More on Saying “I Don’t Know”

In our latest podcast, “Why Is ‘I Don’t Know’ So Hard to Say?,” Levitt talked about how it is practically forbidden in the business world to say that you don’t know the answer to a question, lest you be deemed incompetent or irrelevant.

That idea has generated some reader feedback that I thought was interesting enough to share. First, from Mike Wrubel, an office manager for a medical practice in Elkhart, Indiana:

I would generally agree with the notion that people in business are very much inclined to not say “I don’t know.”  I have worked in the same hospital for 20 years, and while I am very comfortable saying it, not everyone else is.  I think people fear being perceived by others as they are not paying attention to their work, or being seen as incompetent, or that it’s their job to “know.”  I feel that by being honest, I’m more grounded in my decision-making.  I’m more likely to operate on what are known points of data, and will seek out that information that I need to know in order to make a better decision, and my staff and superiors know exactly where I’m at because they don’t have to guess if I’m being honest or stretching things.  I think there’s a real danger that a culture can develop where people feel the need to guess at, or worse, totally confabulate an answer just to avoid the perceived impacts of saying “I don’t know.”  I’m lucky enough to work in an organization where saying “I don’t know” is okay, as long as you’re able to also say, “I’m willing to do my best to find out those answers.”

A reader named Justin Landis, a project manager at PlayXpert Consulting, sent along an interesting blog post he wrote in response to the podcast. A highlight:

[T]hose of us who live in the business world are certainly incentivized to focus on what we know over what we don’t know.  And whether we’re talking about closing a deal with an important client or simply competing with peers for a limited number of positions in a given field, this holds true.  By highlighting what we know and tactfully hiding what we don’t, we present the illusion of mastery, and this is thought to (and generally does) inspire confidence in our ability to execute. The incentive here is clear, and the results are pretty clear as well, at least in my experience.  The unintended consequence is that while we’re all focusing on what we know and making sure others are aware of those things, there is still a lot that we don’t know.  In some cases, we may not even really know what we don’t know.  And this is the most dangerous place to be in.

And Kendon Luscher, managing editor of (“a blog about life, the universe, and basketball”) challenged Levitt’s career advice to a teenager who hasn’t yet found a passion in life other than videogames:

I think you guys perhaps missed something when responding to the kid who didn’t know what he wanted to do with his life. I was completely with you until you told him to stop spending time playing videogames (the only thing he is passionate about) and start doing other stuff because he won’t make a six-figure salary playing videogames.

A few points about that:

  1. People do make a lot of money playing videogames competitively — although I can understand why nobody would want to encourage that. It is unlikely something like that would actually pan out for the kid.
  2. More realistically, maybe the kid could use his passion for playing videogames and turn it into something else. He could be a videogame developer. He could figure out a position at a large videogame company (these are corporations after all) that he would maybe be interested in. He could be a videogame journalist.  Some of these jobs are six figure salaries and some aren’t, but they all take the passion of playing videogames and turn them into something useful.
  3. Some people are happy working their dream job without making six figures. It’s a little offensive to those of us who are poor to imply that a job that doesn’t make a lot of money isn’t worthwhile. I assume that wasn’t your intention, but that’s how it came off.

You should have suggested that this kid should consider these job options within the area of his current passion. If none of these sound interesting to him, then your original advice becomes the best advice. However, it isn’t cool to automatically state that an interest something like videogames will never yield any kind of success. That could be like telling fourteen year old Lebron James to stop playing basketball because it is only a game and he should focus on something more meaningful. Sometimes the games of our youth become our careers.

Good stuff all, many thanks for feedback.

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  1. frankenduf says:

    ok, more specific- stop playing that game where u have to shoot all the trolls up to level 17 and it takes 2,500 hours to memorize and solve the labyrinthine floorplans of all those damn castles

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  2. John says:

    Steven Levitt hit the nail on the head when he said that “not saying I don’t know” being the most destructive thing in business.

    My last company was going through a major transition into a new production facility that was supposed to completely transform the company. The entire company fell apart because upper management failed to say “I don’t know” when they took on the project. None of them had any experience in a project of that enormity yet they never copped to it.

