The following also is my latest MediaPost column…
Acknowledge What You Don’t Know
Venture capitalist Mike Hirshland recently explained how he was delighted when the CEO of one of his portfolio companies said to him: “I’d love some help here, I think we are doing the right things but to be honest I don’t know what I don’t know.” Hirshland noted that to be successful, “entrepreneurs and startup CEOs need to have the maturity and confidence to know when they are treading in foreign waters and ask for help.” True, but Hirshland’s advice is applicable far beyond the land of startups and entrepreneurs:
Early in my career, I used to believe asking for help, or not knowing things, was bad. I used to work very hard to appear knowledgeable in every situation. For a variety of reasons, I felt pressure to exhibit everything I knew and then some. I was driven by immaturity, social pressure, workplace competition and fear. Not knowing was a sign of weakness.
I’m not sure exactly when it happened, but my mindset changed somewhere in my mid to late twenties. I eventually became comfortable with the fact that there’s just a lot I don’t know, and never will. Even masters are not masterful in every dimension of their discipline.
Call it maturity or common sense. I now consider acknowledging what I don’t know a critical pillar of success. In fact, it’s more important than actually knowing. Why?
First, anyone who fails to acknowledge what he doesn’t know is only fooling himself. Truly, this is the worst fog bank to be lost in – one which doesn’t allow you to get out of your own way. Acknowledging what you don’t know means you can identify and fix the problem. Let the anxiety of what you don’t know motivate you!
Second, acknowledging what you don’t know implicitly means you’re open to alternative viewpoints and solutions. Allowing others into your realm enables choice and optimization, and greatly improves problem-solving likelihood.
Third, acknowledging what you don’t know opens you up, transforming you into a beacon to attract experts and creative ideas. The fact is that people want to help. Being open identifies yourself, makes you visible and encourages others to contribute positive thinking and support to help you succeed.
Fourth, acknowledging what you don’t know guarantees you’ll become far more knowledgeable over the long term. Getting into the habit of acknowledging what you don’t know means you’ll seek answers to more diverse questions and problems – and more often. It will lead to more intensive problem solving that will only breed experience and intuition. It will force you to cultivate a network of experts and idea sources that will grow ever more valuable.
Finally, acknowledging what you don’t know simply makes you look good. It shows you’re the kind of person who’ll find the best solution. Whether in your head or not, it sends a signal that you’re the person who’ll get the job done right.
If you want to succeed, acknowledge what you don’t know.