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The Art of Not Knowing

The Art of Not Knowing

The fear of saying “I don’t know” started long ago. In the past, a person’s ability to gain employment was based on their depth of knowledge and aptitude at a particular trade.[1] Workers received intense training and usually performed an apprenticeship before they were considered a “professional” and respected as such. Saying the words, “I don’t know” was an indictment of incompetence.

But the work landscape has changed.

In today’s workforce, having in depth expertise is less valuable and has become a distant second behind potential. A person’s potential and capacity to learn is more important and far more valuable than encyclopedic knowledge on a particular topic.

The Beauty of Not Knowing

The birth of the internet created a huge shift in the information paradigm. Now, information, data and knowledge are literally at your finger tips. The impact of the information sharing on every level and subject, which is readily available 24/7, is a remarkably wonderful double-edged sword.

Things that were privy only to certain people and shared within closed circles is now accessible to all. If you want to know —you can.

The amount and magnitude of information available is overwhelming and incomprehensible. It has become almost impossible to be a true “subject matter expert.” The paradox is that both everyone and no one is an expert.

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The shift in information sharing has also impacted workplace norms. Where it used to be frowned upon and taboo to use the words, “I don’t know” in a professional environment, it now has become acceptable and expected. Today people are hired based on their ability to process information not to memorize it — which is a far more remarkable and better use of the brain.

Our brains have gone from being storage containers to multifaceted microprocessors. Your ability to gather, comprehend, evaluate, synthesize, apply and create new information is your most attractive attribute — not your current knowledge base.[2]

Embracing “I Don’t Know”

The quicker you embrace the fact that you don’t know everything about anything, the better off you and those around you will be. You will unburden yourself of undue stress at work and you shift your brain into a continuous state of learning.

The value in embracing and saying “I don’t know” lets you off the hook and helps reduce all of the misinformation pervading our information system. The truth is, your boss doesn’t care whether or not you can produce information on the spot, he or she is more interested in whether or not you can find the correct information quickly and apply it properly.

Chasing “I don’t know,” with “but I’ll get back to you shortly,” is the recipe for continued growth, humility, and opportunities.

How to Know What You Don’t Know

Now that you understand now knowing everything is totally okay in the workplace, it’s time to understand how to complete the process and close the loop. Not knowing is acceptable; but failure to rectify the knowledge gap is not.

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Find out What’s Missing

The first step (after admitting your ignorance on the subject) is to ensure that you understand exactly what information you are being asked to provide.

Nothing is worse than misunderstanding what it is the other person needs and chasing your tail down rabbit holes. Make sure what information you are being asked to gather and synthesize and then find out how it should be presented. This is a simple yet critical first step.

Think Through What You’ve Got

Now comes the part of the process where you gather the necessary information.

Ensure your sources are reliable. Read the information and then put it into two categories: What you know and understand and What you need to know or need to clarify further.

Make a list of concepts that you need to research more in depth. Clearly defining and assessing the information is the first step in critical thinking.

Fill in Knowledge Gaps

Focus your energy on researching the things you don’t know or can’t articulate clearly.

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Always work from authoritative and well-known research. Use information from industry experts. Start from an original source such as a research study and then work your way out.

Read the abstract first, then find easier to read blogs, articles, books and videos that are based on this founding research. This will help you understand if the secondary sources are accurate. This will not only assist you in understanding the information but reading “lighter” materials also assists you with finding the vocabulary and other tools (charts, graphs, infographics, videos, podcasts, etc.) that can help you accurately explain the concepts.

Suggest Actions

Once you have and understand the information, create a plan of action.

Your course of action depends on the initial request. If you are being asked to present the information for knowledge only purposes, plan your presentation method accordingly.

If you are being asked to provide a solution or recommend a course of action based on your findings, be sure to use a structured research approach such as the “Five Why’s”. Using a structured research method will assist you in making a logical and researched based decision that has passed multiple tests. It also will assist in catching and mitigating flawed logic which is inherent to any decision making process.

Discuss and Brainstorm

Once you’ve identified a few possible solutions using a systematic approach, talk through your research findings and thought process with someone else — your boss or trusted co-worker. Together you can brainstorm potential solutions or assist each other in finding creative and innovative solutions to the issue.

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No matter how thorough you are during your research process, you should always seek the input of others. The only perspective you have — regardless of how much research you do is–yours. Seeking the counsel of others broadens your perspective.

Making “I Don’t Know” Palatable

If saying the words “I don’t know” makes you cringe, here are a few alternatives:

  • “I don’t have a concrete solution at the moment. Let me gather some information and I’ll get back to you.”
  • “I don’t want to make a hasty decision that we may regret, please give me a few hours to look into this.”
  • “This particular situation may warrant a different course of action, I’ll do some research and get back to you by the end of the day.”

These are just examples— modify to fit your communication style and situation. The thing to note is that in each example you make it clear that:

  • You don’t have an answer.
  • You are going to research the topic/possible solutions.
  • You provide an appropriate time frame in which you will provide the information/suggested solution.

This approach allows your boss and colleagues to know that you understand the importance of the issue. It also lets them know that you are reliable and are going to work to find the best possible solution in lieu of handing them a half-baked, under-thought remedy which may do more harm than good. In the end, you actually walk away looking more competent, caring and committed than had you been able to provide an answer immediately.

Not Knowing Doesn’t Make You Impotent

“I don’t know” is a legitimate, acceptable and more importantly— responsible response when you don’t know an answer.

Your credibility doesn’t lie in your ability to provide encyclopedic knowledge on demand. We have the internet for that.

Instead, your credibility lies in your ability to track down, research and synthesize information and provide that information in the proper format to the proper people.

