I Don’t Know!

The first step towards knowledge is to know that we are ignorant” – Richard Cecil


Alia Bhatt, an Indian actor who received critical acclaim for some of her works in Bollywood, including a Filmfare award for her stellar role in Udta Punjab, was trolled for months after she answered ‘Prithviraj Chauhan’ to a rapid fire question ‘who is the President of India?’

She would have been way better off answering ‘I don’t know’, but she felt compelled to venture an answer on that popular TV show when she needn’t have.

Most of us make similar mistakes but with much lesser consequences because we are not celebrities. Ask any person on Delhi’s roads for driving directions. Nine out of ten people will venture directions that may set you off course for miles. But they will seldom say I don’t know. I was once halfway down to Agra before realising I was following the wrong directions given by an eager beaver. Actually I just wanted to get from Greater Kailash, where my fiancée lived, to Kotah House on Shahjahan Road, New Delhi.

Recently, I had the opportunity to fly as co-pilot with an expat pilot of considerable experience on a machine on which I am still cutting my teeth. Before he went to work on me with technical and operational details of the AW 139, he cautioned me to freely use the phrase ‘I don’t know’. A rich exchange with many lessons followed in that 2-hour flight.

Why are we always so keen to offer answers when we actually don’t know them? Why the compulsion to look more intelligent & knowledgeable than we truly are? Why do we blurt out ‘I know’ within seconds of any discussion?

I don’t know. But I feel it may have something to do with intellectual arrogance. Or self-esteem. Right from our school days, we were rewarded for venturing half-answers or tentative answers, and punished for saying ‘I don’t know’. We grew up fearing being chastised for not knowing answers, often to questions which were well outside our domain. So we felt compelled to generalise or give roundabout answers when a simple ‘I don’t know’ would have been safer. And infinitely wiser.

An offshoot of this condition is the tendency to ‘listen to question’ rather than ‘listen to understand’. I remember the unwritten dictum of Defence Services Staff College (a mid-level-course for grooming upcoming defence officers) where there were marks for ‘participation’ in classroom discussions and ‘questions asked’ of the guest speaker during central lectures. That set off a race where we listened to some of the best lectures by acclaimed speakers with the misplaced agenda of framing questions that ‘looked intelligent’ or threw the speaker off balance. And maybe all that applause for ‘great question, KPS!’ after the lecture must have inspired few others to follow the example next time.

Intellectually arrogant people often claim to know more than they really know. No wonder ‘subject matter experts’ abound today in every field, waxing eloquent on topics where they have, at best, the mundane experience of being around for years doing the same thing over and over again.

I recall an incident from years ago where as part of a high-level, product evaluation team we subjected the hosts to a ‘trial by fire’ of unending queries resulting in numerous ‘I don’t know’ responses from the other side. Unbelievable as it may sound, some organisations and cultures don’t encourage tentative answers and guesses, especially where the stakes are high and reputation is built on diligence and discipline. We failed to comprehend why they couldn’t provide satisfactory answers instantly.

But they did eventually; providing detailed responses backed by scientific data to every single query. It must have taken them considerable time, effort and money. I am not sure if the powers-that-be even read the detailed responses but that’s just how we are. Always asking the tough questions without completing our own homework. Or being really interested in the answers.

Maybe we are more interested in framing good-looking questions. Ask any company how many RFIs (Requests for Information) they get as a matter of routine from the Indian MoD. Every few years, the questions get rephrased and repeated as a new set of planners take the reigns, little realising budgetary implications of providing commercial information to repeated, infructuous queries. And when a pre-bid meeting is convened to clear the air, the first words from hosts (MoD personnel) in any discussion would predictably be ‘I know’.

In his autobiography, A Call to Honour: In Service of an Emerging India, former Indian External Affairs Minister Jaswant Singh makes a weighty statement that “in diplomatic discourse and conduct, India has tended to carry many chips on its shoulder, almost always moralistic, needlessly arrogant, argumentative, mistaking such attitude as being an assertion of national pride.”

Singh further goes on to state that the “weight of so many centuries of servitude” has created in Indians “such an acute sense of hearing that quite often it hears insults where none exist or are even implied.”

Intellectual humility entails being aware of the bounds of one’s knowledge (as opposed to information that can be ‘Googled’ or found in books, manuals, etc). It means saying ‘I don’t know’ when you do not have complete ‘justified true belief’ about the subject under discussion.

Intellectual arrogance on the other hand presumes that we know more about the subject than anybody else of the same or different denomination. It is an exercise in self-deception. You may get successful with being outwardly humble while harbouring this ‘intellectually arrogant’ gene. But it won’t get you far. There is too much information out there, much more than can be stored between your ears. And then there is knowledge.

While a questioning mind is good, make sure your questions spring from curiosity rather than an effort to put the other guy on the mat.

So the next time you are asked something for which you do not have a ready answer, be sure you say ‘I don’t know’.

Will that get you far? I don’t know.

But I have a strong feeling it will.


©KP Sanjeev Kumar, 2017. All rights reserved. I can be reached at kipsake1@gmail.com. Cover photo by Kaypius.

11 thoughts on “I Don’t Know!

  1. Refreshing thought which we so often overlook , put in simple and straight.
    Worth reading and implementing in life.

  2. I couldn’t agree with you more, KPS. However, if the question posed to me falls within the domain that I am expected to have a reasonable knowledge, aft ‘ I don’t know’ I would like to say that I will get back with an appropriate answer.

  3. HI KPS! Well written as always. I totally agree with your assertions BUT, I happen to notice amongst the youngsters an overwhelming tendency to say ‘I don’t know’ even when he is supposed to know! To elaborate the point graduates from the Academy’s are expected to know something about radio propagation, types of tracking radars, etc but very often simply state ‘I don’t know’. Frankly, I don’t know why!

  4. Hi KP, great one again. ‘I don’t know’ can truly set one free and on the path of learning. I think being encouraged to say something or write something to get marks in schools is the start point and encouragement along the ladder only helps in reinforcing this trait. The anecdotal reference to directions on Delhi roads is hilarious and brings back some fond and not do fond memories of life in Delhi!!
    Keep writing…. Waiting for a book from you…

  5. Beautiful…As always…N so true..We need to acknowledge if “V don’t know certain things…But …General mentality is to refrain from admitting as it’s embarrassing n degrading to acknowledge the fact I Don’t Know ‘.Mindset needs to b changed..N am sure Ur article will surely have a positive impact on readers…I can vouch for that..your dedicated hard work will bear fruitful result….God Bless!

  6. Hi Sir
    A nice read. Till end I thought some answers to saying “I WILL COME BACK TO YOU”. I am sure you would recollect your days as instructor in Air force test pilot school. Those who did come back, were good learners as well as instructors

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