I don’t know

Sometimes I wonder whether it wouldn’t be better if a leader came along who said “I don’t know” when asked what he would do if inflation were to go through the roof. I would be sorely tempted to give him my first preference.

The Greek philosopher Socrates once said, “Knowing what you don’t know is the beginning of wisdom” and, as my philosophy teacher used to tell me time-and-time again, if anyone knows, Socrates does.

Being ‘caught out’ not knowing something bugs most of us.  For we are conditioned to feel like we must provide quick, confident answers as a sign of competence. But how often do we become so wrapped up in the idea that ‘knowing’ is the ideal, that we trade accuracy, authenticity, and perhaps happiness for it?

Take any pronouncement made by either of our two main political leaders.  It may be about the drop in the rate of growth of GDP, or the change in the at-risk-of-poverty rate, or the question of making femicide a special crime.  No sooner are they reported as having said something about any of these matters that thousands of people flock to Facebook to comment about them and answer each other as if they are Noble Prize laureates in economics or experts in crime.

Of course, and with due respect to all, most of them simply have no idea what GDP is, let alone that a drop in the rate of GDP growth is not a drop in GDP itself.  I confidently assert that, at least 70 percent of the people writing about the share of the total population which is at risk of povert simply have no idea what it is, how it is calculated, and that a drop in the rate does not mean that the number of poor people around has declined.  Nor would they know the intricacies of criminology and the human or gender rights involved in legislating about femicide.

The know-it-all

Most of us have dealt with a proverbial armchair critic – the know-it-all who is convinced (s)he’s the smartest person in the room, hogs airtime on radio or TV stations, and has no qualms about interrupting others. (S)he gleefully informs you of what’s right, even if (s)he’s clearly wrong, lacking information, or fails to understand the nuances of a situation.  If you think that of me, don’t tell the editor – do send me a private message.

How does one recognise a know-it-all?  (S)he could tick a couple of the following features, or all of them, if (s)he is the ultimate bullshitter: (s)he usually monopolises conversations, refusing to be interrupted and talking over others; does not listen to, or heed, criticism or feedback; speaks in a condescending tone; explains things that others already understand; rarely asks questions or displays curiosity; and steals or doesn’t share credit for group successes.

We are often hesitant to admit we don’t know something. Rather than saying, “I don’t know,” we often give an answer, thinking that whoever is listening will think less of us if we don’t know.  That fear forces answers that sometimes need more thought or research. The reality is that saying, “I don’t know” or “I need a little time to think it through” will make people respect you even more.

The truth is, we can’t have all the answers. After all, we are just human beings, the world is a very big place, and most problems are very complex and nuanced. No matter how knowledgeable we are, we simply cannot know everything. And we shouldn’t pretend to. Plus, in many cases, people aren’t expecting an immediate answer. This is pressure we put on ourselves.

I speak from experience. I learned the power of “I don’t know” from my economics tutor at university.  At the time, I was scared to look stupid.  So, when he once asked me what effect the labour market slack in the economy was having on NAIRU (the non-accelerating inflation rate of unemployment), I talked for a long time about nothing. Then he told me, “Mr Camilleri, wouldn’t it have been better if you had said, ‘I don’t know’?” .

This was an aha moment for me. I decided to try it out. Soon after, I was at a tutorial with my philosophy lecturer, and he asked me whether it would be right if I stole a bottle of medicine from a pharmacy if I was told that it would save a poor man from dying.  “I don’t know,” I replied.  And that’s how I got to learn about Immanuel Kant’s “Thou shall not steal” categorical imperative.

Asking, researching, learning

Mentioning Socrates again, one of the things he was well known for was asking questions. He used to ask so many questions that he often frustrated or even angered the people he was interacting with.  He was always learning what other people thought. He was observing how the world worked. He was hungry for knowledge, though knowledge does not fall in out lap – we have to work for it and we have to be hungry and driven to get it. So, when I write an opinion about something which you will read in six to eight minutes, I would spend something like four hours researching the subject or talking to an expert.  Not boasting –  simply pointing out that, “smart people learn from everything and everyone, average people from their experiences, stupid people already have all the answers” (Socrates again).

Of course, the most successful people in the world are those who are able to set a vision and direction, get others to buy into this vision and mobilise them to produce the change required to achieve this vision. None of this requires having all the answers. Yet, many people’s idea of a leader involves someone who has foresight and insight ─ someone who is able to see what others don’t. This can often translate to never saying “I don’t know”.

Being surrounded by uncertainty can take its toll.  But if we just accept that we don’t actually know everything, the pressure that comes with that will ease off. This “I don’t know” mindset is not something that I just dreamt up.  Many wellness experts, spiritual leaders, and high-achieving CEOs practise this way of thinking and do not waste time trying to cobble together answers they don’t really have. 

The beauty of not knowing

The late Buddhist teacher Zen Master Seung Sahn once said, “I do not teach Buddhism. I only teach ‘don’t know’.”  The beauty of not knowing arises when we understand that reality is unknowable as a complete picture. First, because it’s always changing, and second, we are limited in our perspective in terms of space and time.

Here’s the thing: we actually don’t know much.  Sure, we know that 2 + 2 = 4, that water freezes at 0°C. We might know how to drive a car or speak French or play the drums. We might even know that Kathmandu is the capital of Nepal. But that’s just the surface of things. Dig down deep enough and it turns out that we know rather little.  After all, it is estimated that all the world’s information would need 295 exabytes (that’s equivalent to 1.2 billion average hard drives) of computer space.  Consider that, if we were to take all that information and store it in books, we could cover the entire area of the USA and China in 13 layers of books!  I don’t wish to scare you, but an average person would need 25.5 million years to consume all that information.

Yes, we need conventional knowledge to function. We need to know things so we can build houses, set tax rates, wash dishes, and stop polluting the earth. But we get trapped in this knowledge. We think that’s the whole of it. We think we know how to make Malta the best in Europe!  We think we know exactly what the government should do to get us the best economic growth in Europe without a single foreign worker!  We know how to eliminate poverty!  We know what everyone should do to stop polluting the earth!

Now it’s even worse, because information has become so cheap and easy to access – just Google it.  Yet, being able to synthesise this data to make a robust decision – that is a much rarer skill. This desire to “know all” is particularly strong in areas we consider to be our expertise and where we find it hard to admit not knowing something. Sure, knowledge isimportant. But overestimating the importance of having all the answers (or the belief that you already possess them) can quiet your curiosity to explore all the facets of a topic with a fresh, learning-focused mindset.

How I wish people would listen to what Shakespeare famously wrote, “The fool doth think he is wise, but the wise man knows himself to be a fool”.   Can’t they accept that they do not have all the right answers, that they don’t know enough, that they need help to figure things out, that a good dose of humility would do wonders?

Sometimes I wonder whether it wouldn’t be better if a leader came along who said “I don’t know” when asked what he would do if inflation were to go through the roof.  I would be sorely tempted to give him my first preference.

Main image: 3D reconstruction of the face of Socrates (Robert Kubus, 3D Character Artist)

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