The value of ‘I don’t know’

You know nothing, Jon Snow

Since young we have been taught to know things. Our school system gave us exams to which there were fixed answers, and to do well we had to show how much we knew. We took on this attitude towards life as well, we pursued knowledge and we felt a need to know things.

But what if not knowing is actually the key to personal growth and understanding the world?

Nature abhors a vacuum

So said Aristotle.

Well, we humans have a vacuum in our vision called the ‘blind spot’.

We can see because light enters our eyes through the cornea. The light is focused onto our retina, a ‘screen’ where images are captured by receptors and transformed into electrical impulses.

The optic nerve relays these electrical signals to the brain, where they are interpreted. Voila! We have our sense of sight.

The thing about the retina is: it is not complete. Where the optic nerve links to the retina there are no receptors. That means we do not receive complete images of the world.

But, as it turns out, humans abhor vacuums too.

So instead of us seeing holes where our blind spot is, our brain fills in the gap. Our brains uses information surrounding the blind spot to fill in the gaps.

We simply make stuff up!

Yes, you make stuff up too

If you’ve noticed, us humans aren’t exactly comfortable with not knowing things. We hate not knowing. Observe yourself when someone asks you a question to which you do not know the answer. Instead of saying honestly, “I don’t know,” you feel your brain trying to come up with an answer. Any answer.

Q: Why is our boss so grumpy today?
A: Hm… must have had a bad meeting with the client.

Q: Who will win the election?
A: Hillary for sure!

Q: What is the meaning of life?
A: Get a job, get married, have kids, go on nice vacations?

So you will see that not only do we try to answer questions we don’t really know the answers to, we put in our own frameworks and preferences into our answers.

The truth is, sometimes we really do not know.

Saying ‘I don’t know’ is freedom

The problem with making stuff up is that we give ourselves the illusion of knowing. We think we know when we really do not. That closes us off from further exploration and expanding our perspectives.

Which really limits us.

Once we conclude, we have no more motivation to discover deeper truths. Once we conclude, the journey ends.

Our conclusions are like invisible prisons, keeping us safe but keeping everything else out. Sure, we’re safe there. But that’s not the world.

Saying I don’t know allows for new experiences and possibilities.

When reality is counter-intuitive

Here’s an example of how not knowing can lead to discovery.

In 2002, Google ran an experiment by simply getting rid of all managers. Larry Page and Sergey Brin were enthralled by idea of a flat organisation, and wanted to prove that managers didn’t matter. The hypothesis was that eliminating managers would break down barriers to rapid idea development.

The experiment failed miserably. Managers were reinstated after a few months. In fact, Google found that managers did matter. Teams with the best managers had higher retention rates and better performance.

Imagine if Google had simply decided to eliminate managers without running an experiment first. Saying I don’t know provides space and opportunity to discover the truth.

Sometimes reality can be counter-intuitive. Assumptions we hold true can easily be proven false.

The prison of beliefs

It’s not just organisations that make such seemingly counter-intuitive hypotheses. Individuals do it too.

The most common form of us making assumptions is what psychologists call transference.

Transference is that set of ways of perceiving and responding to the world which is developed in childhood and which is usually entirely appropriate to the childhood environment but which is inappropriately transferred into the adult environment. – M. Scott Peck

Many of our attitudes and assumptions about the way the world works were learned from childhood. Our beliefs are deeply influenced and conditioned by our past.

Beliefs we picked up from childhood include obvious ones like religious beliefs and political leanings, as well as much deeper beliefs about how we view the world and what we believe about ourselves.

For example:

  • I am helpless
  • People are out to get me
  • Money is evil
  • People dislike me
  • I am fat

Remember how our eyes make stuff up to fill a gap in our experience? We do similar things in adulthood. Instead of seeing reality as it is and admitting we are ignorant about the world, we take our childhood beliefs and impose them onto our adult world.

The problem is, our childhood beliefs worked in childhood, but may no longer be effective in navigating adulthood.

This is water

We all have beliefs about ourselves we take for granted. The more unconscious we are of the belief, and the greater the power it has over us.

It’s especially pernicious when our beliefs are limiting and self-defeating, for example, “I am not good enough.”

So we must constantly challenge our own beliefs about ourselves and about the world.

Observe your own behaviour. Where your behaviour is fixed, there is an underlying belief. Somewhere inside you, you’ve decided that you ‘know’ something.

Because if we truly knew we did not know, we would try all ways and means to fill the gap in our knowledge. We would seek and explore tirelessly.

But most of the time we’re not really seeking. We’re just reacting in fixed ways to stimuli and circumstances.

There are these two young fish swimming along, and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says, “Morning, boys, how’s the water?” And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes, “What the hell is water?” – David Foster Wallace

We are all swimming in our little pools of water. Do we know what water we’re swimming in?

What happens after ‘I don’t know’

I do not know anything. – Socrates

Socrates famously said that the only thing he knew was that he knew nothing.

If we are also willing to admit our ignorance, then we can begin true discovery. True discovery means having the courage and willpower to bump up against the edge of our comfort zones to test our beliefs against reality.

For someone who thinks of themselves as an introvert, it means going out to socialise. For someone who thinks of the world as a scary place, it could mean trusting someone for the first time.

The more we can admit we don’t know, the more we venture into the unknown, the more we learn, the more we know.

Alas, that is the paradox.

Empty your tea cup

A university professor went to visit a famous Zen master. While the master quietly served tea, the professor talked about Zen.

The master poured the visitor’s cup to the brim, and then kept pouring. The professor watched the overflowing cup until he could no longer restrain himself. “It’s full! No more will go in!” the professor blurted.

“This is you,” the master replied, “How can I show you Zen unless you first empty your cup?” – Zen parable

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *