I recently embarked on a quest to gather more insight about the customers my company serves. You’d think I was asking to book passage on the first commercial space flight. I expected responses like, “that’s great—how can I help you?” Instead I heard “every customer is unique, so talking to just a few won’t help you” and “it’s my job to understand the customer.” After being inundated with obstacles, I retreated, puzzled and weary.
After realizing I may (once again) have come on a bit strong, I decided to lay low and assess the situation. While observing myself and my colleagues in search of clues, I stumbled onto a realization. I already know that people resist what they fear. What I learned is it’s not the unknown that scares us. Instead, we hold back our opinions, resist exploration, and cling to threadbare assumptions because we’re afraid to say three little words.
I. Don’t. Know.
None of these little words is scary on its own. Even together, without context, the phrase seems small and relatively harmless. However, when laid on top of our insecurities, the letters grow in our minds to be challenge the Hollywood sign to a wrestling match. Somewhere along the way, we learned to equate knowing with power and not knowing with weakness. We spent more time memorizing flash cards than learning how to reason. Limited to the 52 minutes between bells, our daily lessons allowed us to reach only the most obvious conclusions. Saying “I don’t know” when called on by a stern teacher often was punished by humiliating trips to the black board or extra math homework.
The way I see it, having the courage to say “I don’t know” should be seen as the new brilliant. Instead of filling status reports with things we think we know, shouldn’t we list the things we finally realized we don’t know and are working to discover? This seems like an approach that would celebrate continuous learning, as opposed to the norm, which cements us in generalities. The trick is to follow the first set of three little words with another set, “I’ll find out.”
Unknowingly Yours—Franny Fried
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