How To Admit When You Don’t Know Something

Megan Holstein

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Knowing how to admit when you don’t know is the first step to becoming successful. After all, if you knew how to be successful, you already would be. Despite that, knowing how to admit when you don’t know something is a skill most people don’t have.

Based on what I know of biology, our collective inability to admit when we don’t know something probably evolved as a survival reflex. In the wild, humans had to come to quick conclusions about the world and stick to what they learned. When ancient humans watched their friend get eaten by a tiger in a bush, people didn’t wonder if behind every rustling bush is a tiger; they stopped fucking around with rustling bushes. Anyone who questioned that assumption died.

Modernity makes very different demands of us. The rustling bush is now an irate boss. The weather turning sour is now a stock market dip. Running from a tiger keeps you alive, but running from knowledge of stock market dips makes things worse. Nevertheless, our instincts tell us to run.

Standing tall and admitting when you don’t know something is to act in direct defiance of these ancient instincts. To learn how to admit when you don’t know something is to learn how to defy your instincts.

The two components of learning to rewire that neural circuitry are this:

  1. Learning how to recognize when you don’t know something.
  2. Learning how to have the courage to admit it.

Learn to Recognize When You Don’t Know Something

We think we know a lot about the world, but we don’t really. The majority of us know very little about the world. We operate on assumptions that we have been given by other people.

For most things, this is appropriate. Having never been to Paris, I am technically operating on the assumption that Paris exists because everything I do know indicates it does. I don’t actually know whether Paris exists. But if I operate on the assumption Paris exists, I’ll do just fine.

However, our tendency to rely on what others tell us to be true can get us into trouble.

For instance:

Let’s consider a common misconception between people who like to weightlift; the misconception that soy makes you produce less testosterone.

The theory goes like this: Soy has estrogen in it and that when men have too much estrogen, their testosterone drops and causes them to build less muscle. This, of course, is bad, so if you’re a serious fitness enthusiast you better cut out that darn soy. There’s a nationwide epidemic of testosterone deficiency because of the soy in everything these days. (Women have no such problem because testosterone is the male hormone, not the female hormone, and can have all the soy they want). If you’ve never heard of the term ‘soy boy,’ you now know what it means.

Except… it’s complete garbage. Here’s the truth:

  • Testosterone is fourteen times more potent than estrogen, so even the most beefed up male has less testosterone than he does estrogen in his body.
  • Estrogen inhibits the absorption of testosterone. As there is more estrogen in the body, less testosterone is absorbed.
  • Hormones are not male and female. Females have testosterone and males have estrogen. The different sexes certainly have different balances of these hormones, but no healthy male has an absence of estrogen. And by the same token, no healthy woman has an absence of testosterone. Testosterone is an important hormone that regulates sexual drive in both men and women. (Birth control reduces the sexual drive of women precisely because it reduces the testosterone available in the body).
  • Testosterone deficiency is indeed a nationwide problem, for both sexes. Men and women both are suffering from testosterone shortages…
  • …because of the obesity epidemic. Fat cells produce estrogen but not testosterone. For each pound of weight, a human body is producing more estrogen molecules per testosterone, making the testosterone that’s there less effective.

Soy has been shown to alter levels of available testosterone in the body, is true. However, the consequences of consuming soy are negligible compared to the consequences of being overweight and sedentary. If you are an adult of either sex looking to have more energy and libido, don’t waste your time trying to cut out soy. Lose the weight instead*.

How do people come by misconceptions like this?

A few ways:

  • They heard it from a friend they like and consider smart.
  • They read it on an internet blog.
  • They saw it on the weightlifting inspo Instagram accounts they follow
  • They heard it on a weightlifting podcast.

Notice that none of those are a thorough researching of the facts. They don't even research at all. Someone delivered a conclusion to their digital doorstep, and they accepted it without question.

How many of our beliefs are like this?

How many things do we believe purely because we read it in an Internet article, heard it on a podcast, or were told by a friend?

How can you tell if something you believe is based on solid ground?

The ability to test how well founded your own beliefs are is the backbone of critical thinking skills. The critical thinking skill is the skill of being able to look at all the facts you know and cross-examine them to see if they are sufficient to come to a conclusion about a situation.

With critical thinking skills, people can hear a variety of facts and stitch them together to form a cohesive picture. Without critical thinking skills, people are at the mercy of whatever people tell them and whoever tells them the most persuasively.

The core of critical thinking skills is asking questions of your beliefs.

  1. Why did I come to believe this?
  2. Who (or what) converted me to this way of thinking?
  3. What are some alternative positions I could take? Why am I not taking them instead?

Case Study: American Politics

Most political ‘facts’ are assumed knowledge of this sort. A pundit says something via podcast, YouTube video, internet article or another medium, providing no citation for any stated facts and not qualifying any assertions. Nevertheless, their audience swallows what they say whole*.

This affects you, even if you think it doesn’t.

Allow me to demonstrate. Since most of my readers are Democrats, let us imagine that you are a Democrat who believes Reaganomics doesn’t work. If you don’t believe Reagonomics works, please answer the following questions:

  1. What is Reagonomics, in three sentences? (Bonus points if you can name the four pillars of Reagonomics).
  2. Please explain why, or how, Reagonomics doesn’t work.
  3. Cite three economic statistics which prove that Reagonomics doesn’t work.

