Don’t Be Afraid of Saying “I Don’t Know”

a blue question mark on a pink background

No one can be an expert at everything.

It sounds obvious, but throughout my professional career, I’ve been blessed with the opportunity of working with dozens of individuals who actually did know everything. I mean, they never actually came out and said they knew everything, but I never heard them say they didn’t know everything, so I’m going to go out on a limb and assume that, at least in their own mind, they did actually know all things.

Let’s take a look at a few quick examples:


You all know this bro. He’s the bro that because of social status, or an inexplicable need to be right about everything will swallow a cyanide capsule before he admits that he doesn’t know something about something.

“Hey Chad (they’re almost always named Chad btw), what’s the capital of Kansas?”

“Easy, it’s Wichita”

“Nah, it’s actually Tope—” watches Chad walk in front of a bus to avoid hearing the truth

This is the type of know-it-all that’s tough to communicate with, but it’s not impossible. Because the majority of the the pride comes from somewhere internal, usually finding Chad in a quiet place and genuinely trying to help explain a concept that he doesn’t fully grasp is the best approach here.

Talking to Chad in front of a group is an exercise in futility.

Operating Out of Fear

This is one of those lame situations where someone works in an environment where saying “I don’t know” means you could be at risk of losing employment, or missing out on that next big promotion. This is a sad but very real scenario that I’ve encountered many times before.

The biggest bummer is that because of this fear, the employee either makes statements that aren’t true, or gets defensive, or endlessly argues a point that they really don’t have any business arguing.

“Hey Scott, can you submit a PR on Github for that change?”

“PFFFT Why do you even use Github?”

“Well, it’s the de facto standard for hosting git repositories and is used by the Enterprise and pretty much everyone”

“Alright, I guess I can do it that way after I get approval from my manager” sneaks back to desk and furiously begins googling git and pull requests

This one is really tricky to address. Things probably aren’t going to change unless the overbearing and threatening manager drastically changes things from the top down, and works toward creating an environment of learning instead of a career-long memorization contest.

My kids are pretty damn good at Memory, but I haven’t really ever considered spanking them for missing a match. Although that could make the game more interesting…

I’d do everything I can to steer clear of these types of associations. They’re toxic and rarely end well for anyone.

Complete Lack of Self-Awareness

This is the Mt. Rushmore of know-it-alls. These individuals actually lack the self-awareness to understand that they don’t know everything. They don’t have any external pressure to be right. They genuinely believe that their answer to every question is the correct one.

“Jake, the moon landing was real right?”

“Yeah, real like Donald Trump’s hair. What a stupid question.”

“But it’s really well documented and…”

“Let me stop you right there. I studied 4 semesters at Oxford Harvard Stanford Moon School about the moon landing. End of discussion.”


Jake is clearly a tool who is too busy patting himself on the back to listen to others and learn from them. In his mind, he is the gospel. His word is final, and trying to do anything to convince him otherwise is just a genuine waste of time.

Whenever I meet a Jake, I light a candle in his memory because it’s the last time I’ll ever talk to Jake again.

A Challenge

When you find yourself in a situation where you feel pressured to be right about something, or to give the impression that you know the answer even though you don’t have a clue, I’m going to challenge you to say seven easy words:

I don’t know, but I’ll find out

That’s it. It’s really that simple. So many times when you’re asked if you have the answer for something, it’s not because the person asking is expecting a google-like response. They’re simply hoping for some guidance. If you don’t have the answer, volunteer to seek out someone who does. That’s just as valuable to the person asking as having the perfect answer on the spot every single time.

If not having the answer in real time is going to cause problems with a client or boss, it’s probably time to reevaluate expectations there and do what you can to get things back under control.

How do you respond when you’re put in a situation where you’d like to have an answer but you don’t? Are you a Jake, a Scott, or a Chad? Or do you take the road less traveled and simply admit that you don’t know? That’s the coolest way to approach it, FYI.

Leave a Reply

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