Why 'I Don't Know' Is A Great Answer

When we go to school, we are taught to know things. Do you remember the days you had as a young student, sitting in a classroom, eagerly raising your hand when the teacher asked a question... because you knew the answer. Or perhaps you experienced the opposite sensation: silently hoping the teacher wouldn't call on you and embarrass you in front of the whole class... because you didn't know the answer.

I experienced this while being in a lecture for one of my MBA classes. I hadn't prepared the case study so I was desperately trying to be as inconspicuous as possible, while exuding an air of nonchalance. God forbid the professor call on me. I would have had to fake my way through, or worse, squeak out an "I don't know." For shame.

Why, as a society, do we idolize the state of knowing? Knowing is half the battle, right? Even G.I. Joe was enlisted to drill this lesson into our heads from an early age.

Knowing is actually good for a lot of things. Most of the routine things we do as we function to achieve sustenance and survival in our day-to-day lives require some kind of knowledge, or knowing. We use our experiences to inform our behavior in a number of typical situations, which is often comfortable and convenient. It would be burdensome to have to re-learn certain things over and over. For example, it's good to know what to do when we are trying to calculate tip on our dinner bill, follow directions to navigate around a city, or solve practical problems that emerge in predictable patterns.

What knowing is not so helpful for is coming up with brand new breakthrough ideas, re-imagining possibilities, or making novel connections. In fact, the attitude of knowing actually blocks us from building new neural pathways. Knowing and creating are actually at odds with each other. Instead of always jumping to conclusions based on what we think we know, it may be beneficial for us to practice responding to situations with a different internal dialogue.

Neurolinguistic programming (NLP) is a discipline that studies how the mind controls behavior through language. In other words, the words we use when we speak and think are powerful. They are connected to unconscious beliefs or programs that create our reality. Limiting language can in fact, limit our potential. We can use this understanding to start intentionally "re-program" our minds to be more flexible and more creative… simply by speaking to ourselves using phrases such as:

"I don't know", or "I am curious", or "I wonder if…"

This kind of language allows room for possibility, and makes space for creativity. Thinking outside the box means imagining beyond what we "know".

In Buddhism, this is something called beginner's mind or a don’t know mind. Typically, when we approach a situation armed with our prejudices, we will often get things wrong. The wisdom of the warrior teaches us that assumptions are dangerous. When we think we already "know" something, we might mistakenly underestimate our opponent who is small in stature, but who is in fact quite quick and nimble. Or we might become so intimidated by an opponent who appears stronger, that we completely miss obvious signals of weakness.

Saying "I don’t know" also allows us to maintain a high level of presence. This presence is what enables us to respond easily and fluidly to actual circumstances, as they occur from moment to moment, rather than reacting automatically to some imaginary future state.

A don’t know mind provides a role for intuition.

A don’t know mind allows white space for invention.

A don’t know mind gives room to play for imagination.

The next time you find yourself in a state of not knowing, rather than beating yourself up for not having the answer, or shaming yourself for your uncertainty, I encourage you to enjoy the bliss of that don't know state. Don’t waste energy on wishing that you "knew" the answer. Celebrate the richness of possibilities that are present in that moment instead.