Admitting Ignorance

I’m a podcast junkie. I started with health and fitness podcasts but quickly expanded my library to include a wide range of shows. I listen while I drive, while I exercise, and sometimes while I cook or do chores. I still can’t make the leap into audiobooks, but I have very much enjoyed the opportunities to learn while engaged in other tasks.

This week I listened to an episode of the Freakonomics Radio Podcast. Many of you are likely familiar with the book Freakonomics and its authors Steven D. Levitt & Stephen J. Dubner. The podcast is billed as “telling stories about cheating schoolteachers and eating champions while teaching us all to think a bit more creatively, rationally, and productively.” I like this podcast because each episode is on a wildly different topic, is short, and is never boring.

The episode I linked to above is titled “The Three Hardest Words in the English Language”, and this concept is explored in more detail in their newly published book Think Like a Freak. It took a while to get to what the words were. I’ll spare you that agony here, they are: I Don’t Know.

As soon as I heard that it was like lightning going off in my brain. I immediately resonated with this because it’s something I struggled with mightily in my first few jobs after college. The podcast discussed the implications of this in children and in the business world, but I think it’s a cultural phenomenon that affects all of us. It’s incredibly scary to admit that you don’t know something, and it can be a blow to your ego.

In my first few jobs I would get confronted with situations where I knew I might have been trained on how to handle them, but couldn’t remember the preferred method or procedure. Instead of asking for help, my instinct was to act like I knew and wing it. Fortunately this worked in a majority of cases, but there were a few times where my work suffered and I had to admit later that I wasn’t confident in that task. I’ve found that it’s much more comfortable to admit your lack of knowledge at the start, get assistance, and move on.

When I started my first library job I committed myself to this principle, and had far fewer moments where I felt out of my depth. Saying “I Don’t Know” is crucial to receiving feedback and ultimately growing as a person or professional. Recognizing and reflecting on moments where we say “I Don’t Know” is a practice that can help us to recognize patterns in our work and to discern areas of potential improvement in our skill sets. These moments have become sparser as I move past one year of service in my current position, but I have learned to appreciate them when they come.

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3 thoughts on “Admitting Ignorance

  1. Out of curiosity, what other podcasts do you listen to? I’m also a junkie, but have been listening to the same shows for years now: This American Life, All Songs Considered, Back to Work, Roderick on the Line, Radiolab… recently added Welcome to Nightvale and The Smartest Man in the World.

    • Good Job Brain is a must – four friends who do pub trivia and work in the tech industry. Each episode has a theme and they have quizzes and information about all sorts of interesting things. I also like Oh No Ross & Carrie, The Moth, NPR: TED Radio Hour, NPR: Snap Judgement, NPR: Planet Money, On Being, Beyond the To Do List and a bunch of running/health/food podcasts too.

      • We listen to some of the same podcasts (which doesn’t surprise me at all!) but I hadn’t heard of Good Job Brain before, so thanks for that one. I’d describe myself as a podcast junkie as well. And here in the UK, we have ad-free radio in the form of the BBC (which incidentally you can also listen to for free on any platform in America). Two stations specialise in the kind of stuff you can listen to on NPR: BBC Radio 4 and the BBC World Service. There’s also some fantastic food for thought in the evenings on BBC Radio 3.

        And I’m totally in agreement about the three hardest words! Until my last job I found it impossible to say I don’t know for exactly the same reasons you’ve outlined above, but when I started my current job, I decided I would get into the habit from the beginning of simply admitting I didn’t know something. I figured if I’d been hired for the job in the first place, they had done so for a good reason. As long as I worked hard and showed a willingness to learn, then it shouldn’t really matter if I displayed ignorance about certain/several things. But now that it’s been a topic on the Freak’s podcast, I feel somewhat reassured by my continued internal concerns about it! Thanks for the post (again).

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