You’ve finished your presentation. You’ve done it. All that prep. All that worry. Worth it.
You’ve convinced (…fooled) the audience that you are all-knowing. You are omniscient, untouchable… deluded.
But then… Someone asks you a question you didn’t prepare for. Do they hate you? What did you do to deserve this? You couldn’t possibly say ‘I don’t know’; your reputation will be shattered to nothing… But should it be?
Is not knowing an obstacle to progress or is it rather an opportunity to progress differently? How we approach not knowing, seems to boil down to a battle between two emotions: fear and wonder:
‘I think, therefore I am’, coined by French philosopher René Descartes (1637), highlights that to exist meaningfully, you must be able to think and to know. Within the world of work this has been mutated by organisational and societal complexity, creating an inherent and non-sensical expectation: The inability to answer questions immediately, indicates an inability to know. Experience seems to have driven us to a point of inflexibility: where knowledge is fixed and quantifiable. You either know it or you don’t. If you don’t, then you are a failure.
Children regularly learn, unlearn and adapt. There is power in their infancy which becomes limited by experience. So much so that not knowing something as an adult belittles us. All our accumulated experience and knowledge becomes effectively useless in dealing with what is in front of us, and in order to overcome this new challenge we should start again and adapt. We should unlearn.
But unlearning is unnatural because it feels like a step backwards, and first requires us to admit failure: which is scary. After all, surely our question-asker wants to hear something progressive and motivational, not ‘I don’t know’.
But… what if we were to add YET onto the end of ‘I don’t know’?
Carol Dweck’s work on Growth mindsets highlights the attitudes of students to not knowing. Dr Dweck (2017) reveals that simply concluding a negative statement with YET, i.e. “I can’t do maths… YET”, develops thinking from a fixed state towards a motivational springboard to growth. Without this initial acceptance of failure – that your current understanding isn’t quite going to cut it – there can be no openness to new ways of thinking. Wonder is the passion that accompanies not knowing and failure is something we must first acknowledge in order to adapt.
However, is this process of unlearning something we must go through alone? What about the question-asker? Do they want a fixed response to their fixed question? Or are they truly open to the idea of unlearning and co-production?
As an external consultant to clients, I often experience an expectation (both in myself and from the client) that I should anticipate all questions prior to our meeting, and consequently have all answers in my back pocket upon arrival. Otherwise, what value do I add? Given that consulting is new to me (having worked for Veldhoen + Company for just over 1 month) and that I may be considered inexperienced at the age of 23, this expectation weighs heavily on my mind as knowing fixed answers feels essential to be taken seriously.
But (and perhaps supported by my inexperience) I quickly realised that not limiting myself to pre-prepared, fixed answers, empowered me to say to clients that occasionally ‘I do not know the answer… YET’. I would much prefer to encourage authentic co-production with the client: enabling us to adapt, unlearn and innovate together. This is thinking driven by wonder.
The alternative (and so commonly the standard in consulting) would be to shoe-horn a pre-existing – ‘here’s one we made earlier’ – solution which is not bespoke, adaptable or up to the challenge ahead. This is thinking driven by fear.
Just like Jon Snow: at one point in our lives we all ‘know nothing’. We should embrace wonder, not fear, when confronted with not knowing. After all, how else can we adapt and innovate without first admitting that there is more to know?