002. The power of 'I don't know'

I like to interrogate words and phrases that feel like they’ve always been around. In the season I’m in, I find myself questioning everything that has been given to me: labels, language, expectation… to name a few. 

And the more I look, the more I see how contradictory some of the ‘rules’ are. Case in point: the word ‘know-it-all.’ 

Did you ever have the experience in school of being told not to be a know it all by a teacher, or accused of being a ‘know-it-all’ by your peers? In most cases, is that what us of yesteryear were expressing? And even if we were, we were proud of the stuff we knew! 

Maybe you knew someone who fit the actual know-it-all bill. Know all, being a person who behaves as if they know everything. I’ve certainly come across a few of them. But, as is the case with a lot of the language that finds its way into our mouths, minds and lives, the term in that way, was used somewhat carelessly. And many, me included, were enveloped in the raft of people who were made to feel like you could be smart, but not too smart. Dampen what you know down. Don’t know too much in case it makes others feel bad. And I understand it would have been difficult to try and keep balanced contribution from everyone in the class, with different abilities and ways of learning all stuffed in one room. But still… the message I received at school was don’t know too much. Or if you do, know it, but don’t show it. Keep it to yourself. Be humble. Don’t be a show-off. 

And yet, conversely, in my home culture, it was know everything. Be three times as good. Black excellence. Education, education, education. Success is the way you can bypass all the other prejudices around you. They may not like you, but they won’t be able to ignore all of those pieces of paper you hold. 

And then you get to adulthood, and after years of being a good student, you get told the syllabus has changed. And that now, instead of worrying about being a know-it-all, you cannot possibly seem like you don’t know everything. It’s like, whoa, whoa, whoa, what do you think you’re doing there? You can’t take an action, without a degree and expert status. Don’t even think about it. You will get caught out. 

In a world that first told us don’t be a know-it-all, now the last thing we'd dream of, a thing we greatly fear, is not knowing it all. And being seen doing so.

How many times has that exact thought stopped you from starting something, or bringing it to the fore?

In the last few years, I’ve learnt the power of yes, and the power of my no. But you know where else a tonne of power lies? In being able to say, ‘I don’t know.’ 

I'm not sure. 

In not having it figured out. 

I don’t know where I’ll be in a year.

How many podcasts will make up this season? I dunno.

I don’t know, I don’t know, I don’t know. 

Sometimes in my journal, I write about the things that I don’t know. It feels freeing to admit. 

And from freedom comes power.

But we don’t like the ‘I don’t know’. It’s the in-between place of no longer being where you once were, but not being in the new place either. Or knowing that you have a decision to make, but you’re in the in-between of knowing a change needs to come, but not knowing what it is.

We like destinations and landmarks. They feel like solid ground. Coordinates that we can point to so we can exclaim ‘I am here.’ 

There are so many spaces in adult life that have us feeling like we need to know what we’re doing next; where we’re going in life. To always seem assured. And you know? I’m not even sure that it’s for us. We like to give the perception to those around us that we know what we’re doing. Even if we don’t.

I know I’ve spent years doing that. Oh don’t worry, I know it might look like x, but this is the plan. Almost trying to prove something to myself by reassuring others, because why not add imposter syndrome into the mix while we’re at it?

As a reforming perfectionist planner that was a PA for a living, the ‘I don’t knows’ I’ve come up against in the last year and a half, have been terrifying.... and then freeing. I’ve realised how much I gripped onto plans and control, because they gave the pretence that the things flailing or failing in my life, were just floating along, going to plan. I looked for control in chaos, because it gave me the illusion of safety. 

But you know what would have actually made me feel safe? Feeling like I could just put my hands up and say, ‘I don’t know!’ 

I wonder if we just keep asking the question over and over again, where are you going with your life? What are you doing? Why have you set up this business? What will come of it? If we hope that maybe the answer will finally come to us purely out of duress. 

When you admit what you don’t know, you can do something about some of it. 

Firstly, you can take some of the pressure off, just by admitting that that is where you’re at right now.

I don’t know how to do x, but I can learn. 

I don’t know how to do y, but I can pay someone who does. 

I don’t know what will happen in three months, but I can tend to my nervous system and keep listening in, so that when something that feels like the next right thing does come, I’m able to hear it. 

There is power in your yes. 

There is power in your no. 

There is also power in your ‘I don’t know.’

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