If you can’t answer these three questions, especially number #2, there’s a strong chance your belief Reagonomics doesn’t work is one of those beliefs you inherited from others.

If you don’t like that I’m picking on Democrats, here’s an alternative example picking on Republicans. Republicans generally favor the building of a wall along the Mexican border to reduce illegal immigration.

If you are a Republican who is in favor of building the wall, answer the following questions:

  1. What are the other proposals on the table for controlling illegal immigration? In other words, what are the nation’s other options?
  2. Why did Trump select the wall over these other options?
  3. What is the projected cost of the wall?
  4. By how much is the wall projected to reduce illegal immigration?

Again, if you can’t answer these questions, you don’t actually know whether the border wall is a good idea. All you know is that someone told you it is.

I know next to nothing about both Reagonomics and border wall legislation. Like you, dear reader, I cannot even hazard a guess to the answers to these questions, let alone answer them in a way that would make a professor proud. But thanks to critical thinking skills, we now know we don’t know.

Learn To Admit When You Don’t Know Something

A curious thing happens when a bunch of people huddle around a bar table — they all become experts. One person mentions the recent football game that Ohio State won. Another says that win was crap. Didn’t they see that ref’s bad call? Yet another says that win was totally legitimate because that ref made the same call in last week’s Oregon game.

None of these people are football coaches, referees, theorists, historians, or anything else having to do with football. The referee in question alone has thirty times the experience of that group combined.

On some level, the people huddled around the pool table know this. The guy who watched the Ohio State game? He did so while simultaneously arguing with his wife about whether he was going to have time after work tomorrow to watch the kids. The guy who said that was a bad call said it because one of his friends Tweeted it was a bad call during the game. He didn’t even see it happen. And the gal who watched the Oregon game did so while hammered.

When it comes to football, this is innocent. Gathering around televisions and vehemently discussing a sport about which we know next to nothing, let alone have ever played, is at this point an American pastime. But this tendency carries over into subjects a lot more important than football.

Something hits the news — a bunch of republican kids and a Native American man get into it at the capital, for instance — and our Twitter feeds fill with headlines. “Trump supporters harass Native American outside nation’s capital!” “Native American man harasses teenage kids, claims ‘racism.’”

Without even clicking the links first, we click retweet.

Without even reading the article, we turn to a friend at work: “Oh my god, have you seen this? A bunch of racist kids attacked this Native American dude.”

Maybe they did, and maybe they didn’t, but you certainly don’t know. What’s more, you know you don’t know. You didn’t even click the article. You didn’t check the tweet’s link. Yet you turned to your friend at work and parroted the headline anyway.

Repeating without knowing is so common.

People pat themselves on the back all the time for doing this. Some of them even call themselves educated citizens. When you share an article without understanding the larger issue — or share a headline without even reading the article — all you are is a tool for those more powerful than you.

Look, I get why we do this. I spent my entire high school career breathing down people’s necks for not being ‘informed citizens.’ I constantly berated classmates about whatever the political talking heads were saying that week.

People who are actually well-informed are educated deserve respect for taking the time to be so. But when we do this, we’re not well-informed. When we do this, we’re not educating ourselves, we’re actively doing the opposite. At this point, our nation can’t afford it anymore.

What should you do instead?

When you see a headline on Twitter, either click to read the article in full, or scroll past. Whatever you do, do not hit retweet if you didn’t even click the link in the Tweet.

More broadly, if a topic comes up that you don’t know about, say the following words: “I don’t know much about this.”

  • Someone asks you what you think about global warming and you know nothing about climatology? Say “Well, the experts say it’s real, so I trust them.”
  • Someone orders a gluten-free menu but then eats a small bite of their friend’s gluten-filled bread during their meal? Say to yourself “I am not a doctor and I don’t know much about GI diseases.”*

When you don’t know, just admit it.

If you’re worried admitting you don’t know something will make you look stupid, don’t be. When you say “I don’t know much about this,” it gives the person you’re talking to an opportunity to tell you all about the matter. In doing so, you have a conversational topic that will fuel you for at least forty-five minutes, and they’ll feel great about being the authority.

As you have more of these conversations, you’ll find there’s a wide variety of fascinating people in the world who know a lot of things. As a result, you will come to know many things yourself. More importantly, you will learn about who knows what in your life and who you can go to for information.

Have courage

Most of the skill in admitting when you don’t know something comes from having the moral courage to admit it. Learning to admit you don’t know something is to strengthen your moral muscle.

Like strengthening any other muscle, strengthening the moral muscle takes some time. Start small.

  • Next time a random, inconsequential topic comes up with a friend, don’t parrot the one headline you saw on Buzzfeed about it; admit that you don’t know much about it. As you get used to doing this, start to level up.
  • At work, admit that while you are an experienced professional, you still have more to learn about your field. Admit to your boss that you still have some to learn from them.
  • Try admitting to your spouse that perhaps you were wrong and they were right about the last thing you argued about (that involved an appeal to facts, anyway).
  • Read a book about something you think you already know a ton about and see if you learn anything new.

As you get better at admitting when you don’t know something, you’ll start to see the quality of your life go up and up.

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Self-help writer with 3M+ views on Medium and Quora. Covering personal growth, relationship skills, and career growth.

Columbus, OH
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