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Advice / Succeeding at Work / Getting Ahead

The Power of “I Don't Know”

Remember being in class when you were young and feeling like you would absolutely die if you were called on when you didn’t know the answer? From an early age, we’re conditioned to be afraid of not knowing something we should.

Unfortunately, carried over to adulthood, this fear often prevents us from seeking help when we need it. We worry that, by asking questions, we might look stupid, uninformed, or incompetent.

Problem is, when we don’t ask the questions we should, we keep ourselves less informed and less competent. This is an especially dangerous tendency for entrepreneurs, who spend the majority of their professional lives plunging into the unknown and exploring uncharted territory.

So, one thing that sets successful entrepreneurs apart is their ability to admit what they don’t know—which is, in most cases, a lot. They’re honest about their gaps in knowledge and they constantly ask for help. Sure, it’s scary to display that much vulnerability, but the most effective entrepreneurs know that their survival depends on it.

If you’re running your own business (or even just thinking about it!), here’s why you should ditch pretending that you’ve got it all figured out, and start admitting what you don’t know.

1. Get Information More Quickly

When you’re running the show, it’s your job to plot the best course forward and make the soundest decisions. And in order to do that well, you need as much information as possible. Sure, you can look things up on your own and rely on trial and error, but that’s learning your lessons the hard way. By not leveraging other people to help you, you’re making your (already tough) job infinitely more difficult.

So don’t reinvent the wheel if you don’t have to—instead, benefit from the experience and knowledge that your peers have already accumulated. By asking for their help and advice, you’re bound to get better, more complete information than you could find on your own.

2. Foster Stronger Relationships

Think you’ll be the star of your networking event if you’re seen as the go-to gal for absolutely everything? Think again. No one likes a know-it-all, and an exchange of information is the foundation for strong relationships.

Acknowledging what you don’t know or aren’t sure about not only makes you more relatable, but also makes you appear even more competent and confident: You’ve got nothing to hide, and you know plenty—just not everything. Besides, there’s no better way to get others invested in your success than by making them part of the story and allowing them to help.

3. Live More Authentically

It’s exhausting to pretend you know everything. Not only do you have to worry that you’re ignorance might be exposed but after a while, but you can also start to feel like a fraud (and even begin to doubt the things you are sure of!). There’s enough uncertainty and anxiety baked into the experience of entrepreneurship without you adding more to the pot.

The most satisfied entrepreneurs I know are able to talk about their companies with a degree of objectivity. They can confidently assess their business’ strengths and weaknesses—and admit the things they haven’t figured out yet—without feeling personally vulnerable. The more honest you are about how your business can improve, the stronger you’ll be able to make it.

Still scared by the words “I don’t know?” Here’s a good trick I use to make that admission more comfortable: Couch what you don’t know with what you do. By leading with what’s certain, you’ll establish your credibility with your listener, plus give context so that he or she is able to share information that’s really relevant to your situation.

At first, it can be intimidating to admit what you don’t know. But, take it from me: Over time, it will get more comfortable—especially once you experience how rewarding it can be.

Photo courtesy of Dell's Official Flickr Page.