one of the most powerful phrases you can utter

There are some phrases that don’t sit very comfortably with us. Like:

I’m sorry.


You’re wrong.


You’re right.


I need help.


The proof is in the pudding (it just doesn’t make sense!)

Here’s another:

I don’t know.

We place a lot of value on “knowing” in our culture. We do know a lot but are prone to believing that we know more than we do. We can be more concerned with arguing our point than trying to understand what the other viewpoint is. I think we can stagnate and grow bored because we have forgotten that there is a vast amount we don’t know, that we could actually find some answers, and are likely to be better off for having done so.

In Maria Popova’s Brain Pickings article on Polish Poet and Nobel Laureate Wisława Szymborska she quotes Szymborska’s acceptance speech for her Nobel Prize in Literature, in1996:

Inspiration is not the exclusive privilege of poets or artists generally. There is, has been, and will always be a certain group of people whom inspiration visits. It’s made up of all those who’ve consciously chosen their calling and do their job with love and imagination. It may include doctors, teachers, gardeners — and I could list a hundred more professions. Their work becomes one continuous adventure as long as they manage to keep discovering new challenges in it. Difficulties and setbacks never quell their curiosity. A swarm of new questions emerges from every problem they solve. Whatever inspiration is, it’s born from a continuous “I don’t know.”

What happens if we don’t adopt this learning mindset? We can become dogmatic and even deceived. We can alienate because people generally don’t want to discuss their developing ideas with someone who will steamroll over their every argument.

All sorts of torturers, dictators, fanatics, and demagogues struggling for power by way of a few loudly shouted slogans also enjoy their jobs, and they too perform their duties with inventive fervor. Well, yes, but they “know.” They know, and whatever they know is enough for them once and for all. They don’t want to find out about anything else, since that might diminish their arguments’ force. And any knowledge that doesn’t lead to new questions quickly dies out: it fails to maintain the temperature required for sustaining life. In the most extreme cases, cases well known from ancient and modern history, it even poses a lethal threat to society.

I think you can believe fundamental things and live and interact with people as if you know that you know that you know it to be true. Yet at the same time be open to other people’s ideas and viewpoints. That openness is birthed out of both a security in your ideas AND an awareness that you don’t know everything. There is more you need to learn and understand in order to ensure you have the full picture. People with different viewpoints and opinions can be a huge resource rather than simply an opponent. If anything, hearing them out can strengthen your own familiar viewpoint. It could even cause you to amend certain elements or even all of what you think (changing your mind isn’t as bad as it sounds).

You may fundamentally believe that labour ought to be in power but perhaps your conservative friend actually has some thoughts on it that haven’t occurred to you. What are you afraid of? Being brainwashed? Believe in your ability to think for yourself and discuss with humility and interest. Chances are you’ll think the same as you did but be able to empathise with your friend. Even if not, I’m sure you’ll have learned something of value.

I strongly believe that it’s difficult to have a humble and constructive discussion on social media. For obvious reasons. Just saying.

This is why I value that little phrase “I don’t know” so highly. It’s small, but it flies on mighty wings. It expands our lives to include the spaces within us as well as those outer expanses in which our tiny Earth hangs suspended. If Isaac Newton had never said to himself “I don’t know,” the apples in his little orchard might have dropped to the ground like hailstones and at best he would have stooped to pick them up and gobble them with gusto. Had my compatriot Marie Sklodowska-Curie never said to herself “I don’t know”, she probably would have wound up teaching chemistry at some private high school for young ladies from good families, and would have ended her days performing this otherwise perfectly respectable job. But she kept on saying “I don’t know,” and these words led her, not just once but twice, to Stockholm, where restless, questing spirits are occasionally rewarded with the Nobel Prize.

Hmm… “I don’t know” is starting to sound pretty exciting.

I listened to a recent podcast called The Psych Files, by Michael A. Britt, about how to use the video of the guy being dragged off the United Airlines flight as part of a psychology lesson. He talked about how to generate critical thinking in the classroom and avoid just reciting information that students absorb and then churn out in an exam. He referenced another psychology professor who wanted to generate “productive confusion” in his lessons. This refers to students engaging with ideas and wrestling with them. Good education should teach one how to look at what you currently think, review new information, and then work with that to decide whether what you think needs to adapt or change completely. It is a process that hopefully continues throughout one’s lifetime.

carl rogers learning

I love the above quote and I can imagine having it in mind when I’m discussing something with a friend or work colleague. We are all teachers and students in a general sense. When I’m putting across my viewpoint, I can offer it up as what I believe to be a tasty morsel of something wonderful. My friend can take it or leave it. Perhaps they don’t like brie and chutney on a cracker (mmm!). Perhaps they enjoy brie with a grape (what?? Actual fruit? Wait… hang on, it’s actually delicious). I feel as though I may have gone off piste and am now just salivating… Oh right yeah, so don’t call your mate “stupid”, “weird” for thinking differently. The tasty treat they may have offered up to you could actually be of value to you. Most importantly, it’s of value to them and ought to be honoured (obviously unless it violates human rights or laws of the land – I don’t want to go down that rabbit warren and am sure you get my point).

Our not knowing can relate to the world around us but is also relevant to our knowledge about ourselves. Mental health problems can often be a signifier that you are not as “self-aware” as you think you might be and a good approach to your mental health problem is to say… “I don’t know how or why… but I need to figure that out and find out what needs to happen to treat it.”

Here are some you may like to consider for yourself:

I don’t know why I react that way.

I don’t know why I am embarrassed by that.

I don’t know why she believes that.

I don’t know why that’s important to him. 

I don’t know why I feel anxious.

I don’t know why I feel envious.

I don’t know why I can’t take that feedback.

I don’t know how I could do better.

I don’t know how I can solve this problem.

I don’t know why she finds me hard to talk to.

I don’t know why I get so angry.

I don’t know why I feel so alone.

I don’t know why I like to be alone.

I don’t know why my feet smell of cheese.

Well… Why don’t you find out?

(If you really want to know about the cheesy feet one I’ll save you some time… read this)

Sorry for the cheese theme. I’m not sure if I now want cheese, or anything but…


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