I recently listened to an interesting Freakonomics podcast that explored why "I don't know" are the three hardest words in the English language. Basically, from an early age, we learn that we are better off attempting an answer than confessing to an information gap -- after all, there is a chance we could get it right. Then, as working adults, this behavior is further reinforced because we are hired, respected and promoted for our expertise. Knowledge is power!
So what is the problem with that?
One problem is that Google will not hire you. OK, so you might not have aspirations to work for Google, but there appears to be a recent recruiting trend, especially in the innovation and creative sectors, to prioritize learning ability and a thirst for knowledge over expertise, since these type of hires respond favorable to the fast-evolving markets. And what do we have to do before we can start learning? Recognize that there are things we just don't know.
At the PBWC conference, Martha Beck used a tsunami as a metaphor for illustrating the world's current change pace. She talked about how everything as we know it, is being swept away and to survive we have to figure out how to surf that giant change wave. Following this metaphor to its logical conclusion, learning ability is therefore mandatory for our continued existence. If this seems a little extreme, attempting to be all knowing in times of rapid change is, if nothing else, simply inauthentic and unsustainable.
Then there is the potential for larger scale consequences when suppressing our "I don't knows." The Freakonomics podcast presented an example of a large retailer apparently wasting millions of dollars in advertisement expenses, simply because the staff does not what to disclose that they do not know if the campaigns are effective. Leah Hager Cohen in her book, I Don't Know, covers a 1982 Washington, D.C. plane crash that killed 78 people, citing the reason for the accident as the pilot's unwillingness to admit that he did not know if the plan was flight ready.
Of course, the objective is not to flaunt or promote ignorance, but rather nurture a culture in which not knowing is acceptable, considered a sign of confidence and believed to be the necessary stepping stone for mental expansion.
And how do we cultivate such an environment? I don't know!
"The only true wisdom is in knowing you know nothing."