“I don’t know.”
Why can so many of us not say it?
I admit it, this one is far from a fresh idea. Four-thousand four-hundred and twenty years ago, Plato recorded his mentor, the philosopher, Socrates, as having said, “That what I do not know, I do not think I know either.”
The issue is, in the last two and a half millennia, this concept still seems to elude most of us. There’s a deep shame in not knowing. We live in a time in which information is readily available, be it in our libraries, on the internet, or in a classroom. Each of us has access to a complete education.
Not knowing something can seem like a personal failure. Why, for example, haven’t you memorized the varieties of Italian cheese, or learned about hydroelectric dams?
That sense of failure could not be further from the truth. It’s because so much information is out there, that every one of us has the greatest opportunity to learn of anyone in history.
If you’re reading this, and I don’t only mean to flatter you for reading my article, you’re someone who values learning. You have knowledge to offer others. By learning to say “I don’t know,” you can be part of a culture of learning. You can be part of an exchange that will make you and everyone you meet more realized versions of yourselves.
How to Know Nothing
So that subheader might be a little misleading… I know that you know about many things already. The question I would pose to you is, how many things have you stopped learning about?
We pride ourselves on a sense of expertise in our jobs and hobbies. The problem is, how often does that become a reason to stop learning about the things that matter the most to us? The practice of approaching something familiar with fresh eyes may not be new. Many of us take a break from work and come back and realize it was exactly the inspiration we need to do our best.
So why not apply that concept in other ways? When was the last time you stepped back to look at something you care about from another perspective? This doesn’t only apply to knowledge. It can be realizing you haven’t noticed something that changed in your friend or your partner. It can be seeing a beautiful flower bloom that you never noticed because you pass by it every day.
The practice of not knowing will lead you to a fuller life. Not knowing is the key to learning.
About the Shame
I know that last section seems very simple. Taking a fresh look at the things around you is something you can address within yourself. This, however, is rarely the part of not knowing that each of us struggles with.
The hard part is when you don’t know something in front of someone else. Our culture has placed encyclopedic knowledge on a pedestal. I’m as guilty as anyone of wanting to know as much as possible, all of the time.
I opened this piece with a quote from Plato. Knowing things feels great. Knowing things in front of others feels even better. It might be poor form to pull back the curtain in this way, but I chose to open with the quote because it’s the way so many of us display our knowledge.
The truth is though, that isn’t my knowledge. When I went to school, I had seven professors teach me about Plato and Socrates. When I was considering what to write for this piece, I talked with a dear friend because I lacked direction. I’m happy to be writing this now, but the article wouldn’t exist if many times over I hadn’t chosen to say, “I don’t know.”
Not knowing is the practice that leads us to the best version of ourselves. Not knowing is the reason we can know anything at all.
Starting again can feel freeing or punishing. In this case, it might be both. It may sting to admit ignorance at first. Every time you do though, you open yourself up to knowing things you may never have had the chance to otherwise. This is the reward of not knowing. Every time you say “I don’t know,” you have an opportunity.
This last year has been a time of turmoil, and for many of us, we’re entering a time in which we have an opportunity to be better versions of ourselves than ever before. I’m asking you to try it one time. Say “I don’t know.” When you do, I hope you find that your life is fuller. That you end your days with more to think about. That your conversations are brighter and livelier.
As someone who knows nothing, I wish you luck in your journey to not knowing.