The Mighty Power of “I Don’t Know”

August 27, 2014 by Shawn Smith

“Hi. I’m looking for a Chicago screw,” I announced to the woman behind the counter at the hardware store.

A Chicago screw is essentially a large rivet, but it requires no rivet gun. You simply screw the two ends together. It’s also known as a sex bolt, though sex bolts are typically more robust.

But I digress.

I didn’t want her to think she was being propositioned, so I showed her the single remaining Chicago screw in my possession:


She proffered a cursory glance and seemed to recognize it as some sort of metallic fastener.

“You see that aisle with the ‘hardware’ sign?” she asked. “It’s full of things just like that.”

There arose in me a powerful urge to quarrel: I do not need something like this; I need this. Tenpenny nails and molly bolts are like this, but they are not this.

But I didn’t argue. Her bearing suggested that she didn’t know whether they carried the screw, and more importantly, nothing short of waterboarding would persuade her to admit it. I meandered amongst the drawers and bins for a while, queried a different employee who also provided a speculative non-answer, and eventually admitted defeat.

Elapsed time: ten minutes. A segment of my life that will never be refunded. Here’s how the conversation might have gone, had she been willing to say I don’t know:

Me: “Hi. I’m looking for a Chicago screw.”

Her: “Don’t make me call the police.”

Me: “No, no. It looks like this.”

Her: “Oh. Well, isn’t that an interesting device. I don’t know if we have that. Allow me to query our database…. Hmm… It does not appear to be in our inventory.”

Me: “Perhaps you could query ‘sex bolt.’”

Her: “Sir, you need to leave now.”

Elapsed time: 30 seconds. That’s the beauty of I don’t know.

Admitting ignorance feels risky. Maybe that starts in childhood, when we’re expected to have answers. I don’t know serves poorly on spelling tests and quadratic equations.

In adulthood, when stakes are higher, admitting ignorance can seem downright dangerous, as if others will exploit our vulnerability like hungry wolves. But in reality, few people rely on cruelty in their daily affairs, and few situations lend themselves to exploitation. Suppose the lady at the counter had admitted to an unfamiliarity with specialty fasteners. What’s the worst I could have done? Laugh at her? Demand that she be fired? That would have made me look rather foolish.

Embracing fallibility is nothing to fear. It is a source of power. As a life skill, it’s right up there with dressing well, networking, and keeping a good credit score. Here are a few reasons I love the phrase I don’t know.

1. I Don’t Know Opens the Door to Knowledge

There are three little words that magically transform I don’t know into the opportunity for new knowledge: Ill find out. Someone probably asked a young Albert Einstein how the universe worked, to which he undoubtedly replied: “I don’t know. I’ll find out.” Next thing you know, he invented the light bulb. I think.

The point is that Ill find out is a call to arms. It is a promise to seek and share information; a guarantee that the world is about to become less ambiguous. The mighty Ill find out cannot exist without the humble I don’t know.

2. I Don’t Know Shows Strength of Character

Human minds have a strange way of obtaining precisely what we don’t want. (I’ve written about that elsewhere.) Avoiding I don’t know might be the mind’s attempt at escaping vulnerability, and you can’t blame the mind for trying to protect us. But the mind is awfully short-sighted sometimes. False confidence eventually exposes ineptitude.

The short-sighted, overprotective mind doesn’t always understand that embracing fallibility shows strength rather than weakness. It shows the world that we are self-possessed enough to rise above insecurity, and resourceful enough to seek answers.

3. I Don’t Know Strengthens Relationships

Let’s say you’re shopping for your dream house. Something modest, with a discotheque and a submarine port. Which real-estate agent would you trust: the one who has a quick answer to every question, or the agent who sometimes says, “I don’t know. I’ll find out.”

Those words mean that your question is being taken seriously. It’s easy to be fooled by glib confidence, but humility is the true mark of trustworthiness.

4. I Don’t Know Prevents Harm

When he was a young man, George Washington wrote 110 rules of manners and civility. Among them: “In visiting the sick, do not presently play the physician if you be not knowing therein.” I take it to mean: don’t shoot your mouth off when you’re uninformed. You might hurt someone.

That lesson was drilled into me during years of clinical training. I finally became comfortable with I don’t know after a long series of supervisors chopped my pride into little bite-sized pieces.

Embracing fallibility can require some unlearning. It is an exercise in disobeying the urges of a protective mind. But I think that’s a small price to pay for the mighty power of I don’t know.