How “I Don’t Know” Can Make You An Authority in Your Industry

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One thing I’ve learned at Buffer is that being open to not knowing things seems to be the best way to learn quickly and teach others at the same time. So many of our biggest hits on the blog have come from saying, “We don’t know the answer. Let’s find out!”

On many matters, we haven’t any authority. 

Is this an OK way to get by?

We’ve found great success in not knowing, and there’s no reason why you can’t, too. While we can certainly see the value in establishing yourself as an authority in your industry, being the answer-man or answer-woman isn’t the be-all, end-all of your options.

You can survive and thrive by embracing “I don’t know.”

Here’s what we’ve learned so far.

The leading authorities on not knowing

An interesting phenomenon occurs when you’ve been not knowing things for as long as we have. You become an authority on not knowing.

That seems to be the case here at the Buffer blog. We’d like nothing more than to be known as a go-to source for social media content. When you think about social media, we’d love for you to think of us!

At the same time, we understand that we may not be authorities on everything social media—we may not have all the answers right away, near at hand.

And that seems to be alright.

Instead of being authorities on social media, we can be authorities on thorough research, fascinating statistics, and personal experience. In other words, there is more than one way to cement yourself in the minds of your followers beyond traditional authority. If we can earn a reputation as a go-to source for social media content by embracing what we don’t know, then the opportunity’s there for you to do the same.

If you aren’t able to claim authority in your chosen field, you can still seek after a subset of authority. You can be an authority on:

Find whatever it is you’re good at, and become the best you can be. Soon enough, your Facebook and your Twitter and your blog will be known for the quality, exceptional work you do, regardless of what it is that you don’t know.

The authority pyramid

So maybe authority means more than expertise, influence, and confidence. If we expand our definition, we can each find our own path to authority, however it may look.

Impostor syndrome: We all feel like we don’t have all the answers

I’ve had moments where I wasn’t sure I was cut out for my job. Have you had these moments, too?

We’re not alone. Psychologists call this impostor syndrome, and it applies to those of us who are unable to internalize accomplishments. Despite outward evidence that we’re great at what we do, we’re convinced that we’re frauds and undeserving of our place.

This level of “I Don’t Know” is more common than you might think. The term has been around since the 1970s, and researchers believe that up to 70 percent of people have felt the effects of impostor syndrome at some point.

If you’re interested in finding out if you have any characteristics of impostor syndrome, you can take the Clance Impostor Scale survey and see where you land. For each statement in the survey, you mark how true it is of you. For example,

  1. I tend to remember the incidents in which I have not done my best more than those times I have done my best.
  2. I often compare my ability to those around me and think they may be more intelligent than I am.
  3. At times, I feel my success has been due to some kind of luck.

Part and parcel of impostor syndrome is the feeling of not knowing—the lack of expertise that we’ve been talking about so far.  Via the Crew blog, here is a simple illustration that shows how impostor syndrome feels:

Impostor Syndrome chart

In the same Crew blog post, Andrea Ayres explains what the manifestations of impostor syndrome might look like, how people may compensate for feeling like a fraud. Do either of these sound familiar to you, whether you’ve done them yourself or witnessed them from colleagues?

Overdoing: When people prepare to an almost obsessive level, putting in much more effort than is realistically needed in order to ensure they don’t fail

Underdoing: People will under prepare or put off doing something until the last minute so they can blame any possible failures on a lack of readiness, as opposed to their actual ability. If you don’t really try you can’t really fail, right?

Of course, neither of these outcomes is preferable. Overdoing will lead to pressure and burnout; underdoing will lead to poor quality and performance.

With the prevalence of impostor syndrome being as great as it is, there must be a better way to survive and thrive while feeling like you don’t have all the answers. Here’s one way that we’ve found.

Giving yourself permission to not know it all

I believe part of the reason for the pressures of impostor syndrome is that there is a stigma around not knowing something. If you feel like an impostor because you don’t have all the answers, it’s because somewhere along the line you learned that it’s best to have all the answers all the time.

Not only is this impossible, it might not even be the best way to go about it.

I’m fortunate to work at a place that embraces the “I don’t know.” Buffer’s values highlight the fact that it’s okay to not have all the answers. We phrase this in terms of curiosity, improvement, listening, and humility.

Here are some choice phrases pulled from our Buffer culture slide deck:

You take the approach that everything is a hypothesis and you could be wrong

You approach new ideas thinking, “What can we do right now?”

You are suggestive rather than instructive, replacing phrases such as “certainly” and “undoubtedly” with “perhaps,” “I think,” and “my intuition right now”

You seek first to understand, then to be understood

Does your company share this belief? I’d be interested to hear which perspective your work takes on the matter of authority and knowledge.

