28 September 2015

I don't know

Braden Kowitz at Google Ventures HQ
After working at Google for about 6 months I was working on Google Finance and I invited a fellow UX designer to talk to the team I was working with about the importance of social; thinking about the user in the context of having a series of relationships rather than being an isolated individual. Braden Kowitz gained my endless respect that day not for what he knew, but for what he didn’t know. 

There is a running joke at Google about having ‘imposter syndrome’ where for a while after joining you feel that somehow your getting through the tough hiring process was an error and everyone you work with is smarter than you. It is easy to fall into that way of thinking with the confident people around you who always have an answer for everything. When Braden was being grilled by the skeptical team of engineers he sometimes didn’t just reply with a vague answer, but he just calmly said:

I don’t know

Such confidence and strength to admit ignorance, rather than think less of him due to the gaps in his knowledge I admired Braden’s ability to look someone squarely in the eye and unapologetically admit to not having all the answers without fearing that it would undermine people’s perception of his expertise.

So often you see people being questioned who will panic and just start talking nonsense or answer a different question in an effort to maintain a sense of power and authority. Most of us have done this in the past, but wouldn’t it be great if we all stopped wasting each other’s time and have it be OK to say “I don’t know” without any need to be apologetic or feel a sense of failure.

One thing that helps is the understanding that not knowing is not a permanent state of being. As when we are designing products, we are constantly in a state of identifying what we don’t know and filling those gaps with research in order to have confidence in our design decisions. When training students in TaeKwon-Do I am in the habit of correcting students who say “I can’t do that” or “I don’t know that” by encouraging them to add the word “yet” on to the end. 

Understanding what you don’t know is a critical step in mastery and then it just takes time, effort and perseverance to change it. “I don’t know” isn’t an end state of ignorance but the first step in understanding. Changing our relationship to the phrase may help us feel more confident to use it in conversation.

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