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The Wisdom of Not Knowing

A little over a year ago, I had surgery on my right hand. My right index finger, to be exact. Because my hands are vital to my work as a writer, I found a very good hand surgeon to do the job. And things went remarkably well (even given my inability to tolerate anesthesia). But when my fingernail began to grow back, it looked awful. Or so I thought. I went to the surgeon for a follow-up, and he was pleased with everything, and I said, “But what about this fingernail?!”

He looked at me and said, “Trust me. It will be fine.”

The subtext there, of course, was that he was the expert, after all. And hadn’t that been the reason I’d hired him in the first place?

And of course he was right. To look at my hand now, you’d never know anything had been wrong with it. There’s not even a scar. (Because he’d gone in under the fingernail. Ta-da!)

The whole experience made me stop and consider. Why had I assumed I should know as much or more than my doctor about my finger? Why is it so difficult for people to admit they don’t know something, or at least don’t know enough about something?

Part of it might stem from schooling. Thanks to the way we are routinely tested on knowledge, we feel we have to know everything. Because in school one does have to know everything in order to get a passing grade. Never mind that it falls right back out of our heads once we no longer have use for the information.

But in the real world, we don’t have to know everything. And that’s not just because we now have mobile phones and Wikipedia. It’s because there are people out there—experts—whose job it is to know for us.

Now, access to an expert sometimes comes at a cost. Lawyers. Doctors. The longer they had to go to school, the more they’re expect to know, the more expensive they are. But that’s another topic for a different day.

Meanwhile, we all hate know-it-alls, don’t we? People who strut around and pretend they know everything. It’s impossible to have a conversation with one; in fact, in my experience, these types mostly like to hear themselves talk. You can hardly get a word in.

So my advice is: Don’t try to be a know-it-all. Don’t even pretend to be one. No one will like you.

Everyone knows something. No one knows everything.

That’s my new motto.

The longer you live, the more you learn. And the more you learn, the more you realize there’s a lot you don’t know. And one of the toughest lessons in life is learning to say it: “I don’t know.” But mistakes are more often made when acting on misinformation than when being cautious and sure.

A wise person doesn’t know everything. A wise person surrounds him- or herself with people who do know, a collective of advisors. Everyone contributes. Everyone has value. And everyone knows how and when to say, “I don’t know.”



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