Do you know the three most powerful words in the English language? If you’re not sure, you can simply answer the question with them: “I don’t know.”
Some of you told yourselves, “Of course I know what they are,” and tried to guess where I might be going with this. Why do we so often feel it necessary to know the answers to every question? And if you did know, then how fun is that? I ask, you answer, and we move on…yawn.
On the other hand, when you utter those three simple words, “I don’t know,” you open the possibility of learning something new. We can’t know everything. We in fact, hardly know anything when compared to how much knowledge and wisdom exists. So why would we expect ourselves to know, and why do we have such a difficult time admitting when we don’t know?
Most likely, you started school in kindergarten, and so began your life of learning. You learned to ride a bicycle, to play hopscotch, drive a car, to take afternoon naps, and decipher that H2O is water. For some of you, that learning came to a grinding halt at the end of high school. For others, it ended several years later with your college degree(s). I remember hearing fellow students in my senior year at college saying, “I’m so sick of books, I’ll never read another in my life,” and, “Glad that’s over.” Their words surprised me. How could they, who were only just starting out in life, contemplate closing the door on learning?
Socrates, the story goes, was told by Pythia, the Oracle of Delphi that he was the wisest man alive. He replied, “I am the wisest man alive, for I know one thing, and that is that I know nothing.”
Today, we experience a daily avalanche of information, via the internet, about which we know nothing and into which could not possibly make a dent if we tried to learn it all. We quickly realize, there’s so much we don’t know we don’t even know what we don’t know. We don’t even know all the questions to ask. It’s normal to want to know more, be more, progress more, and learn all we can all the way to our last breath. Why then would someone want to stop learning?
The fact is we don’t stop learning. Life teaches us new bits of information every day. We learned as children that when the stove is hot, it burns, that if we cross the street on a green light, we have a better chance of staying alive, that George Washington was the first U.S. president, and the continents broke apart long ago.
In your work life, you may think you’ve stopped learning, but the knowledge train sneaks up and is always teaching. You learn, for example, that a sale was easier to make when you used a new closing line that claimed your company’s products are three times stronger than the competition, and that the CEO takes to lunch those whose shoes are shined. This is all learning. You never stopped. Maybe you stopped getting formally graded, but the grading continues. Now if you do work at the equivalent of an “F” grade, the consequences are bigger—you can get fired.
What if instead of denying that you’re a lifelong student and lifelong learner, you embraced it? What if you were eagerly lapping up knowledge as a dog laps water from a bowl? It makes you more interesting to be a curious knowledge-seeker. Instead of being the know-it-all, you would be the inquisitive person who asks questions and is never satisfied with the same information rolling around in your head.
When I decided to leave the dock and sail my own boat around the world, others told me I didn’t have enough knowledge for such an odyssey. I ignored them. With just my passion and an eagerness to learn, I went anyway and six years later I completed my circumnavigation. I learned boatloads of information about various subjects, and I absorbed wisdom from all of my experiences. I learned that you don’t have to be an expert to begin something, you can become the expert along the way.
There is power in admitting you don’t have all the answers. It may seem intellectually dangerous, but it’s really just the opposite. It’s empowering, and it signals confidence. It demonstrates you’re not afraid to acknowledge that you’re not an expert on everything. It leaves room for others to shine and share. It opens a space where conversation and discovery can happen, whereas filling that space with an answer often seals the doors and windows to deeper understanding. Your need to have an answer when one may not be required, can display insecurity rather than authority.
How do you become this lifelong student who yearns for knowledge and wisdom? Next time someone asks you a question and you don’t know the answer, don’t try to fake it. Answer with, “I don’t know, can you teach me?” That is the sign of a truly intelligent person, and one who is satisfied with your ego enough that saying you don’t know doesn’t make you feel vulnerable. Instead, you are eager, bright-eyed, curious, and engaging in conversation. Why don’t all people want to be lifelong learners? I don’t know, can you teach me?
* Originally published in The Quarterly Journal of the Life Planning Network, Volume VI, Issue 1