How to not look like an idiot (even if you’re just starting out)

, “

I was stuck.

I wanted, I needed, I longed to phosphorescently evolve professional mindshare.*

I knew it was the next right step for me, the thing that would pull all the pieces together and make a coherent, convincing whole out of my disparate, scattered, messy choices.

Just one problem:  I didn’t know how to go about it.  

A coaching colleague approached me about my dilemma.  I told him about my yearning, and, helpful eager beaver that he was, he immediately jumped in and started offering suggestions.

His first few ideas seemed possibly workable, if a little off. But they grew more and more bizarre and soon he stopped making sense altogether.

But, since I know that criticizing those trying to help you is a surefire way to never, ever, EVER receive help again, I held off on objecting too strenuously.

I gave him a few half hearted “um, maybe’s,” a couple “oh, I hadn’t thought of that’s,” a gaggle of “well, no, because’s…,” and finally descended into quietly moaning into my hands “no, no, no, no…”

After a quarter hour of this torture, it finally dawned on me.

He did not know what phosphorescently evolving professional mindshare was.

Now, I know what you are thinking.

How on EARTH is it possible that someone doesn’t know the intricacies of phosphorescently evolving professional mindshare?

I know, TOTALLY, right?

We referred to it a lot in our coaching classes, so it never occurred to me that he would have no idea what I was talking about.

But here is the thing:  I actually had no problem with that. 

I would not have lost one smidgen of respect for him if he had, at the very outset of the conversation, simply said: phosphorescently evolving professional mindshare? What the hell is that? Who does that anyway?

Ok, maybe not quite like that, but you get the idea.

But, he didn’t.

Instead, he had been faking it for a full fifteen minutes.

He must have thought he would have looked like an idiot to ask me what phosphorescently evolving professional mindshare was at the outset.

So, he just kept digging himself in deeper and deeper, until, yes, he DID look like an idiot, actually.

And I had a shocking realization: there is absolutely nothing wrong with saying that you don’t know something.

In fact, it’s crucial.

In business, particularly when you’re starting out, you feel the need to be bigger, better, more experienced, more knowledgeable than you actually are.

You thoroughly embrace the importance of conveying authority and being the expert for your clients. So you think you must have an answer for everything (even when especially when you really don’t).

And that can make you feel extremely uncomfortable. Not to mention, pathologically insecure.  

Now, some people think the solution to this is to have tricks and phrases so that you appear confident.

And that’s great.

Except that it’s not.

Because I don’t want you to have a trick that lets you seem confident.

I want you to have a trick that lets you BE confident.

And this is it.

Tell them: I don’t know.

Seriously, people. We CAN’T know everything about everything that ever was.

When and why did we ever decide that we have to act as though we do?!?!?!?

Saying I don’t know:

Shows your maturity
It demonstrates that you are experienced enough to understand that you will never know it all. Because, no matter how advanced in your profession, there will always be new things to learn. And learning requires admitting ignorance in the first place.

Gives you credibility  
Nobody is buying the all knowing act.  Not from you, not from anyone. Only the insecure, the fakers, the liars pretend to have all the answers. Now we know you’re not one of them.

Strengthens your confidence
Admitting ignorance allows you to put yourself out there to the world unfettered by the fear that someone will ask a question that will make you shrivel like a worm in salt. Because you know you can always say, “that’s a good question. I don’t know the answer, but I can help you find out.”

Everyone understands that. Everyone appreciates that.

You are a human being. Not Tony Stark.

And another thing: You have to do this.

Because if the need to be right, to have all the answers is given enough power, it will keep you from ever daring to leave the safe shores of what you know for the vast and deep waters of all that you could be.

So where does that leave us?

For me, whenever a client starts to discuss an aspect to their work that I don’t understand, I simply say: I’m not familiar with that, tell me about it.

And they do. And I help them.

And not one has ever called me an idiot.

Out loud.

To my face.

In English.

As for you, wouldn’t it be nice to stop faking it?

Wouldn’t it be a massive relief to just tell them you don’t know? And to feel good about it?

You have plenty of great things to offer the world. Omniscience does not have to be one of them.

*Props to the Corporate B.S. Generator

What do you think when someone tells you they don’t know something? Are you impressed? Horrified? Wouldn’t it feel great to not have to know everything about everything EVER?


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  1. Audrey Groeschel

    Wendy, this in one of my favorite lines of all time. “I dont know” says you want to learn more. You are open to exploring and you cant wait to hear what that person has to say about it. At least to me it does. It also makes people feel good about being able to share their own expertise/knowledge with you. Everyone likes to talk about themselves and what they do. When you say, “I dont know”, it really gives them an opportunity to expound on themselves.

    When you think about it, saying I dont know, is all about helping the other guy feel good. And it benefits you too. Win win.

    • wendy tells all

      Audrey-I absolutely love your take on this. And you’re right-“I don’t know” is a door opener, an empathy creator, an invitation to collaborate. Love it. Thank you.

  2. Karen J

    Agreed, agreed, Wendy! “I don’t know” lets you off the hook for trying to “baffle ’em with bullshit” too –

    PS. I thought this was one of Ash’s posts! Well done 😉

    • wendy tells all

      Karen-you made my morning, girlfriend! Thank you!!!

    • Audrey Groeschel

      Karen you are so funny! It made me think of that scene in 48 hours, come experience some of my bullshit. We can get away with it sometimes, I can remember dancing through some job interviews oh so many years ago lol

  3. Karen J

    Ahhhh – A point to be aware of, though:
    How you say things – your inflection and tone of voice – makes all the difference in how you’re heard, and how you’re reacted to!!!
    *One of the reasons* my 1st dude and I called it quits – 30+ years ago! – was that he (and probably me too! but I wasn’t as self-aware then – I was 21!) didn’t understand what a difference it made if he came across as ordering, whining or *asking*. Same sentence – different tone of voice…also, difference between my interpretations and his intentions. (See: Charlie Hebdo – OMG!)


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