    Things started falling apart from the beginning as lines were started up incorrectly and with tons of mechanical failures. None of the employees were trained properly on the new equipment when it was the equivalent to putting your 950year-old grandmother in front of a NASA control station and ordering her to launch a shuttle.

    Not only were there errors in the execution of the project, but financials were completely messed up due to the lack of experience such that costs came in way over than projected. Projected savings never manifested; and quickly the budget was broken 2 months into an 8 month project.

    The company never recovered and eventually fell apart. 4 years before it’s 100th anniversary. All because no one out of 20 people said “I don’t know.”

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    • Ulysses says:

      Enormity doesn’t have anything to do with size and physical scale. It refers to something greatly up on the scale of immorality, evil, etc.

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      • Goatherd says:

        I have heard this claim several times before, and would suggest that the specialized meaning you ascribe to “enormity” no longer fits how people are using this word, as 75% of the time people mean “enormousness.” Maybe we are getting a bit pedantic if we insist otherwise.

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  3. Getu says:

    Know that you don’t know. Then at least you know that you don’t know! If you don’t even know that you don’t know, then you don’t even know that you don’t know!

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    • Tony says:

      Exactly. I actually had this exact conversation with an ER doctor yesterday at our hospital. The best doctors I know, most successful are ones who know what they don’t know. Most doctors are scared to say they don’t know. This is a error on how we were trained and what expectations are from the public and patients. This is dangerous though for the patient. I used the phrase with the ER doctor similar to what you posted -If you don’t know what you don’t know then you don’t know.

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      • Enter your name... says:

        It’s often very frustrating to the patients to hear “I don’t know”.

        What caused that sudden, horrible pain that left you gasping for hours and wondering whether it was better to die in your bed than to endure the jostling necessary to get you to the emergency room? Well, there were four options, and we ruled out each of them. It’s gone away on its own, and it hasn’t come back.

        So what caused the pain? Nobody knows. Nobody will ever know.

        What can I do to prevent it from returning? Nobody knows. Probably nobody will ever know.

        Nobody wants to hear that.

        Most patients would honestly rather hear some vague stuff about “occult inflammation” or illogical claims that “we ruled out X but it was probably X anyway”, along with some reassurance that it’s unlikely to happen again than to be told the plain unvarnished truth. Heck, when it happens to them, most physicians would prefer this reassuring speech, even though they know better!

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  4. Laura says:

    Makes me think of this, which is prominently displayed in my office at work.

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  5. James says:

    Further advice to the videogame-playing teen: first, realize that there is more to life than videogames – or basketball, or whatever it is that you may be passionate about. It’s unlikely that your passion of today will be a passion ten or twenty years from now, simply because you’re likely to burn out on it. (Do you suppose your Lebron James is still passionate about basketball, or has it turned into just another – albeit exceptionally well-paid – job?) So find a variety of things you can do, at least one of which will with any luck allow you to earn a decent income, and then you can indulge your future passions in relative security.

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  6. DC says:

    I’d add to that last point about videogames. I played quite a bit of videogames until college, and I took computer science courses, intending to be a video game programmer. In college, I gradually lost interest in video games. However, I still studied computer science and here I am now, happy as a programmer in Silicon Valley. I doubt this would have happened were I not so into video games as a child – I’d probably have studied something impractical and boring in college, like economics.

    The point is, sometimes keeping up with your passions lead you to happen ends, even when they’re not the passions themselves.

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  7. Des says:

    One reason saying “I don’t know” is frowned upon is that it is sounds like simply giving up. Rather than say, “I don’t know” and leave it at that, it is more acceptable to say “Well, here is what we do know. If that isn’t enough information to base a decision on, then this is what we need to do to get the information we’re missing…” That is much more productive than simply saying “I don’t know.”

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  8. Eric M. Jones says:

    1) Saying “I don’t know” takes courage, but it is the honest thing to do. So don’t be wishy-washy about it…say it loud, say it proud.

    2) Many people think they have to answer every question put to them. This is our serf heritage. If someone asks you a question you’d rather not answer, say so.

    3) Observe how some people respond to the word “No” and try not to say it. There are many artful ways of steering around it. You learned to say “no” when you were three. Stop saying it.

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