Owning up to Your Ignorance by Saying “I Don’t Know”

When was the last time you admitted you didn’t know something?

Saying ‘I don’t know’ is hard. We can be so resistant to it that we end up not even knowing what we don’t know. This is dangerous. When you don’t know what you don’t know you’re clueless as to how to minimize those gaps in your knowledge. This could hinder your ability to succeed in business and life.

Furthermore, if you’re in a position to mentor or teach others, they probably expect you to know your blind spots. People look to you for knowledge and ideas. But you might be disseminating ignorance instead. And who needs more of that in a world full of it?


Justin Landis wrote an interesting blog post in response to a Freakonomics podcast “Why Is ‘I Don’t Know’ So Hard to Say?”

The highlight:

[T]hose of us who live in the business world are certainly incentivized to focus on what we know over what we don’t know. And whether we’re talking about closing a deal with an important client or simply competing with peers for a limited number of positions in a given field, this holds true. By highlighting what we know and tactfully hiding what we don’t, we present the illusion of mastery, and this is thought to (and generally does) inspire confidence in our ability to execute. The incentive here is clear, and the results are pretty clear as well, at least in my experience. The unintended consequence is that while we’re all focusing on what we know and making sure others are aware of those things, there is still a lot that we don’t know. In some cases, we may not even really know what we don’t know. And this is the most dangerous place to be in.

Not knowing what you don’t know is dangerous indeed. In this position, you are clueless as to how to minimize gaps in your knowledge, which could hinder your ability to excel in business and in life. Furthermore, if you are in a position to teach, mentor, and/or coach others, then people are looking to you for knowledge and ideas. But instead of spreading knowledge and idea, you’d be disseminating false information and ignorance. And who needs more ignorance in a world that’s already full of it?

If I asked you if you knew how your cellphone works, you’d probably say yes, right? But if I asked you why your screen reacts to the touch of your fingertips or how the power button turns on your phone, what would you say? The illusion of explanatory depth (IOED) is a term that was first coined by Leonid Rozenblit and Frank Keil in their 2002 research paper, The misunderstood limits of folk science: an illusion of explanatory depth. From the abstract:

[People feel they understand complex phenomena with far greater precision, coherence, and depth than they really do; they are subject to an illusion—an illusion of explanatory depth. The illusion is far stronger for explanatory knowledge than many other kinds of knowledge, such as that for facts, procedures or narratives. The illusion for explanatory knowledge is most robust where the environment supports real-time explanations with visible mechanisms.

But consider this: “Fake it ‘til you make it” can be seen as the internal battle cry of people who feel out of their depth. However, despite their insecurities, they still pursue what they desire. This imaginary mask of confidence that hides their shortcomings becomes the buoy that keeps them afloat. Oftentimes, they end up doing what they set out to do and exceed expectations. Sometimes that individual can morph into the person they were pretending to be in the first place. It’s an idealistic outcome, but it does happen.

Needless to say, we must not forget the potentially disastrous outcomes that occur when this transformation doesn’t happen and they go on fooling others and themselves instead.

If we acknowledge our ignorance, an empty space in our knowledge that needs to be filled, we need to carefully consider how we say “I don’t know”. Right now, I don’t have the answer but I will find out for you. I don’t know but I know someone that does. Or simply, I’m sorry, but as much as I wish I could help you, I’m just not the right person to solve this problem. I don’t want to put your project in jeopardy.

Depending on who you are, facing this reality can either be uncomfortable, terrifying or liberating.