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I Don’t Know

Once upon a time (back in 2006) I had my first full-time job post-Masters Degree. I didn’t get paid a lot but I did take away (at least) one gem that has paid me many times over since then. Here it is:

When you don’t know something, say “I don’t know.”

Amazing, huh?

This very simple, but not necessarily easy to follow, piece of advice was essential to my job of being a trainer (as in, on-the-job training, not personal training) as I was in front of a classroom full of people on many days.

The temptation to give some kind of answer — any kind of answer — to people who asked a question you didn’t know the answer to was high. But one of the more experienced trainers always used to tell us to just say “I don’t know. I’ll find out and get back to you” or something to that effect, because the alternative usually didn’t lead to anything good.

If upon being asked a question you didn’t know the answer to, you were compelled to give a bullshit answer just to make it look like you knew what you were talking about, people inevitably knew that they were being lied to. Always. Every time. And it would affect your classroom management.

Trying to make it seem like you knew everything would always backfire. It was much easier (if not a little humbling) to just say “I don’t know.” The funny thing was that people tended to respect that answer. Probably because you were simply being straightforward with them.

Not everything is knowable. Not everything is knowable right now. Many times “I don’t know” is the most truthful answer we have even if it’s not the one we want to hear.

In a classroom full of irritable trainees it might have gone over pretty well, but sometimes “I don’t know” just doesn’t seem to cut it in our personal lives, in our communities or in our respective cultures.

But oftentimes, it’s the only true answer we have.

Published inPersonal Growth


  1. I made a point of making sure I say, “I don’t know,” or some variation on that during college sometime, when i don’t know, and it has served me well. I also have found that it is sometimes a necessary phrase when there are many children in one’s family…

  2. Amanda Linehan Amanda Linehan

    Hi Ty – I agree. It’s definitely a phrase that has served me well too.

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