In Praise of Not Knowing

“I don’t know” is one of my favorite phrases. It’s a sign of intelligence. As far as I’m concerned, smart people deal in shades of gray, or better yet, shades of color, but not blacks and whites. People who are sure they’re right about something impress me a lot less than people who recognize they may be wrong.

diceEarlier this week I dealt with a doctor known to be one of the very top people in his field. He was very comfortable talking about what might be true, or what was likely, or what he guessed, without claiming certainty. And he reminded me that true expertise gives people the confidence to recognize limits, and acknowledge so many things that are less than certain.

You know those people who know everything? That must be exhausting. I’ve never found knowing everything an attractive quality in a job applicant. I’m much more inclined to like the person who recognizes a lot of possible alternatives and thinks in terms of “on the other hand” for every question. I think understanding the question is often more useful than knowing the answer.

I’m not advocating ignorance. Of course it’s good to know where you left something, or how to get there, or how to do that. I like it when people know what’s going on, generally, and know their business and their areas of expertise. I want people to know the product they sell like the back of their hands.

I’m not arguing against planning either. In a business plan context, for example, I’d expect you to know standard industry averages, general market data, details about your business offering and your management team, specific customer data, past financial history, competitors, substitutes, and so on. But I don’t want you to be so damn sure of the future. I want you to realize that your plans will probably change. That doesn’t meant you don’t make plans; having them makes them easier to change quickly and effectively. It does mean you don’t get too obsessive about it.

But certainty gets way less attractive when it has to do with business strategy, business advice, planning, motivations, dealing with people, health, relationships … and, yes, of course, even the age-old favorites, religion and politics. Or who said what, when, and what they meant. We’re all guessing. And what you think you heard might be very different from what I think I said. An open mind is a good thing.

And one good way to never make a decision is to wait until you’re certain. Few if any important business decisions ever happen with any kind of certainty. You guess the future. You recognize that you might guess wrong, and that, often enough, even good decisions have bad outcomes. If you have to wait until you’re certain, you’re not making decisions right.

You want an alternate measure of intelligence and understanding? Then ask yourself this: can you see both sides of an argument? Can you understand multiple points of view? If you respect uncertainty, you’ll understand business and your customers better.

5 thoughts on “In Praise of Not Knowing

  1. Very insightful post. Just threw me off there for a moment at the beginning when you said “I don’t know” is a sign of intelligence. I remember my brother being annoyed with me everytime I say that. He thinks I’m an idiot. I guess this comes down to honesty, pride, integrity and all that. People–and most especially job interviewees wouldn’t admit to saying “I don’t know” It’s kinda bad form and they would look kinda stupid. But I think “I don’t know” is a good place to start learning. It means your head is empty therefore, you can fill it up with information–information that you would need in the future. So, I guess in that context I understood what you were trying to say. This is why the first thing you do in any business is research. Adding here http://sn.im/uxpgs a great article on business planning.

  2. Good point and great observations! Most people don’t like “know it alls.” Every once in a while, its comforting to hear “I don’t know.” Matter of fact its probably a good idea to say “I don’t know” even if you do and allow others to contribute every once in a while.. you can always add your input later.

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