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.


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


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."



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.


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.


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!


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.

Enter your name...

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!



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


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.


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.


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."

Eric M. Jones

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.


Yeah, keep telling your kid to spend more time on video games. Tell him he doesn't need to eat his vegetables either. Cap'n Crunch tastes so much better and he'll probably end up dieing from something randomly genetic anyway.


To the teenager: consider approaching it from the other direction. Figure out what you hate and what you're good at. I was in law school without a specific passion but I quickly figured out which areas of law I hated (tax, divorce, family, criminal) and what areas I had a talent for (business, contracts, construction); I then narrowed my course selection and job search to where I could play to my strengths.

Now I'm working in house for a great construction company and I love it. Going into law school I didn't know a job like this was an option but had I gone with what most law students do I'd be a mediocre lawyer in a suit and tie in front of a judge representing someone I wouldn't want to be around.

So eliminate the bad and see what remains, good luck.

cosmic utensil

HUGE THANKS for not using your regular opening/closing theme music in the latest podcast!! Is it gone forever?

I have no idea why that little tune is so irritating to me...


Ask most teenagers anything consequential and you are likely to get an "I don't know." Maybe a part of the aversion adults have to saying it is not wanting to be thought of as immature.

A friend who lives in Indonesia says virtually nobody there will say "I don't know" when he asks a question (especially for directions) because they wish to be helpful. He says it's their cultural norm, even if they have no idea of the correct answer. It's better to be courteously helpful than right.

The conclusion I draw from these observations is that behavior is strongly dictated by conformity and it takes some self-knowledge and self-confidence to act independently.

Eric M. Jones.

Actually, instead of saying "I don't know..." say, "Sorry that's Top Secret" or words to that effect. Back that up with mysterious doings like an attache case with a handcuff on it, or a Secret Service earpiece, and you'll be good to go.

I heard of a CEO of a major medical device company who would disappear for days at a time and then "cover" his (inebriated?) absence by saying he had been on a secret CIA mission and he couldn't talk about it. He lasted quite a long time...considering.

robyn g

In science, we have this odd way of saying "I don't know" for certain, but have reason to think that it's possible. We leave the matter open. Thanks for reminding me of what I once said that I did not know (relative to what I did know then) and know now. sometimes, you can be so close to it, that you can't see it . Sorta like looking in the fridge for something that's right before your eyes or losing your keys in your pocket. I do it all the time.


As a former online gaming addict who nearly lost out on his grad school career due to the addiction, I can state pretty emphatically that the likely risks of video games are greater than the likely benefits.
Forget about the few jobs that arise from that career. Like we have learned about drug-dealing , the exceptions don't justify the far-more-likely outcomes.
I quit cold turkey over 10 years ago and I have been investing that time into friends, family, work, misc learning, and a mass of hobbies. I wish I would have been making these real-life investments instead of ones into video games.
With a continued gaming lifestyle, I also wouldn't have this great marketing job where I see people lie all day about knowing who their customers are and how to market to them. The few who admit not having a clue are a breath of fresh air. A lot of my job is figuring out whether clients want a confirmatory or exploratory style of analysis! I would rather do exploratory work because it means that the client admits that she doesn't know (and this means that the company is likely healthier and a better long-term partner).



I've found that the best people in my industry (software) must understand what they don't know. There's a big difference in what you tell your customer ("I don't know" is sometimes less appropriate than "let me find out") and what you tell yourself, your co-workers, and your bosses. In the film The Departed, the police captain tells his recruit something like: we deal in deception, not in self-deception. If you decieve yourself about what you don't know, you will certainly fail.