“I don’t know” is not an apology. There’s no shame. It’s a simple statement of fact, is the key line in Penn Jillette’s special comment to cnn.com as a follow-up to his interview on Piers
Morgan. He then compares his answers during the interview to Piers’
answers to the same questions. They are saying exactly the same thing
it’s just that Penn admits it. Neither one of them knows how to look
after all of the people in the US but Piers’ answer “the government”
does shifts the responsibility of answering onto something that isn’t
part of the discussion. It’s distracting and it can be a very effective
tool when trying to convince someone of non-existent expertise. Piers
HAS answers to the questions he just doesn’t know the actual answers.
That’s the thing with bullshit. No matter how you shine it, gloss it
up, and air the room, it’s still bullshit. The only way someone is not
going to see it as bullshit is if they don’t want to see it as such,
they CANNOT see it for what it is or they do see it as bullshit and they
don’t tell you that they know you are full of shit.
Penn’s comment comes at a time when I have grown particularly open to
the fact that I don’t know a lot of that things that I thought I did.
I’m starting to know what I don’t know and that makes me wiser, if only
slightly. Long term it means that I may end up actually knowing these
things because I’ve emptied the knowledge hole of the bullshit so it’s
ready and waiting for the facts to fill it.
I’ve always sort of admired people who say “I don’t know” because I
find their honesty refreshing. It’s time saving because you don’t have
to think about the quality of their answer. The process of internalizing
a lesson someone gives you is resource heavy because you have to vet
the quality of the information they are giving you, ask qualifying
questions, collect more information about the topic to allow you to
store it in a way that is easy to retrieve, then unconsciously the brain
does whatever it does to assimilate the information into a world view
that is consistent with the real world.
Now imagine someone makes something up instead of saying “I don’t
know.” You move forward on the belief that it is true – you fill the
knowledge hole with bullshit – and fully believe that you are right
about the topic. Confident and passionate because you got it from a good
source. When you spread the lie later to someone who respects your
opinion, you burn a little piece of your credibility.
Overtime two things happen that take a major toll on the quality of
your life. First, people stop trusting you because a lot of what you say
is incorrect yet you fail to see it or even consider that it could be
wrong. Second, your “knowledge” starts to become a liability to you
because it cannot be counted on to represent the way the world actually
is but you have full confidence that it does represent the world – worse
than not knowing or not knowing that you don’t know, you believe you
know yet don’t. It may not be your fault that some of the people you
considered to be mentors or sources of wisdom misrepresented themselves,
but it sure is your problem.
Over the last 6 months and more and more recently I say “I don’t
know”, “I’m not sure”, “what do you mean by that”, “what impact does
that have on you”, “what impact should it have on me” and “what do you
need/want me to do”. I say these things because I’m growing more and
more confident that I don’t speak the same language as everyone else,
and that maybe most of the people speak a different language from each
I’ve known my dad for almost 40 years and we’re now asking each other
more questions to get an understanding about what the other is talking
about. For a very long time I believed that I understood him, but as we
chat now, it’s evident that we have a very different understanding of
many words, concepts and things. My mom, dad and brother are the people
who I have spend the most time with in my life and after almost 4
decades of interaction the only thing that they can say to me that I
know I fully understand is “I don’t know”.
This is liberating. It shifts me from participant in life to
scientist-participant in life. I need to seek high quality information
from reliable sources. The new challenge becomes the vetting of the
sources, and here I’m really lucky. The people who know me the best and
who I respect the most answer questions with “I don’t know” often enough
from me to realize that facts are the critical currency when it comes
to talking / mentoring / educating me. Ones ability to say “I don’t
know,” to be comfortable without knowing and to be curious to find out
the answer is the first thing I’m using to vet the quality of my
- If you always know the answer, you don’t.
- If having an answer is more important than having the correct answer, your answer isn’t important.
- If you KNOW you know and don’t need to check current research, you may not know anymore.
- If you are emotional when you are learning something, you don’t know
it yet. Be cautious when dealing with facts with overly emotional
reactive people as emotional states tend to impair the brains ability to
store memories accurately.
What does my world look like after I’ve vetted my sources and
realized where the wisdom lays? It’s very interesting. I’m learning
more, that is true. But I’m also having some really great conversations
with people. By cutting out the chaff you free up a lot of time to
engage other people, or the ones you like more frequently. I realize
that I know at least 50% less than I thought I did, but that knowledge
build my confidence that most people know a lot less than they think
they do so my expertise in certain areas are actually a lot higher
relative to my peers. I know a heck of a lot about 10 things and bits
and pieces about other stuff. If you can admit when you don’t know
something, talk to me about the other stuff if you know and listen to me
when I talk about the 10 things. Otherwise, we can just talk sh!t and
have a good time.