knowing what we don't know


I remember a conversation I had with a colleague that seemed to sum up our relationship. He was at the end of his career and was proud of what he had accomplished, the education he had earned, the service he had offered. He was concerned that in retirement this body of work, this wisdom of experience, this training he had accumulated, was all now to be wasted. He kept every shred of paper, filed it away carefully, all in the hopes someone would call on him for advice. My response was a surprise, even to me. The words I said just came out, no thought, and my colleague was as taken aback as I was.

I said, “I take the opposite tack, I really don’t think I know much of anything. Those who know me best, love me best, they know it’s the truth, I just don’t know very much of anything. This has been a great gift to me, it prevented me from being a know-it-all and it helped me to remain humble, even when flattery was being sent my way. The reality is I know a lot about a little, I know a lot about a very few things and next to nothing about everything else. It’s no secret. Therefore I keep next to nothing, I just continue to focus and develop those few skills I have, learn more and more about those few topics I understand, and if someone asks me about them, I will respond.”

I know what false modesty looks like, this is not it. I defer to those who know so much more than me, why pretend to know what they know, I just ask for assistance, guidance, advice and I get it. When these matters, my household repairs, food preparation, transportation needs, communications technology, are looked after it allows me the time to focus on what I am really interested in, what I am good at, what I can offer others. I am no generalist, I know what I like.

So often I run into people who are afraid to admit what they don’t know, they feel it is a shameful thing to admit ignorance or lack of understanding. They have this conceit that others will think less of them if they are not always showing what they know. This façade only diverts energy and resources from what we love to that which we feel we need to prove. People may marvel at my memory, what I recall from here or there, how I can entertain and teach on my feet without notes, but all of that is achieved on my end by leaving everything else to the advice of others. Really smart people can do what I do and be good at everything else. I am not that person. And knowing that limitation means humility remains my frequent friend.

Of course because I am odd there are people who will not ask my advice, even on those topics I really do understand. Being unique or even strange means people will discount my advice or perspective. I am used to this. But over time, in my groups I am part of, people who can look past the eccentricity will see I do have something to offer, even in a limited number of topics.

My colleague was speechless. He assumed and assumes you must impress others at all opportunities with your competency in everything, command the respect of your peers and above all demonstrate a professional certification that will result in continued engagement. I hope for his sake he is correct. But in my experience people want to trust that the one they ask knows something of the topic they are keen to understand. Knowing what I know, and more importantly, knowing what I do not know, has been one of the great insights I have learned.