It certainly helps to have an employer so openly embrace the idea of not knowing. And at the same time, there is power in the individual assertion that you don’t have to know it all. Even if your company isn’t outspoken on the matter, you can change your personal philosophy and give yourself a break from chasing authority. You may find this new mindset refreshing, among the many other benefits of embracing the power of “I don’t know.”

3 incredible effects of embracing what you don’t know

“I don’t know” and trust

Jason Freedman of 42 Floors shared a story about a competitive hiring process where one of the key deciding factors for the candidate was Freedman’s openness about not knowing an answer. When Freedman said, “I don’t know,” the candidate was sold. Here’s the reason why:

When people say I don’t know, it lends credibility to everything else that they’ve said.

Think about someone who always seems to have an answer for everything. You’ve maybe wondered along the way if he or she really could know all this stuff, right? But when you admit to not knowing, you give power to the things you do know. People learn to trust your responses to questions and to know they can get an honest answer from you at all times.

“I don’t know” and innovation

Stay hungry, stay foolish

This quote from entrepreneur Sahar Hashemi plays off the idea of embracing the power of “I don’t know” as it relates to curiosity—a key to innovation. Hashemi believes that being clueless and curious is essential to entrepreneurship. Without it, you no longer dream, tinker, and ask “why not.” In this way, knowing too much can actually be a detriment.

“I don’t know” and creativity

Would you hire someone with little experience in your industry? Common sense might say no; however, some would argue that inexperience might be just the thing a company needs.

Nils Sköld writes about this idea on Medium, telling how a lack of knowledge can actually be an ideal way to spur creativity and think outside the norms of an industry. Have you experienced anything similar to this?

My theory is this: when you know everything about an industry, you don’t know whats good for it. What an industry needs is people who have no idea on how it operates. People that don’t know that there are any rules. While it is good to break rules and to push boundaries, it’s much better to just never know that any rules exists. 

Our key to not knowing: “We don’t know the answer. Let’s find out!”

In our experience, there’s a bit more to the matter of not knowing than simply embracing our lack of knowledge.

We’d be sunk if we stopped at “I don’t know.” That’s why we follow up by finding out.

Much of our blog content comes from experience. We hunt for answers to our questions (and your questions!) and we report back with what we find.

What we lack in authority on social media, we make up for by seeking input from our audience in chats and conversations and by approaching our social updates with  a curious, open attitude.

Embracing “I don’t know” is an opportunity to discover. We’ve found that having an attitude of improvement, experimentation, and curiosity makes it such that there’s no need to worry about not knowing this or that.

If we don’t know, we’ll find out.

Over to you: In what ways has not knowing benefited you?

Having authority in your industry is great, but it isn’t the be-all, end-all for growth. You can enjoy authority in many number of different ways from being the expert of experts to being the expert of your unique perspective.

We’ve embraced the power of “I don’t know,” and we’ve seen the benefits for trust, innovation, creativity, discovery, and so much more.

How do you feel about the topic of authority? Is it acceptable to embrace “I don’t know” in your workplace? I’d love to hear your thoughts and experience in the comments.

Image sources: mikecogh, Crew

  • Evan Dunn

    This is my favorite blog of yours by far so far. And that’s saying something.

    Thank you.

    • http://blog.bufferapp.com Kevan

      Hi, Evan! Thanks for the kind words! Really glad this one connected for you. :)

      • charlesjdion

        just before I looked at the receipt ov $8130 , I
        didn’t believe that my sister woz like actualy bringing in money part-time from
        there pretty old laptop. . there aunts neighbour has been doing this 4 only
        about 22 months and at present repayed the mortgage on their appartment and
        bought themselves a Chrysler . see here C­a­s­h­f­i­g­.­C­O­M­

  • ronellsmith

    Kevan,

    There’s a great little book written on this topic: I Don’t Know: In Praise Of Admitting Ignorance (Except When You Shouldn’t). One of the best things to happen when we’re humble and curious is people are more willing to share and collaborate with us, which further opens the doors of discovery, learning and knowledge.

    I was fortunate to have a father who, when I was 12, told me “Never say ‘I know.’ Even if you do know, don’t say it. Just thank them for the advice. That way, the next time they see you and your doing correctly what they just told you to do, they’ll think, ‘He’s a fast learner.’”

    Needless to say, “I know” is an annoyance of epic proportions.

    RS

    • http://blog.bufferapp.com Kevan

      Hi Ronell! Thanks for the comment! Sounds like I’ll need to check out that book! And kudos to your dad for the awesome advice. :)

      • robertlfrisch

        My Uncle
        Riley got an almost new red GMC Canyon just by some parttime working online
        with a laptop. visit their website C­a­s­h­f­i­g­.­C­O­M­

  • Sara Rohde

    This was so refreshing. Impostor Syndrome, culture deck… Good going, Kevan.

