Sometimes I have a technical conversation with my son and I notice, “He doesn’t actually know what he’s talking about.” He struggles hard to say things he’s conjecturing on. It’s actually very easy to spot. And it’s not just with him: I think it’s easy to identify anyone in conversation when they don’t know the answer struggle to articulate answers they don’t actually know. Have you ever noticed this?
As a parent, it’s a great opportunity to help my son admit, “I don’t know.” It’s a brave thing to admit.
When I hear anyone say, “I don’t know,” it’s a huge trust builder! It becomes clear the other person had to admit that they’re limited. They are unable to answer. It is vulnerable. It is truth. It’s also an opportunity to connect: neither of us knows the answer to the question asked. It is hard to admit.
When I hear an engineer admit, “I don’t know,” I trust that person more. It specifically tells me that when he or she gives a direct answer, it means he or she does know it. I don’t have to second-guess their level of understanding as a listener.
I always want to know the answer to questions. There’s a part of me that feels incomplete with unknown answers. It is as I have a hole in my knowledge, and I take pride as an engineer knowing stuff. If I have a hole, I feel like an inadequate engineer, but that’s not real. It’s part of the journey.
The work of an engineer is not to know all the answers. Our work is to discover answers. It takes bravery to start this work.
In these moments I don’t know an answer is where learning begins. Curiosity is the activation-energy to learning. Curiosity is the right kind of response we can explore new answers and new ideas and understanding of how things work. These are also times when engineers can connect best: we discover an answer together.
Innovation is often a logical result of discovery: it might result in an amazing idea. We can be open enough to what we didn’t already know. We can take other kinds of experience we’ve had and apply them to a new concept we’re actively learning about.
As an engineer, the fewer answers we have solidified, the greater the opportunity we have for learning and innovation. I encourage you to bravely admit an answer you lack. Be ready to start the needed work of discovery.
What will you innovate next time you admit, “I don’t know?”