The Most Liberating 3 Words in the English Language
And I learned them much too late…
There is one singular three-word phrase in the English language that I have found to be liberating, enlightening, and mega-intelligent. And I learned it way too late in life.
I remember when I heard it, really heard it, the first time. I was playing with Hallie Hoskins in her parents’ attic and we came across some leftover Play Doh. I tossed it to her and she stopped, staring at it thoughtfully.
“What is Play Doh made of?” she asked. I became a deer in the bright beams of her inquisitive eyes. I need to make something up quick. I mean, my whole identity is built around the fact that I have an abnormally high IQ. I’m nothing if I don’t know the chemical makeup of Play Doh.
I came up with the only plausible answer I could on the fly. “Um…it’s dough, Hallie. Play DUH.”
In fact, I had no flipping clue what it was made of (this was before we could Google the answer on the supercomputers in our pockets). Why does Hallie ask so many dang questions? Ugh. It makes me have to come up with so many (ahem, usually fake) answers.
If only I had known to use the most magical three-word phrase on this God-forsaken spinning greenhouse of a planet. I. Don’t. Know.
Fun fact: Hallie is now saving the world through her scientific research and I’m, well, I’m still usually (much more ethically) making sh!t up on the fly.
Stick with me here. I have found three nontraditional ways of using the phrase “I don’t know.” They’re all freakishly (and surprisingly) fantastic. AND, if you’re not convinced after that, I’d like to share four reasons “I don’t know” is one of the smartest things anyone can say. What’s next? You don’t know. I challenge you to find out.
Three flavors of magical ignorance
A first way “I don’t know” can be utilized is when you actually do know. Well, kind of. Unless you’re a published and peer-reviewed expert on a subject, it’s a great idea to feign ignorance in conversation. Why? Well, because you can usually learn cool stuff.
When someone asks you if you’re familiar with sheep farming in Ireland and you have, in fact, taken a sheep farming excursion at an establishment outside of Dublin, I highly recommend you use our favorite new phrase. Because it’s highly likely that the person you’re talking to knows significantly more. And, like my fascinating conversation with an Iowa farmer a few weeks ago, if you listen, you might learn a lot that you can apply to your everyday life.
A second nontraditional way of using the magical “I don’t know” can be employed when you want to build a relationship with an inquisitive acquaintance. It goes like this. “I don’t know, but do you want to find out together?” If I had said that to my childhood friend Hallie, we could have taken an adventure over to the local library and searched for Play Doh in the encyclopedia (yes, I’m that old).
The pursuit of any nugget of knowledge is an adventure. And adventures? They’re bonding experiences. Ignorance can be a shared bliss if you let it.
Finally, “I don’t know” can release you from responsibility in a sticky situation. This is very useful with the high-maintenance drama kings and queens of the world. “I think she’s cheating on me. Should I open her phone and just quickly look to see if I can find proof?” Friends, there is no right answer in this situation. If you simply say you don’t know, you can save yourself (and your friend) a significant amount of trouble.
In short, this simple phrase can be used in a crafty way to swerve around emotional landmines, to gather more information, or to create a stronger bond with a friend. In fact, saying “I don’t know” can be one of the smartest things you can do. Here’s why.
Four reasons to say “I don’t know”
I spent the first three decades of my life living up to my know-it-all status. Do you know what that got me? Nothing. Nada. No new knowledge. With every question my friend Hallie asked, with every instance she admitted what she didn’t know, she gained new knowledge when she sought out the answer. In contrast, I just got to listen to my own voice.
Here are four great reasons I believe we should all say “I don’t know” as much as possible.
· When you’re the one doing the answering of questions, you’re stating what you already know. Sure, you might be cluing others in on something, but you aren’t gaining any new knowledge for yourself. Particularly if you aren’t 100% clear on an answer. In my opinion, knowledge, like any finely crafted hors d’oeuvres, should never be passed up.
· When you admit that you don’t know something, you create a safe space for others to not know things as well. As an educator, I love telling students when I don’t know something. They’re usually surprised the first time. “See? I don’t know everything. I’m not perfect. I don’t expect you to be either.” In my book, this is the best kind of instruction I can offer a young person – leading by inquisitive example.
· Saying “I don’t know” helps inspire trust. Admitting you don’t know something can be difficult for folks. In some instances, it’s revolutionarily brave. And, if you’re willing to take a (perceived) social hit, you’re probably also willing to tell the truth in other situations.
· Not that I think any other sane person would attempt to do this, but young Michelle, if she had learned to say “I don’t know,” would have been free from the obligation to come up with bullsh!t answers to her friends’ questions. She would have saved herself the embarrassment of being outed as wrong when someone else knew an answer. And most of all, young Michelle would have learned the value of integrity over feigned intelligence.
Do I wish I would have learned much, much earlier in my life to use what I believe to be the three most liberating words in the English language? Absolutely. Would it have made a big difference in my life? Well, I don’t know.
For the uninformed, admitting that you don’t know the answer to a question is a weakness. For the wise and experienced among us, “I don’t know” is a vehicle to a deeper understanding, deeper relationships, and a glorious freedom to let go of the obligation to know everything. In fact, the more I learn, the less I realize I know.