Thursday, June 23, 2011

Getting Comfortable With “I Don’t Know”

When I’m talking to my five year-old daughter, she stops me here and there to explain the meaning of a word she is unfamiliar with.  I’m very happy that she does that.  (Sometimes she even challenges my explanation.  “A spatula looks like a big flat spoon, and you use it for flipping food in the pan, “ I say.  “Or maybe,” she counters, “it looks like….” followed by some fantastic color scheme and shape combinations, impossible to imagine.   The “big flat spoon” was way too boring.  We think it’s cute, but we don’t know were this is going.)

My nephew had a very different attitude when he was her age. “I already know that!” was his answer to everything we thought might need explaining. (When he told his grandfather that he already knew how to play chess, he was smart enough to sneak away while Grandpa set up the game.)

The desire to appear knowledgeable about whatever comes up in conversation is something most of us succumbed to when we were young. (I was actually much more like my nephew than my daughter.) Unfortunately, the fear of exposing our ignorance on any subject has followed many of us into adulthood. Certain topics, like knowledge of art, poetry, world history, and fine wine, leave us nervously wondering how much do I need to know about this to not look stupid?

The truth, of course, is that not being able to tell a Chardonnay from a Zinfandel isn’t about intelligence – it’s about interest.   If you don’t care about wine, then why should you know all about it?  Why should other people decide where your interests lie?

As a grad student and as a professor, I’ve found myself among some very smart people.  Scary smart. And I can tell you with certainty that nobody knows everything about everything. Actually, the opposite is often true. The more focused and devoted to a subject or profession someone is, the less likely she is to care and know about other things.

So if you’ve felt self conscious about your occasional ignorance in the past, it’s time to let yourself off the hook, and get comfortable with what you don’t know. Personally, I have always been drawn to people who find it easy to say, “I don’t know.” They seem more genuine, more comfortable with themselves, and I trust and admire them more.  Don’t we all?

Pursue your interests (I am all for education), and practice saying “I don’t know” when it comes to everything else.   Together, they are a recipe for being truly happy in your own skin.

Good luck with your goal!

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