3 wonderful little words: I don't know

Some 3-word phrases are very hard to say. And I’m not talking about the agonizing decision about when to tell your boyfriend or girlfriend that it’s more than just a “like” situation.

“I don’t know” seem to be the hardest three words to say, as VC Josh Kopelman makes clear:

Why do people feel pressure to have an answer for every answer?

I don’t know …

The fact is, many insecure people are unwilling or unable to reveal ignorance. It takes a certain degree of self-assurance or confidence to be able to freely admit that you don’t know something. I think most of us have been in contact – perhaps very close contact – with men of a certain generation that could never say they were wrong, or never admit error, or ask for directions. I think this is a related issue.

The funny thing is that today, todays’ criteria for what makes someone smart is not so much what they can store in their brain, but what they can quickly find, integrate, and utilize. 21st century skills are much more about information access than information recall.

The fact is that with the world’s store of data increasingly ever more and more rapidly, you and I simply don’t have headspace for the vast majority of information that is being created. What’s more, we don’t want to have headspace for it. All we want to know is that the information is out there, somewhere, accessible if and when we need it.

Searching beats storing.

So there’s no point in not being honest enough to admit there’s things you don’t know. That’s not a negative. The negative is a false belief in your own limited knowledge. The negative is also a lack of ability (or inclination) to search out and use new information as it become relevant to the kinds of things you’re doing today and tomorrow.

Today, the smart person says “I don’t know. But I can learn!”


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3 CommentsLeave a comment

  • John, great post! From a client service perspective, many agency people are under the erroneous assumption that saying, “I don’t know…” hurts their credibility with the client. When actually, it’s making up an answer that any sane person realizes you’re pulling out of your backside that will get you into hot water.

    “I’m not sure, let me find out for you” is the way to go. It’s even true for on-camera TV interviews. If you don’t know, don’t panic. Not knowing an answer to a question isn’t typically news, unless you forgot your own name or something. Always, always simply say you’re not sure, but you’ll find out – and then be sure to follow through!

  • As I reread my post, I want to clarify one point. There is a difference between saying “I don’t know” and “I’m not sure.” Use each as appropriate.