Reference

More by this author

Leon Ho

Founder & CEO of Lifehack

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Last Updated on November 12, 2018

Do You Want to Know the Secret to Living a Fulfilling Life?

Do You Want to Know the Secret to Living a Fulfilling Life?

Don’t we all want to live a full, happy and satisfied life? For some of us, it need not be a long life as long as it’s been a fulfilling life of achievements, happiness and no regrets. But, how many of us actually go on to experience that entirely? It sometimes sounds more like a pipe dream–a fantasy rather than reality.

And then you’ll also get comments from some, saying that this ‘fulfilling life’ is only possible if you’re so rich that you don’t have to care about working, paying the bills or providing for your family. While there is some truth to that, I’m happy to say that financial freedom isn’t the only answer to living a fulfilling life.

Living a Fulfilling Life is Within Reach

Anyone can pursue a life of fullness, and it all starts with the willingness to learn. How many years has it been since you last attended a class in school? If you’re well into your adult years as a working professional, chances are it’s been a while. Do you remember the times where you had to wake up for early morning lectures? Or the times where you were rushing through a paper or project? And, of course there were the endless exams that you had to cram for.

As a young college student, I remember looking forward to the time when I would finally be done with school! No more homework, no more grades to worry about, no more stress! The learning was finally done and I could enter the working world.

Not so much!

Now that I’ve finally entered the working world, there are moments where I do wish to be a student again; it seemed less stressful then!

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There is simply so much out there that I still need to learn and experience. Yet I find myself pressed for time. With family commitments, my business and my own social life to juggle, I’ve had to keep on finding for new ways to learn and absorb new information efficiently. Over the years, I’ve found that by learning new skills and knowledge, I was able to find answers and solutions to my problems, which allowed me to achieve a greater sense of fulfillment.

Learning Never Ends

The truth is, learning never ends. Generally speaking, it is true that a formal education and the resulting qualifications are important in securing good jobs; jobs that allow you to excel, earn more and perhaps become more successful in our chosen career. But going to school is only one type of learning. All throughout your life, you’re learning in many ways. All these experiences shape and grow you into the person that you are today.

There are many opportunities to further your knowledge and develop the skills you need throughout life. Knowledge can be acquired and skill-sets can be developed anywhere. However, lifelong learning is about creating and maintaining a positive attitude to learning both for personal and professional development.

Many people overlook the fact that learning can take place anywhere and in many forms. Most would tend to think of learning as the years spent in a learning institute, which occurs mostly in their younger days. And once you go out into the working world, your ‘learning’ ends.

This is not how it has to be–in fact, lifelong learning is a gift that keeps on giving.

The Importance of Lifelong Learning

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Why is it important to become a lifelong learner?

A lifelong learner is motivated to learn and develop because they want to; it is a deliberate and voluntary act. Lifelong learning can enhance our understanding of the world around us, provide us with more and better opportunities, and improve our quality of life.

You’ll Remain Relevant in the Workplace

With advancements in society today, the human life expectancy continues to increase, which means more people are also retiring at a later age. So no matter what stage of life you’re in, being a lifelong learner brings its own rewards. It means we can get more personal satisfaction from our lives and jobs as we understand more about who we are and what we do.

This can lead to better results and a more rewarding working day in turn. Whether it’s for advancing your career, a personal interest or wanting to pursue new dreams, learning automatically pushes you forward towards progress and enhances your wellbeing.

You’ll Increase Your Earning Potential

From a financial point of view, a more highly skilled and knowledgeable worker is an asset to any company. This also leads to faster promotion with associated salary increases.

Someone who can offer more expertise will be of more value not just to employers but also to customers. Expertise is also, often, a key quality of an effective leader.

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And since you’ll constantly be accumulating knowledge, you’ll have an edge on those who don’t value lifelong learning and can’t bring as much to the table. Your extra knowledge will translate into transferable skills, which means you’ll always be primed to blow the competition out of the water.

Learning Gives You Options

Of course, one of the most rewarding reasons for continuous learning, is that it gives you options! Successfully changing career path in mid-life and spending time informally developing expertise is more common than ever, especially during rapidly changing market conditions.

Whatever your age, it’s never too late to start fresh in life. When you start educating yourself and exposing yourself to new knowledge and information, you widen your opportunities. This will allow you to do more than what you may currently be doing, or give you a way out if you’re not happy or fulfilled with where you’re at now.

Our economy is shifting increasingly towards short-term and part-time contracts with more flexible work-patterns. We have to adapt to changes going on in the work-world, make more of ourselves by stepping out of our comfort zones, and break the false ideas about our potential and how we believe life is going.

Gain More with Cornerstone Skills

You may be well into your career, but feel like somehow, something is still missing. Or maybe you’re not entirely happy with where you’re at in your career path and feel it’s time to reflect and perhaps do something new. Or you might be thinking of retiring soon, and thinking about next steps after retirement.

The learning never needs to stop!

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This can be your chance to go after a dream or interest that you’ve always had (but never had the opportunity, or time, to pursue). This could finally be the time for you to create the change that you know you should have made ages ago.

Why not take the first step to learn about 7 important Cornerstone Skills, which will help take your life to the next stage?

Whatever situation you’re in, having these 7 Cornerstone Skills will no doubt equip you to tackle the challenges of life much more efficiently. Don’t let age, your limitations or a comfort zone stop you from seeking greater rewards and self-improvement.

Transformation and change is in your hands–you have the power to make big things happen, and we can help teach you the skills. Don’t let life pass you by! It’s time to pursue a fulfilling and happy life.

Featured photo credit: Joseph Chan via unsplash.com

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