“The only true wisdom is knowing you know nothing.” ~ Socrates
Pop Quiz: If you and I were talking, and I asked you a question you didn’t know the answer to, what would you say?
My experience over the years tells me FAR too many people will try to make something up.
I’ve done it, too. Let’s face it… we all have at some point!
We are conditioned to think we have to have an answer for everything at all times, which creates a culture of thinking everyone else is an expert, so we’d better catch up quick. It doesn’t help when we keep calling people gurus and geniuses after one win.
But see that quote above? From an entrepreneurial perspective, it’s one way to tell the difference between the people you want to listen to and the ones who should probably stop talking. Actual, real experts speak far less than we think, and they’re also far more likely to admit when they don’t know something.
Want to emulate an expert’s mindset when you don’t know the answer? I know I do! Here are three answers I’ve begun to use more and more often:
“I don’t know.”
Sounds so simple, right? But I can count on one hand how many times people have been brave enough to tell me they didn’t know the answer to something this week. And other people could probably say the same of me! But there’s a unique kind of authority in admitting you don’t have all the answers, don’t you think? Especially since we’re all building personal brands here, we should admit more often that we’re figuring it out as we go.
If you legitimately don’t know the answer, don’t become a politician who pivots the question toward something you DO know more about. That’s annoying for everybody. Instead, just admit that you don’t know, and then (this is the hard part!) see if you can avoid qualifying that statement with, “…but I DO know that…” and then rambling on about something else.
“What do you think?”
When you don’t know the answer, responding with “What do you think?” is a compliment to the person asking the question. It shows that you respect their authority and that you’re interested in learning more. It shows that you’re present in the conversation.
I’ll never forget the time I was asked what the more important thing to becoming a great parent was. I gave my answer and then asked ‘What do you think?’. The reply back to me was one of the reasons why I’ve not worked a Friday in over 4-years. Give more time.
Asking for your companion’s thoughts on a topic is also a great way to find out about other resources you can check out about the topic at hand. (Read on for more about why you want that!)
“I know someone who knows about that.”
If you don’t know the answer, but you do know someone who does, you’ve just found a great opportunity to connect people in your network to each other. There’s an inherent generosity here that builds businesses and communities in a very organic way, so keep an eye out for ways that the people you know could and should know each other.
Maybe you don’t know someone personally, but you’ve heard of resources that specialize in it. That’s great! Connect people to resources as often as you connect people to people, and watch as people begin to do the same for you. Before you know it, you’ll have a direct contact for every question you could possibly have about business!
Now that you’ve admitted you don’t know…
Congrats are in order!
It truly is a big step to admit publicly when you don’t know something, and it’s rare enough that doing so will catch people’s attention. Adopting this beginner’s mind is a crucial ingredient of success because it sets the expectation (for yourself and for others) that you’re always learning. James Altucher says he always assumes he’s the dumbest person in the room, which is probably why he’s often one of the smartest!
And here is why it’s important to seek guidance after admitting you don’t know—because now that you’ve admitted you don’t know, it’s your responsibility to go find out! Having some recommended resources to turn to, courtesy of people you respect, will set you ten steps ahead in the discovery process.
The longer I’ve been an entrepreneur, the less I feel I know about the right and wrong ways to do things, and the more committed I am to learning along the way.
What about you? What do you say when you don’t know the answer, and how willing would you be to admit ignorance?