Those who know do not speak. Those who speak do not know.
— Lao Tzu

It was one of my first classes as a law professor. I was young and reluctant to admit what I didn’t know, for fear of openly revealing what I was—a novice.

During class, a student asked a question that left me befuddled.  

Instead of saying what I should have said—I don’t know—I winged it. Not only that, but I spoke with conviction, hiding the uncertainties storming within. The class seemed pleased with my answer, and I was happy with myself.

My high lasted for all of an hour. An astute student emailed me to point out (nicely) that the answer I provided was wrong. Not even a little wrong, but completely wrong.

The next class, I returned, with hat in hand, and corrected myself immediately. But it took me weeks to rebuild the credibility I lost.

Why didn’t I simply say “I don’t know?”

Ego was the biggest culprit. Admitting ignorance would have betrayed my title—professor of law—and the expertise that title was supposed to represent.

Social conditioning also played a role.

We’ve mastered the art of pretending to know the answer to a question, smiling, nodding, and bluffing our way through a makeshift answer.

We’ve been told to fake it until we make it, and we’ve become experts at the faking part.

We’ve come to value chest beating and delivering clear answers with conviction, instead of frankly acknowledging the complexity of a problem and the elusiveness of a solution.

But this knowledge paradox can be deeply problematic.

For starters, the other person may not be fooled.

When you bluff, you may get lucky.

But then again you may not. When someone calls your bluff, you’ll lose your credibility as quickly as I did in that class where I feigned expertise.

As Warren Buffett put it, “It takes 20 years to build a reputation and five minutes to ruin it.  If you think about that, you’ll do things differently.”

Admitting ignorance can help you stand out.

If the meetings you have to attend are anything like mine, people fall over each other to be the first to deliver their opinion. We tend to view first talkers as smarter and more competent. If one person says “I don’t know,” and the other says “The answer is X,” the person who speaks up first and with conviction can win other people over.

But a quick trigger doesn’t equal accuracy. If you speak up, and you’re wrong, people will remember you, but for the wrong reasons.

Since we expect people to speak with conviction, saying “I don’t know” can make you stand out from the crowd. Acknowledging ignorance or complexity can become a catalyst for discussion. Following your lead, others in the room may also admit to being uncertain.

We make a choice when we nod along with the first talkers and attempt to join their ranks. It’s up to us to not reward these misguided behaviors and to not equate confidence with accuracy.

Admitting ignorance can build trust.

Recall your last trip to the car dealership.

Did the car dealer say “I don’t know” to any question you asked? You probably got a fancy-sounding answer filled with jargon to a question about the operation of the engine.  

There are exceptions, of course, but many car dealers attempt to sell you at all costs.

One of these costs is trust.

Hearing someone candidly admit ignorance can be refreshing in a world filled with know-it-alls.

Saying “I don’t know” values the other person’s question by suggesting that it requires profound thinking and that the answer may not be easily accessible.

And when you do have an answer, people will take you more seriously.

You can’t learn without admitting ignorance.

As Stoic philosopher Epictetus put it, “it is impossible to learn that which one thinks one already knows.” The pretense of knowledge puts on our blinders, closes our ears, and shuts off incoming educational signals from outside sources.  We march on pretending to know what we think we know, oblivious to glaring facts that contradict our ironclad beliefs.

When you pretend to know the answer to a question, you not only fool other people, but more importantly, you fool yourself. And as physicist and Nobel laureate Richard Feynman put it, “you are the easiest person to fool.”

Something beautiful happens when you candidly acknowledge that you don’t know.  Your mind opens up and your ears perk up.  It’s the first step to developing what the Japanese call shoshin–beginner’s mind–an attitude that eschews prior judgments with fixed points of view and remains eager in anticipation of possibilities to learn and grow.

How to admit ignorance intelligently

None of this is to say that you should admit ignorance as a cop-out mechanism or a quick formula for avoiding the difficult work required to form an opinion. In other words, “I don’t know” shouldn’t mean “I can’t be bothered with this.” Instead, try one of the following:

  • “I don’t know.  But I’ll find the answer and get back to you.”
  • “That’s an important question.  I don’t want to give you a half-baked answer.  Give me a few hours (or days), and I’ll look into it and get back to you.”
  • “I don’t know the bottom-line answer.  Let me tell you what I know, and what I still need to find out.”

Next time someone asks you a question whose answer you don’t know, unapologetically reply with an “I don’t know.”  

The results may surprise you.