“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 other.
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 sources. So:
- 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.