I’ve always found the phrase ‘You don’t know what you don’t know’ to be both reassuring and a bit of a cop out. Clearly there is inherent logic in its construction: it is not possible to know something that you don’t actually know. But it also conveys a sense of helplessness. A degree of ‘throwing-hands-up-in-the-air-ness’ and admitting defeat without even trying, which I find just plain annoying. And it would seem the law would agree with me; after all, ignorantia legis neminem excusat – “ignorance of the law excuses no one”. (Thank you to Mr Fenn and five years of Latin lessons for that little beauty.)
In the world of business today, this phrase has grown legs and you often come across the following mantra, particularly in learning and development circles:
“First, you don’t know what you don’t know.
Then, you know what you don’t know.
Finally, you know what you know.”
This little refrain is oft chanted at the start of a workshop or ‘group session’ to inspire confidence and self-belief in the cluster of nervous adults who are attempting to master a new skill. And to reassure them that it’s OK not to ‘know’ at the beginning, because at the end, They Will Know. There will be an end to their learning. It will be done.
And adults often need this extra dose of reassurance – and reminding of what it feels like to go on a ‘learning journey’ – because we can find learning new stuff (aka admitting that you don’t know something) worrying, challenging or, at worst, completely terrifying. Whereas for children, learning, and the feeling of uncomfortableness that goes with trying to understand something new, is as natural as walking around.
By the time we leave school, most of us are either confident that we know it all (our twenties), too tired and overwhelmed to know anything (our thirties), happy to know a few things well and that’s quite enough thank you (our forties) or comfortable with what we don’t know and happy to work with people who know far more than us (our fifties and beyond). But, irrespective of age, when we leave school many of us unknowingly believe we are done with learning. We know what we know.
These attitudes were vividly brought to life for me during a series of meetings in which each of the generations was present.
There was the breath-taking confidence and certainty of a twenty-something, which was both inspiring and terrifying… the poignant lack of self-belief of an extraordinarily talented thirty-something… the intense discomfort of a fairly knowledgeable forty-something considering, and then discounting, the idea of doing something in a different way, which was painful to watch (and to experience. Ahem.) And finally, the persistence of an enormously patient fifty-something, painstakingly repackaging their knowledge, experience and wisdom into bite-sized chunks for the benefit of those around them, only to be a little bit listened to. And a little bit ignored.
Sitting down with a glass of wine on Friday evening, playing back the week whilst attempting to referee a rather rowdy game of snakes and ladders, I was struck by a thought. Saying ‘I don’t know what I don’t know’ in mitigation for a total balls-up simply doesn’t withstand scrutiny when the person next you (real or metaphoric) probably has the answer. (Unless you’re trying to push the boundaries on statistical thermodynamics – in which case you’re probably on your own.)
But for most of us, we’ve probably all heard the pitter-patter of unwanted advice or suggested solutions to a problem, and firmly blocked it out. Either we’re confident that ‘our way is right’ or that ‘They don’t fully grasp the problem’. Or we believe that ‘we know what we know’ and close the door to learning.
My personal – and slightly uncomfortable – lesson in this regard was to try and explain a marketing concept ‘my way’, rather than follow the suggestions of my business partner. Whilst I think (hope) the client in question isn’t planning to jump ship, I did come away thinking ‘Bugger.’ And my second, conscience-easing thought was, ‘Oh well – that was my first solo client meeting – I guess don’t know what I don’t know’.
But bollocks to that. I did ‘know’. I had been given a very clear pointer that there was a way to run the meeting by an individual who had been conducting similar meetings for thirty years longer than my seven months. All I needed to have done was to truly listen and be open to learning. And maybe discard the chunk of my ego (and fear of being seen to be ‘unknowing’) that accidentally got in the way.
Learning once you’ve become a fully-fledged, lawn-mower-owning adult requires confidence, but not ego. Confidence to say you need to learn something new or do something that you’ve been doing for ten, twenty or even thirty years in a different, even better way. And you do need an absence of ego in order to take on board experience or advice that is being shared with you. There are no two ways about it – it takes a fair amount of resolve to be ‘comfortable with feeling uncomfortable’ whilst you learn. It’s not a particularly enjoyable place to be. It requires humility to say, ‘I don’t know how to do that’, to ask for help and then to listen, learn and make the changes.
And it seems ironic to me that, just as I’ve reached a point in my career where people are paying me for my advice… where I finally feel that I have useful – maybe even helpful – knowledge to impart, that it’s also never been more important for me to say, ‘I don’t know. Tell me how.’.