So What DO You Know?
It is the easiest thing to say when presented with a question, a dilemma, or a relatively simple choice.
What is the answer to this math problem?
What is the best way to solve this conflict with a spouse?
What do you want for dinner tonight?
It doesn’t seem to matter if the answer is within your reach or something completely out of your realm of influence, your gut response is often the sad and tired stand by: I don’t know.
When in doubt, we find it easiest to just bow out and move on. I don’t know lets us off the hook. Don’t know the answer? The teacher will ask someone else. Don’t know how to do something? Someone else will do it, or it just won’t get done. Don’t know what to eat? You’ll just settle for whatever you stumble upon around the next corner. Sounds pretty normal, right?
No. When I really think about it, it sounds pretty awful.
It sounds like we are avoiding something. It sounds like we are using it as an excuse to just not try very hard. What does it really mean when we choose to say I don’t know? And let’s be clear - it is a choice.
Saying I don’t know feels innocent enough. We are not all knowing. And our world is full of things we absolutely can not and do not know. Ask me just about anything related to microbiology and my answer will rightfully be an emphatic “I don’t know!” That is factual information that has a defined right or wrong answer, that is distinctly out of my pay grade. In this case, there really isn’t another answer to offer. Or is there?
You see, without realizing it, I don’t know says don’t ask me anything about this, end of story, ask someone else. But what if I said “I haven’t been taught that yet”? That reveals a curiosity. An acceptance of limits without disparaging my basic intelligence. Or how about “This is a topic I am learning more about.” That shows a level of interest - a belief in my ability to grow and learn.
I don’t know shuts down what others hear from you. But more importantly, it also shuts down what you are asking of yourself. You no longer are challenging yourself to find out. And that’s a shame. There is little to be gained from just not knowing, and even less to be found in refusing to look for more.
So what is a person to do? Try this: the next time you are ready to declare I don’t know, stop and pause. And say anything but that. Say you are learning. Say you are thinking about it. Say you need to think about it. And then demand that you come up with what you DO know instead. List what you are indeed sure of, related to and about the topic at hand. You certainly don’t know everything, but you know something. You probably know a whole lot more than you give yourself credit for. So start there.
What you DO know opens doors. It allows you to use the discomfort that comes with being lost or confused about something and apply it to trying something different. What you do know may very well lead you to a solution that you had never considered, reveal a new dynamic in a conversation, or simply represent a much more powerful way to let people know where you stand.
For goodness sakes, don’t take this as a blanket license to run around guessing when someone wants you to weigh in on which medical treatment will yield the best results. Tell them “What I DO know is a great doctor who can help.” But remind yourself often that you really do know more than you think. Your life has been full of experiences, observations, training and education, relationships, triumphs and failures, all of which have offered you a whole lot of knowledge. Aside from that you have values, opinions, beliefs, suspicions, and good old-fashioned hunches. A lengthy and undeniable list of things you actually do know. Remembering that, and using that to reflect on the hardest questions that you are faced with is a powerful way to move yourself forward.
It is always ok to not know. (Especially when it comes to microbiology, as far as I’m concerned).
Just never use I don’t know as the default excuse for walking away, resigning yourself to failure, or surrendering your power when knowing is within your reach. Don’t know? How can you use what you do know to figure it out?