I always used to worry about not knowing things, I felt embarrassed when someone asked me something and I did not know the answer. My peers could recite the answer from memory while I would make a note to look it up when I had some time later. This sort of insecurity feels like Imposter Syndrome to me and I have had a fair bit of that in my career, or should I say careers as I have had a crack at a few different things so far.
I used to try and fudge my way through an answer, tripping over my improvised answer and likely showing my true colours. The recipients of my fumbling words probably saw straight through my contributions and in the end nobody won - I looked like an imposter and I knew I was an imposter. I am sure I am not alone in being this person once upon a time as I see it still every day.
I made the decision to own my opinions, including those opinions I did not yet hold. I would learn about a subject and for an opinion that I felt strongly about or I would say “I don’t know”. People respect you more when you own up to not knowing something, it’s not unreasonable to admit you do not know something because everyone had that moment in their life when they didn’t know a given thing.
“Never make fun of someone if they mispronounce a word. It often means they learned it by reading.”
I develop strong beliefs but I always hold them loosely. I remember being in a Physics class in school and my teacher proclaiming, “much of what I am teaching you today will be proven wrong 10 years from now”, and she was ok with that. Totally at peace that she was teaching concepts that we as a species understood at that given time, based on the information available.
I am happy to be a flip-flopper, I can tell you one thing on Monday and then tell you something different on Friday. Between those days I have likely received information that will cause my opinion to adapt and change drastically. I often make decisions and follow them up with, “based on the information I have available to me at this current time”, because decisions need to be made to make progress and most likely the decision drives us in roughly the right direction. As time goes by my decision will change slightly, or course correct, to refine the route we are following.
A strategy for handling ignorance
I developed a strategy for handling things I didn’t know or answers I could not give. It comes off the back of a technique I learned in How To Give An Apology. When someone does something they know to be wrong their first instinct is to just say sorry and be done with it, but this is only a temporary measure. Saying sorry just frees you from the shame in that instance. A better approach is to say “Sorry, it won’t happen again”.
By saying, “it won’t happen again”, I am committing to ensure this mistake does not repeat itself. It is a subtle difference but a powerful one, try it next time you feel the need to apologise to someone and notice how it affects not only your response to the statement but also the recipient, it is like a verbal contract between parties.
So how do I handle things I don’t know?
I don’t know about you but I will guess when you were born you knew nothing, I know I was a useless bag of skin, tissue, and bones whose only contribution to the world was consuming and excreting. If someone asked me how to do something I was useless, and I was ok with that because I was a baby.
As a grown adult I had hoped I would know most everything by now but I know I am just at the tip of the iceberg and I most likely always will be. I’m ok with that. When someone ask me something I don’t know, I don’t try to guess my way through, I just say “I don’t know” and I follow this up with, “I will find out”.
"I don’t know, I will find out"
Try this next time you don’t know something, the moment you know you cannot answer the questions, “I don’t know, I will find out”. It is the same concept as the apology, taking ownership of the state of play (“I am sorry.” or “I don’t know.”) and following that up with a verbal contract to improve on the current state of play.
Everyone’s a winner in this case, you give yourself the opportunity to improve on yourself and show your ability to follow through. On the other hand you open yourself up to being distrusted if you just don’t bother following up. Don’t let yourself down.