The Power of “I Don’t Know”

I don’t believe I’ve ever felt more empowered as to when I’ve admitted to myself and others that I don’t know a damn thing about any given topic.

This isn’t to say that I don’t know “stuff”. I do. I know quite a bit, frankly, and my jobs require that I know a lot about very intricate subjects. But I am human, and I will not know everything, or even a majority about anything. Admitting this takes a weight off of my shoulders that is indescribable.

I know a lot of people, both socially and professionally, who take the opposite approach. They either claim to know everything, or, at least claim to know a lot about a subject to which they know little or nothing about. These people, especially when they get in positions of power, are the bane of our existence.  This problem is compounded by a cognitive bias called the Dunning–Kruger effect (Note: PDF), which essentially states that:

People tend to hold overly favorable views of their abilities in many social and intellectual domains. The
authors suggest that this overestimation occurs, in part, because people who are unskilled in these
domains suffer a dual burden: Not only do these people reach erroneous conclusions and make
unfortunate choices, but their incompetence robs them of the metacognitive ability to realize it.

While I believe, based off of circumstantial and anecdotal evidence, that the Dunning-Kruger effect is a real thing, I also believe that we, meaning you, I, and everyone else, have the ability to diminish the problems surrounding both the “I-know-it-all” point of view, and even the Dunning-Kruger effect. This requires us to admit that, for the most part, we simply don’t know. Even if we’re an expert in our chosen professions, there can be only one person who is the ultimate expert in that arena, and the statistical probability of you (or me) being that ultimate expert is exceedingly small.

The brilliance of the “I don’t know” approach to life is that results in only three possible outcomes to any given situation. Let’s say someone asks you the question of “How did restaurants evolve in the city of Chicago?” If your answer to this question is “I don’t know”, your primary responses are as follows:

  1. I don’t know, I don’t want to know, I don’t need to know. (No further action needed).
  2. I don’t know, I don’t want to know, but I need to know for work or other social reasons. (Go learn stuff)
  3. I don’t know, but I want to know! (Go Learn stuff).
Two out of the three responses are telling you that there’s more learning to do. Ultimately, these responses put the onus upon us as individuals to take advantage of the situation being presented to us. If I, being the curious sort of person, want to know how restaurants evolved in the city of Chicago, it is my responsibility to fill in that gap of my knowledge. Now, whether I can or not is a different issue, dependent upon a vast area of variables, up to, and including the amount of hours in a day, or even my own skill set in reading comprehension.  But those are side issues.
If I want to be the sort of person that seeks to understand things such as Martinis, or New York City, (apparently) Pils and Pilsners, it is my responsibility to get off of my duff and educate myself.
But first? First I have to admit that I don’t know anything about these subjects. And to me, that’s where the fun truly begins.

“One of the painful things about our time is that those who feel certainty are stupid, and those with any imagination and understanding are filled with doubt and indecision” – Bertrand Russell



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