No, I Don’t Know Everything

A reader was taken aback the other day when I uttered the words, “I don’t know.” Three little words (actually four, since one of them is a contraction) seemed to send this poor soul reeling. As an author, I often need to utter those words because it’s a fact that I truly don’t know everything. If I did, life would be boring because there would be no challenge. Looking at the situation logically, there isn’t any way for me to read the daily output of millions of computer scientists—it’s physically impossible. Comprehending and remembering all that output would be a gargantuan task inconceivable in its execution. Keeping up with a modicum of that output is still an immense undertaking, but one I do with joy and a desire to know more.

Unfortunately, there seems to be a societal enmity toward those words. For a professional to utter, “I don’t know” seems to diminish the professional’s stature both with peers and those the professional serves. We expect our professionals to have answers (the correct ones) at all times, which is clearly unattainable. Yet, uttering those words requires courage and someone uttering them should be admired for being truthful, at least.

Of course, uttering the words and doing something about the utterance are two different situations. Generally, after uttering the phrase, I feel obliged to do something about it, assuming that the question is within my purview of interests (which range widely). Most professionals, curiosity piqued, will delve into the abyss and come back with an answer after some period of study. However, by that time the questioner has often pursued other interests, leaving the professional to wonder whether the question really was important.

The answer is always important, if for no other reason than the professional has added new knowledge and opened new avenues of intellectual exploration. Even so, a little patience on the part of the questioner would have been nice. Any voyage of discovery takes time, no matter how mundane the trip might appear at first. In fact, many of my most memorable discoveries came as the result of a seemingly routine question on the part of a reader.

When I utter the words, “I don’t know” to you as a reader, it doesn’t mean I lack experience or knowledge—it simply means that I haven’t yet explored the area of information you desire. In many cases, I’ll take time at some point to explore the area and present you with my opinion on it, but you’ll have to be patient until I’m able to discover the answer for you. In the meantime, it’s my hope that you’ll continue to ask questions that cause me to utter, “I don’t know.”