When I was in the fourth grade, my teacher told my mother I was smart. Those words sounded sweeter than a Sebastian Bach melody. But neither my mother nor I knew that those words would be the death knell for my academics.
Now that I was “smart,” I couldn’t let my teachers or classmates think otherwise. So I stopped raising my hand in class. I stopped asking questions and clarifications.
I was afraid to admit to my mother or teachers that I didn’t understand something. If I did, everyone would see me for what I was: an imposter. They would laugh at me. For an eight-year-old, not having the approval of friends, teachers, and parents is worse than being treated as a criminal.
As the years went by, my grades deteriorated. Then they went into a free-fall. This proves I’m stupid, I thought. I was finally exposed. My act was up.
When I was seven, my father asked me where the TV remote control was. I said I didn’t know. “You’d better know. You used it last,” he shouted. Frightened, I rummaged through the room to find the remote and hand it to him.
These and other experiences turned the phrase “I don’t know” into a taboo for me. I could get only respect if I knew — or acted like I knew — everything.
This belief embedded itself deeply in my life. It made me do things I’m not proud of. I bragged about movies I hadn’t watched and books I hadn’t read. I laughed hard at jokes I didn’t get. I nodded enthusiastically when I heard words I didn’t understand.
Instead of the desire to satiate my curiosity, the fear of appearing foolish dictated my reasons to know about something.
The Fear of “I Don’t Know.”
It’s not just me. The thought of appearing ignorant or foolish strikes fear in the hearts of most people. And they go to extreme lengths to suppress it.
They’re the first to speak in meetings even when they have nothing useful to say. They steal others’ ideas and make them their own. They shut their eyes and ears and sing “Tra-la-la-la-la” when they come across any evidence that challenges their beliefs.
But most of what we know or believe isn’t true. Even if it’s true today, there’s no guarantee it’ll stay that way tomorrow.
The Earth doesn’t spin on the same axis as it did two decades ago. In 2011, an earthquake in Japan shifted the axis by about 10 centimeters and sped up its rotation by a few microseconds.
Technology has destroyed jobs for centuries. But it has also spawned new, creative ones. Who would’ve imagined that podcasting, blogging, and YouTubing could be full-time careers?
Intelligence doesn’t come from knowing everything there is to know. That’s impossible. Intelligence comes from the ability to unlearn, rethink, and evolve.
Socrates was the wisest man in Greece, not because he knew more than others but because he was the only one who understood how much he did not know and was prepared to admit it.
Thus, smart people are not afraid to say “I don’t know.” In fact, saying it is empowering.
It liberates you from the pressure of having to prove yourself. It lets you stoke your curiosity and go deeper into a subject. Instead of trying to keep up with the herd, you can pause and reflect on what you learn. You can empty your cup, dissolve your belief structures, and become more aware of yourself.
It’s hard to trust this phrase when everything you want is tied to being able to show how much you know. When your salary hikes and promotions depend on how many answers you give at work. When the number of likes on your LinkedIn status updates depends on how well you position yourself as a hero. When the temptation to buy something that promises to make you appear smarter is too strong to resist.
But that doesn’t mean it won’t work.
Often, saying “I don’t know” is exactly what you need to move forward. Practice saying it once. Let yourself be split open. When you admit to not knowing, you’ll become wiser and more aware of yourself. It sounds ironic, but it’s true.
It took me forever to overcome the fear of saying “I don’t know.” I’m still not out of the deep waters. The fear still surfaces now and then like a shark. But each day, I keep trying to shed my old snakeskin. And the new skin feels comfortable.
Maybe it’s time to make saying “I don’t know” as acceptable as it is to talk about mental health. I’m pretty sure that if we get comfortable with it, we’ll become smarter in the long term.