In my mid-twenties I had the opportunity to work for one of the most influential people in my city. I was both elated and apprehensive. I knew I would learn a great deal from this powerful woman, which I did. But what I didn’t expect was that I’d get the worst piece of advice. Ever.
During one of our many meetings, she asked me about my thoughts on a matter. I don’t remember what it was about exactly, but what I do remember is that I didn’t feel I had a certain view on the topic because I didn’t think I knew enough about it to comment.
Her reaction came as a complete surprise. Annoyed (and/or disdainful), she informed me that:
“You must always have an opinion.”
I sheepishly took the admonition and vowed to always have an opinion, because that’s what successful people do. This promise to myself to always have an opinion put a great deal of pressure on me. I started feeling that I needed to be on top of it all: the news, all aspects of our business, my personal beliefs, the latest arts and entertainment…everything.
The result? I knew everything and nothing at the same time.
Looking back at this erroneous piece of advice, I think the idea of always having an opinion is akin to our fear of ever saying “I don’t know”. We seem to treat those few words as some sort of poison, even when they’re the truth. Even when there’s really no reason for us to know the answer or to even have one.
To answer a question with a made-up answer, with a baseless opinion is worse than useless.
The utterance that may help us save face in some way is also incredibly destructive.
Stating an opinion we don’t have or lying:
- Corners us into a point of view we may not want to hold. We can become invested in a false position.
- Causes us to lie perpetually to cover up the deceit.
- Causes us to spread dis or misinformation as the recipient communicates what we’ve said to others.
- Causes us to dismiss our curiosity to know more.
I think you’ll agree that these are not desirable outcomes.
The Power of “I Don’t Know”
“I don’t know” are powerful words. They do a lot for us as individuals, and a lot for us as communities of individuals.
Being able to say we don’t know something makes it possible for us to choose to know a lot about what matters most to us and stay ignorant of what matters the least. Ignorance is not a bad word. It simply means having a lack of knowledge or information. We’re all ignorant in some ways because we can’t be knowledgeable about everything. (No, winning at Jeopardy doesn’t necessarily mean you’re smart.)
Acknowledging that we don’t an opinion about something can also help us determine whether we want to develop one by learning more about a topic. We can decide whether we want to move past the sound bites we hear from opposing parties and dig into an issue to learn more.
It’s the Wise Person’s Answer
I’ve come to realise that most people who always have an answer know very little. They may know fact and figures—made up or actual—but much of what is called “knowledge” these days is just bits and pieces of information; sound bites heard on a newscast. They see the world as binary: you either have an opinion or you don’t. You either know the answer or you don’t.
This belief can’t be further from the truth. That’s because the more we dig into a topic, the greyer it gets. We become aware of how thoughts and beliefs evolved, of dependencies, exceptions, of the need for additional context.
True knowledge is like an iceberg. The black and white answer is like the visible part of the iceberg. All the grey is hidden from view, until you dive into the subject matter to get a better view. And that dive can feel overwhelming, but only once we’ve taken it can we really say we understand why we know or believe what we do.
Ignorance Is Bliss
The more I read, the more I learn, the more I understand that saying “I don’t know” isn’t a sign of weakness. Saying “it depends” or “I don’t know enough about it to have an opinion” isn’t either. It says a lot more about what we care about—care to know about—than any other answer can offer. It makes it clear what we spend our time thinking about and learning about.
It also invites others to offer us information we may want or need to hear, information that may peek our curiosity sufficiently to decide to look further into a topic. It may lead to some fascinating conversations where we feel no pressure to offer information we don’t have but to be the recipient of thoughts and insights we didn’t know even existed.
“I don’t know” is about the most powerful statement we can make. “I don’t know” is a sign of the wisdom of knowing that [being aware of our own] ignorance truly is bliss.