  • http://www.dionnekasianlew.com/ Dionne Kasian-Lew

    Hey Kevan – I wrote a piece entitled just this on Medium last year –

    “I Don’t Know – Using Uncertainty as a Platform for Growth” – it’s addressing it from a different angle but shares this philosophy –

    https://medium.com/@DionneLew/i-dont-know-59a0715d076 -

    Another great piece –
    Dionne

    • http://blog.bufferapp.com Kevan

      Hi, Dionne! This looks like a great one! Headed over to read it now. :)

  • David Moon

    You guys are always spot on, and completely honest. Unfortunately, “I don’t know” is seldom encouraged by upper management, who see it as a form of either willful obstruction or just plain ignorance. This mindset of course can cause people to pretend to know things they do not, which ends up hurting companies more in the long run. Sometimes problems don’t have easy answers and all you can do is do your best to figure it out.

    • http://blog.bufferapp.com Kevan

      Well said, David!

  • http://www.jcfacility.co.uk Todd

    Hey Kevan – what a great post!

    I’m defiantly refusing to believe that I have Impostor syndrome but I reckon I have it bad! Saying that, I have recently opened up to the idea of not knowing everything, and that actually when you show a weakness, people relate to you.

    Showing that you don’t know everything is a weakness, but an endearing one.

    It shows people that you’re human – and as a brand that’s powerful. I love that way that when you show you don’t something someone will tell you… and then you know. If you pretended that you knew it – you wouldn’t have learnt!

    The research angle is awesome and I really like the idea that this opens you up to people more. Ask them and they WILL find out if they don’t already know. This then drives you to be an expert as a by product. It’s a great mantra to live by.

    Great post. Great ideas.

    Todd

  • http://www.jcfacility.co.uk Graham Todd

    Hey Kevan – what a great post!

    I’m defiantly refusing to believe that I have Impostor syndrome but I reckon I have it bad! Saying that, I have recently opened up to the idea of not knowing everything, and that actually when you show a weakness, people relate to you.

    Showing that you don’t know everything is a weakness, but an endearing one.

    It shows people that you’re human – and as a brand that’s powerful. I love that way that when you show you don’t something someone will tell you… and then you know. If you pretended that you knew it – you wouldn’t have learnt!

    The research angle is awesome and I really like the idea that this opens you up to people more. Ask them and they WILL find out if they don’t already know. This then drives you to be an expert as a by product. It’s a great mantra to live by.

    Great post. Great ideas.

    Todd

    • http://blog.bufferapp.com Kevan

      Hi, Todd! Thanks for this comment! Really great to hear your perspective on this. :) I thought I was immune to impostor syndrome, too, and I quickly found out I was fooling myself! I’ve learned that it’s an okay thing to admit, to be conscious of, and to learn from.

      • http://www.jcfacility.co.uk Graham Todd

        No, I’m fully infected too! ;)

  • Rob Montgomery

    Ohh, the freedom that comes with telling the truth! Today, being a know-it-all can certainly bring you nowhere. When you admit the fact that you don’t know it all, you will be given the chance to explore things together with your readers!

    This is my favorite blog post of yours indeed!

    • http://blog.bufferapp.com Kevan

      Hi, Rob! Thanks so much for your kind words here! Here’s to not knowing it all!

  • Am

    Sometime verbalizing “I don’t know” minimizes criticism; “I don’t know” gives others a different perspective

  • Dan C

    Hey Kevan,

    Great post! I just wanted to say that I LOVE the new layout that’s been applied to the blog posts. The font is easier on my eyes, and overall it just looks more fluid. I hope this is a change that’s here to stay! :)

    • http://blog.bufferapp.com Kevan

      Awesome, Dan! Really glad you’re enjoying the layout. It’s always fun to have a new coat of paint (or a complete remodel!).

  • http://www.napacopywriter.com Gina Ritter

    I really needed this kick in the head. Thank you.

    • http://blog.bufferapp.com Kevan

      Hi, Gina! Glad to hear this one resonated with you. :)

  • http://www.wordsfyi.com/ Marge Brown

    Kevan – I don’t believe I’ve ever seen 10 more inspiring cultural values in all the years I’ve been in business. Congratulations to you and to Buffer for articulating and living by such values.

    • http://blog.bufferapp.com Kevan

      Hi, Marge! Thanks so much for the kind words. I’m definitely blessed to be working among such a virtuous group! :)

  • theresaSuttons

    my best friend’s half-sister makes $64 every hour on the internet . She has been without a job for 7 months but last month her pay check was $19649 just working on the internet for a few hours. hop over to here.for a work detail go tech tab.

