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Embrace Not Knowing

NB: This article can also be found at LinkedIn.

As I have mentioned in this series, COVID-19 has put some of my friends in unexpected – certainly unwelcome – circumstances with respect to their employment. I saw in their exploration of "what's next" traces of my own bewilderment and frustration during my self-imposed disruption for which I had no roadmap and even fewer answers.


Not long after I quit that comfortable job in search of a better use of my skills, I worked with various organizations and projects that aligned with what I felt was the direction in which I wanted to go. Some of those projects fared better than others, and I rarely felt I was making meaningful progress in those early days. The answers simply weren’t coming quickly enough for me. I frequently felt like I was standing in the middle of a dark room wishing the lights would suddenly turn on. I had no answers whatsoever.

Enter the Rookie

I eventually enlisted the help of a personal development coach, one with a unique skill set for pinpointing a person’s biggest area for growth. In her words, one of the most important lessons I had to “learn how to be a rookie.”

“I’m sorry, what?” I replied.

Sometimes you just have to embrace it.

“You have to learn how to not know,” she explained. “You’re an engineer. You guys know things. People come to you for answers, and you like having them. I want you to sit in the space of not having the answers.”

“I thought that’s why we were talking,” I said. “I don’t have the answers!”

“Exactly,” she replied curtly. “And the sooner you surrender to that fact, the sooner you’ll begin to find them.”

She went on to explain, quite accurately, that not knowing, or being a rookie, was something I neither liked nor was very good at. However, to find what I was looking for, I had to learn to be comfortable with the state of cluelessness in which I found myself. That task was much easier said than done. I was frustrated in not knowing this one thing (how to find a more fulfilling career) and was told to wallow in that frustration like a pig in mud. It made no sense at the time.

On Facebook, this was a gym accident. In reality, I struggle with doors.

She also challenged me to look at an unconscious fear we all share: that not having the answers – and admitting as much – will result in people thinking we’re incapable. This was especially true for me. While the naturally confident in the classroom eagerly raise their hands regardless of the potential consequences, the majority of us slump down in our seats for fear of embarrassment in front of our peers lest we get it wrong. On social media, how often do we share how we tanked an interview or a big work presentation? Rarely. We want to showcase the good stuff and hide the bad. The majority of social media fodder makes our lives look like an endless highlight reel. (See right.)

That said, she also offered a strategy to make such scary territory more tolerable. She recommended I simply begin statements with a blunt, “At the risk of asking a dumb question,” or, “This may be a beginner’s comment, but…” and similar declarations.

Practicing Rookie-ness

At first, the lesson fell on deaf ears, or at least ears unfamiliar with the language of not knowing. Around the time of these coaching sessions, I worked with a local nonprofit in Chicago and was tasked with leading the opening of a community learning center. The effort included an open house event to spur enrollment, and we succeeded. We filled every one of the 250 slots available in less than a month. However, my planning for the event was awful. Despite my years as a project manager, such an in-person event was new to me and I failed to ask for help along the way for fear of what it might look like to “not know” how to do it. Looking back, I’m sure if I had openly said, “Well, this is embarrassing but I don’t know how to plan for this and could use some help,” my colleagues who were familiar with such events would have overlooked my dearth of experienced (i.e. answers) and been eager to assist. In fact, they jumped in and helped me during the final moments before the event kicked off.

Rookies clearly don't know how to make attractive invitations.

Despite the challenge, the brutal reality of the open house crystalized the rookie lesson I was meant to learn, and I put it to good use in future endeavors. In 2013 I organized a workshop in Haiti that included a 40-person guests list. Six showed up, one of them was there by accident. My team and I had to adjust quickly, but I was too paralyzed by the moment to think clearly. So, I simply announced that, as embarrassing as the situation was, I was even more embarrassed not to have a solution and was open to ideas. This added an unexpected element of humor, which cut the tension and opened us to the idea of swapping the large and intense presentations for a more intimate conversation that, surprisingly, yielded some very insightful input from the participants. And our guests left with goodie bags full of the day’s surplus catering treats.

So what?

Shake-ups by their nature put us in uneasy and unfamiliar territory. More often than not, we want those windows to pass quickly. A willful embrace of “I don’t know” can seem counterintuitive, like piling on. But often, running toward the fear is exactly what we need in order to grow in those moments. That applies if you quit your job to find your passion, or if an outside factor like COVID-19 upended your situation. That vulnerability creates some of the most fertile space for personal growth, understanding, and progress.

Why, yes. Lots of them. (See what I did there?)

Embracing “not knowing” has been terribly beneficial. It’s a lesson to be applied in both the professional and personal realm. I’ve been at it for 15 years and some attempts at rookie-ness have gone more smoothly than others. Still, I have learned three things from it. First, don’t expect answers to come right away. Finding the answers through not knowing is a marathon, not a walk around the block. This concept sits in radical contrast to modern thinking. When was the last time you were not encouraged to move up the promotion ladder as quickly as possible? Be more willing to be present and find the answers in due time.

Second, rookie-ness, in a sense, is never ending. The long game is just that: long. Even if I do find the single best application of my talents, there is always room to continually put myself in a position of not knowing and welcome further growth.

Third, not knowing, especially in collaborative situations, tends to put others at ease. It gives them the space to share an equally risky, “I don’t know either.” This, in my experience, opens the door to a deeper collaboration among us.

The next time you find yourself back at square one and as clueless as a freshman on the first day of school, be a rookie. Embrace not knowing. Learn how to learn gracefully. In the end you may find that you had the answers all along. And then, show other how to do the same.



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