You don’t know what you don’t know

My career got a lot more interesting when I stopped needing to be the expert and instead was willing to be confused, asking questions and openly eager to learn more.

Reading the above status on Facebook from my friend David Weekly was a stark reminder of the most valuable lesson I learned during my ten years at Microsoft. A lesson that I was taught the first day during New Employee Orientation.

For each group of new recruits, a senior executive was asked to come and give advise. I can’t remember who our senior executive was, but one thing he told us stuck with me ever since. It was that “you don’t know what you don’t know”.

He went on to explain, that he would respect much more if you answered one of his questions with “I don’t know, but I will find out”, rather than giving him a made up answer. Ever since, I have given up on the old slogan “fake it,’til you make it” and rather admitted my ignorance and told people I would find out.

The truth is that you earn a lot more respect for being willing to expose the boundaries of your knowledge, than when you try to exaggerate them. What is even better is that you will learn new things and expand the knowledge about the subject if you admit your shortcomings. 

On top of all of this, you may also expose new options or ways to solve problems, if you are willing to ask the questions, instead of pretending to know the answers. Some of these new questions, asked by someone who is open minded and does not have a predefined mindset, might actually unearth new approaches.

In my new role, I get exposed to the world of corporate finance, investment banking, and venture capital – yet my background is all technology related. I freely admit this shortcoming to entrepreneurs when they ask questions about things such as valuations. I tell them I know people who are experts in that field and that I will get them the answers they need. The fact that my deep understanding of technology and the ability to express the value it provides is sufficient enough for them, they don’t need me to also be an expert in setting up Excel sheets that justify some magical valuation.

So as you move forward in your career, remember to freely admit that you don’t know what you don’t know. 

Published March 15th 2016 at LinkedIn