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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.