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.