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  • Tom Zs

    Great post as always guys. Just wanted to let you know that the tweet button isn’t working properly. If I click to the button this is what I get: “How http://blog.bufferapp.com/i-dont-know-authority-in-your-industry via @buffer”
    The post title is missing.

    Tom

    • Courtney Seiter

      Hey Tom! Wow, thanks so much for letting us know! Going to check this out right now. Glad you dug the post!

      • Tom Zs

        You are welcome :-) I’m glad I could help a bit. Keep up the good job.

        Tom

  • joshinteractiveqa

    Really enjoyed this post. One of my first decent jobs out of college was at an art museum with a diverse collection. I was given a test on the collection, and was surprised to hear I got a 100 on the test. I got that score because there was an option “I don’t know” for every question, and for most of them, that’s what I chose. They didn’t mind me not knowing – there were half a dozen curators there who were experts. Just ask them! They didn’t want me making stuff up.

    • http://blog.bufferapp.com Kevan

      Inspiring story, Josh! Thanks for sharing. :)

  • http://www.thewebsitemanagers.com/ Thea Woods

    Dude, you have no idea how timely this advice is for me! I’m not sure if you’ve ever read “The Millionaire Messenger: Make a Difference and a Fortune Sharing Your Advice” by Brendon Burchard, but he touches on this. I never completed it and now you’ve inspired me to FINALLY do so.

    Shortly after college (after several months of temp jobs) I discovered there was fun career called Copywriting. An idea popped in my head to create my own “Ad” on Craigslist (in the form of a Cover Letter). It was admittedly goofy, sarcastic and semi-humorous. Yet somehow, it landed me 2 job offers for positions I was extremely underqualified for. Both business owners admitted to me that they chose me over individuals with 10+ years’ experience because they appreciated that I was honest about my ignorance, yet I seemed hungry and teachable.

    Now looking back at my own successes and failures since then, the times that I’ve failed tremendously had to do with succumbing to the pressure of feeling the need to be an “expert” or “authority figure”. Consequently, I’ve spent too much time in research mode when I should’ve been in action mode. The times I’ve done well and had success were when I was candid about not knowing something, but was willing to go for it anyways, find the solution and share the knowledge gained along the way.

    I’m currently still trying to navigate how to find that balance between becoming an authority figure while still remaining a hungry, teachable, perpetual student. Articles like these help to make that clearer. Thanks Kevan! :)

    • http://blog.bufferapp.com Kevan

      Hi Thea! So great to hear your story! Thanks for taking the time to leave such a thoughtful, transparent comment. :)

  • Katya Pavlopoulos

    I went to a college that heavily valued research. Every successful project I did began with “Here’s what we don’t know.. so let’s find out.” Powerful life lesson!

    • http://blog.bufferapp.com Kevan

      Love this, Katya! It’s been fun to take that type of approach with Buffer content, too. :)

  • preciousbwallace

    Start working at home with Google! It’s by-far the best job I’ve had. Last Wednesday I got a brand new BMW since getting a check for $6474 this – 4 weeks past. I began this 8-months ago and immediately was bringing home at least $77 per hour. I work through this link, go to tech tab for work detail

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  • http://spytzo.gr/ Spyros Tzortzis

    I would really like to contribute this video from vlogbrothers to the discussion :) It’s called “Towering Mountains of Ignorance” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=w3v3S82TuxU

  • Wing

    Thank you for sharing such a good point of view. It is so true. It is impossible for one to know all, even in the field that he is familiar. The world keeps changing all the time. Everyone should stay curious and keeps going, keeps seeking. And that is the thing to push people being better. I really enjoyed your post. Thank you for sharing.

  • Wally Wiki

    We are all more powerful working together than we are as one. We can learn from you and you can learn from us.

    Known Knowns, that which we know we know.

    Known Unknowns, that which we know we don’t know.

    Unknown knowns, that which we refuse to acknowledge that we know.

    Unknown Unknowns, that which we are unaware that we don’t know.

    THE ULTIMATE OBJECTIVE IS TO TURN THE “UNKNOWN UNKNOWNS” INTO

    “KNOWN UNKNOWNS” – Then we can Sort the ones to Learn.

    In business, finding the answers to the obvious questions must be done to even play the game. But what separates the good from the great businesses is their ability to dive deep into the world of Unknown Unknowns and come back with pearls.

    Not knowing “What You Don’t Know” is the most important thing you “Don’t Know.

    In the end, it is not our present knowledge, our incomplete or completely wrong conceptions; it is what we create by discovering & dealing with ‘Unknown-Unknowns’.

    Wally Wiki