The Power of Not Knowing

His Holiness the Dalai Lama, pauses for a moment to ponder a question he is asked, lets out a relaxed breath and says “I don’t know anything.” A chuckle ensues, which then ripples into roaring laughter throughout the audience.

After a moment of stillness, he begins to speak, and the words that flow from his mouth are dead-on perfect in addressing the question. What he said was exactly matched to what this audience, at the Vancouver Peace Summit many years ago, needed to hear. The content of the question and answer are not relevant for this post, it was the manner in which the question was replied that is the motivation for this article.

It’s as if the Dalai Lama’s statement of “I don’t know anything” both enabled him to access a deeper source of authentic wisdom and creativity, while simultaneously putting the audience at ease and in a more receptive mood.

Or perhaps, His Holiness is showing us an even more powerful lesson than the eventual answer he provided, one of how to tap into our own inner power?

Is admitting you don’t know something, a key to accessing a deeper source of wisdom and creativity?

In most intellectual circles I’ve been a part of, not knowing an answer was seen as a sign of weakness. Particularly, during my years in the corporate world, the need to be the “answer guy” was endemic and I can’t say I was immune to its effects. In conversations with team members, not knowing an answer was a sign of sub-par capabilities and if you were in the role of team leader, as I was, a mark of poor decision-making skill.

In schools, the same problem exists. If you don’t know the answers, you look silly. If you don’t nail questions on a test, you are docked points. Over time, this hurts your grades and the opportunity to get into a good college. The long-term repercussions are severe.

Perhaps this way of thinking is all wrong?

While I do agree that we need to have methods to assess our knowledge (e.g. some form of testing) in schools and making decisions is an essential requirement for any professional (otherwise how would work get done?), taken to an extreme, the know-it-all behaviors that arise from such environments come at a cost.

The counterbalance to this tendency is to cultivate the capacity for curiosity, and one can only be curious when she acknowledges that she doesn’t really know everything.

I think there are a few incredible benefits of being ok with not knowing the answers. Even if you do believe that you know an answer, stepping into the space of “I am not sure” has a profound impact on your ability to creatively problem solve for yourself and also empower others in your team (or family, or friends).

In the rest of this article I’ll examine these two benefits.

1. Creative problem-solving

First, admitting you don’t know an answer sends a signal to the deep parts of your mind to stay open to new ideas and potential solutions. These ideas might just present you with the solution that has alluded you all along.

Thomas Edison and Einstein both came up with some of their biggest breakthroughs when they seemingly gave up trying to solve their problems. The answers mysteriously emerged.

For example, to experience this first-hand, ask yourself “What’s the weather like now?” Instead of answering right away based on what you think the answer is, say to yourself, “I’m not sure” and then look out a window. Notice that when you approach the question like this you are far more curious, and notice details that would be missed if you just said to yourself “It was sunny when I drove to work so it’s sunny now” and then proceeded to confirm your pre-existing point of view with a quick glance out the window.

You can apply the same technique to any problem.

2. Empowering others

Second, when you fight the urge to give an immediate answer to someone else’s question, and instead respond with “I don’t know” or a cloaked form of the statement such as “What do you think?” you entice your teammates to tap into their own creativity and problem-solving capacities.

For businesses, any leader who wants to get the best ideas and solutions out on the table, must cultivate the capacity for not giving out “the answers” while simultaneous being curious with what the collective can produce. The urge to be the answer-guy or answer-girl can be high, particularly in fast-moving industries, but this tendency comes at a cost.

By taking a step back and allowing others to solve their own problems, you not only support more diversity in ideation, but you also help to create a work environment people enjoy. No one likes to be told what to do and how to think all the time. Everyone wants to feel like they are co-creating the future and playing their part of solving important problems.

Learn to be comfortable with not knowing things. You will even find that sometimes, at the moment of releasing your desire to know the solution, a brilliant idea will enter you mind. If it works for the Dalai Lama, it might work for all of us.