I don’t know how to do that. I don’t know what you’re asking. I don’t know what the next step is. That phrase is terrifying. It is painful leaving the lips. It brings a tinge of shame or guilt or panic. You may feel as if uttering those words is admitting ignorance or incompetence. You may feel inadequate or even pitied. But you shouldn’t.
There is an unfortunate stigma in the phrase “I don’t know.”
Starting a new job in a field in which you have little experience is daunting. It can feel like drinking from a fire hose, as you are engulfed by a torrent of new technology, problems, solutions, people, and information. I recently began a new position in which I was very quickly drenched. I was asked to solve problems, sometimes under pressure, and “I don’t know” became my catchphrase. Left and right I hit more and more walls where my knowledge and experience could not serve me. Initially, I felt straight-up stupid. I felt as if I could barely keep my head above water. I kept afloat only with the help of my supremely intelligent coworkers (the ancient art of google-fu and some blessed caffeine helped too). At first I was nervous to lean on my friends so hard, but they were kind and understanding. I asked a million questions, took a million notes, and got a little comfortable. As soon as I did, as soon as I popped a classic Brent Rambo grin & nod, another wave bowled me over.
And then I started to enjoy it.
It kicked up a fire in me, and became a little fun. I wanted to learn as much as I could, and not just for my job. For myself. I started saying “I don’t know, but I will find out” and “I don’t know, but teach me”. Framing it that way gives the phrase a whole new meaning. Now, “I don’t know” is a statement of interest. It is a statement of propulsion to greater bounds. I don’t fear it anymore.
Not knowing shouldn’t be scary. It should be thrilling. It should be thought of as an opportunity to learn and to expand and to grow. Anxiety and fear are only powerful if we grant them that power. They only control us if we give up the reins and surrender our will. Being presented with an unknown should engage your curiosity and your thirst. You should be saying “I don’t know” and screaming “I want to know!”
- Take notes. Write as much as you can, to reference in the future.
- Don’t leave a concept half-understood. Know exactly how it works and why it works. Know the full answer and dive deep.
- Swallow your pride. Admit your mistakes and recognize your shortcomings so you may improve.
- Don’t be so hard on yourself.
- Be honest. Everyone will greatly appreciate it.