empty your cup so that it may be filled; become devoid to gain totality.”


Novice: I don’t know

Experienced: That’s an interesting question.

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