4 Reasons Why It’s Important to Say “I Don’t Know”

The 2020 presidential election is in full swing and with it, all of the platitudes, cliches, and mudslinging that accompanies it. Watching politicians jockey for position by having answers to every question, even though it’s evident they’re beating around the bush to avoid admitting they don’t have the answer, is one of my favorite parts of elections. Appearing to have the answer when they don’t actually hurts them in the long run as leaders. When was the last time you watched a political leader respond to a question with an “I don’t know. I’ll have to do further research to answer that question.”? I know I don’t remember.

We can learn from this in our everyday lives, whether we’re in a leadership position or we’re looking for relationship advice. In the quest to look like the smartest person in the room, we miss out on opportunities to say “I don’t know” and open ourselves up to new information. Though it seems counterproductive on the surface, the willingness to admit that you don’t know something has some advantages. Here’s 4 of them:

1. NOT KNOWING SPARKS INNOVATION

We’re on the precipice of a new era because of the advances in technology based on automation. This is a technological revolution that will dwarf the industrial revolution, which required more algorithm-based thinking and management. Change is already occurring at rates we’ve never seen, and with people in previously untouched places around the world like Africa, Latin America, and the Middle East logging on, that change is only going to exponentially increase. This means you will be competing with, not only people around the corner, but companies in Manila, Dubai, and Buenos Aires. With so much information being uploaded at any given moment, if you want to inspire innovation within your organization, it is vital for you to admit to not knowing what you don’t know. Even if you’re 100% sure you’re right, being open to the fact that there’s constantly new information that can counter your current position is key to growth. Besides, if your mindset is already fixed, then where is the room to expand?

2. UNCERTAINTY BREEDS CONFIDENCE FROM OTHERS

Though this may seem like a stretch, there is a big difference between “I have all the answers,” then being proven wrong, and saying “I don’t know.” Though our egos want to make us appear at the top of our game, shutting out new information with this “I’m right, you’re wrong” mentality lowers the confidence that others have in you. This loss in confidence means that people will be hesitant to approach you with new ideas, limiting your potential as a team. Saying “I don’t know,” makes them more comfortable with their own levels of not knowing, creating an openness to new ideas and collaboration that isn’t present with the barriers that come with having all of the answers.

3. IT EXPANDS PERSPECTIVE

By being unsure about something, it activates our intrinsic human desire to explore and learn. When we are actively trying to solve a problem by trying new things, it activates  our brains in a way that expands our perspective. This opens us up to more pathways to solutions, rather than the limited strategies we can use when we already know “everything.”

4. IT CAN COUNTERACT STRESS

By being steadfast in how sure we are, it closes us off from discovering new things. When we do discover a new solution to an old problem, our brains release dopamine, a neurochemical that limits the stress chemical cortisol.  Less stress means better health, strengthened relationships, and more creativity, and achieving that “Aha!” moment can be a life hack to the creation of excitement while your stress levels dwindle.

Taking Short-Term Risks for Long-Term Reward

When competing in a comedy competition, it’s wise to use safe material, that is, material that you KNOW works with crowds of all shapes and sizes. But as a performer, sometimes hitting the same laugh lines over and over can get exhausting and feel less rewarding.

I was in a comedy competition in New York City last week, and the rules stated that if you advance to the next round, you can’t use any of the material you had already used. I have three ten-minute sets that have historically held up in front of all kinds of crowds, so I initially planned on using these three sets. But once I moved on from the first round to the semifinals and was prepared to use my second killer set, I called an audible at the last second.

I had thought of some new jokes a few days prior and was itching to try them out in front of a live audience. Sure, I knew set number two was going to work, but I had been milking that set for so long (see what I did there?), my itch to be creative won out.

I tried an entire new set in the semifinals and failed to move on to the finals.

You’re probably thinking, “What’s the point of writing a post about taking risks when the risk you took didn’t pay off?”

The point is that, sure, I suffered a short-term setback.

Sure, after opening up my set strong, the next two minutes fell painfully flat, with little to no laughter from the audience. But after lightheartedly drawing attention to this elephant in the room, the rest of the set concluded strong.

The moment I got off stage, I knew I wasn’t moving on in the contest, but it felt liberating to try out something new.

The next day, I listened back to my set, took notes, made adjustments, then worked out the material at three open mics. By the time the third one rolled around, I had a fully functional, laugh-worthy set ready to go.

It killed.

Even though I fell flat during the second round of the competition, I now have a brand new ten minute set that I can confidently take to the stage, knowing I can get laughs.

When we play it safe, eventually it becomes rote, routine, and incredibly boring, even if at one point it was rewarding. When we take risks, life becomes much more exciting, it’s just important to remember that when we fall short of our goals the first time, it isn’t the end of the world. There’s always a chance to learn, improve, and achieve that internal (and external) reward by adjusting and adapting. Don’t let taking a risk stop you when the reward can be that much greater.

What’s one risk you can take that makes you feel uncomfortable? What’s the potential long-term reward if you see it through?