We’ve all been there: attempting to remember what was covered in the last lecture, trying to answer a difficult question, or even deciding what to have for lunch. There is often some level of uncertainty, but sometimes we can find an answer. Other times, we find ourselves scratching our heads, with these three words resonating:

“I don’t know.”

I find myself saying that more times than I can count, on a weekly basis. Sometimes, it is as simple as deciding whether I should have a sandwich or pasta for lunch. Other times, I find myself in classes where — as exciting as the material is — there is a lot of underlying stuff that I don’t understand. Even when people throw ideas back and forth, sometimes I won’t have any idea what they’re talking about because it’s beyond what I usually do.

Sometimes I don’t know. And that’s OK.

I remember taking one class about integrins and cadherins: proteins responsible for adhesion between cells. While my professor spent a lot of time discussing the genetic components, I took diligent notes, assuming that I fully understood what was being taught. It wasn’t until we did some exercises interpreting data that I sensed I was missing something. Some of my fellow classmates could come to conclusions about mechanisms instantly. But me? Even with all the notes I had taken during class, I couldn’t always explain what they meant.

Eventually, I came to this conclusion: there were some fundamental concepts that I didn’t know. And I decided that I was going to do whatever I could to make sure that I knew them better.

Stephen J. Dubner and Steven D. Levitt discuss the necessity of being able to admit “I don’t know” in their book "Think Like a Freak." They explain that everyone experiences bouts of uncertainty to some extent — even prominent experts are sometimes uncertain about trends in their fields. However, it’s worse to lull yourself into a false sense of security and assume you know everything about something for certain when you actually don’t because the consequences can be worse (Dubner and Levitt, 27-28).

Why is it so hard to admit “I don’t know?” Dubner and Levitt say that it’s because our “moral compass” guides us on a steady state with as few complications as possible. They write that it “can convince you that all the answers are obvious (even when they’re not), that there is a bright line between right and wrong (when often there isn’t); and, worst, that you are certain you already know everything you need to know about a subject so you stop trying to learn more” (31-32).

The problem is, that compass can be misleading. If you find yourself in a false sense of security, you can’t face what’s in front of you. You’re on a boat, and the compass (your sense of complacency) says to keep course. But if there’s a big rock in the way, and you don’t determine what to do next and just keep moving, you’ll crash.

Saying “I don’t know” can be scary! But if you can’t bring yourself to say it, then you’re not going anywhere. You’re not trying anything new. In fact, you might set yourself up for failure.

What happens when you’re in a situation when you’re saying “I don’t know?” That’s great! You’re already recognizing that there is some uncertainty in the situation you’re in. You’re exercising your agency in the situation, and you have the capacity to decide what to do next.

There are two things you can do from here. You can either be complacent and say “I don’t know, but that’s how it is.” Or you can say “I don’t know, but I’m going to do whatever I can to find out.”

I prefer doing the latter. Trying to understand something, or critically thinking about potential decisions often requires effort. At times it can seem frustrating or tedious. However, once you put yourself on that track, you’re one step closer to finally understanding.

Just think about how you’ll feel once you’re there! Won’t that be exciting?

And all of that started with saying three words:

“I don’t know.”

Source: “The Three Hardest Words in the English Language.” Think Like a Freak: The Authors of Freakonomics Offer to Retrain Your Brain, by Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner, HarperCollins Publishers, 2014, pp. 19–48.