155. It's OK to not know

May 12, 2020

Admitting that you don’t know something can often be a bitter pill to swallow. Rather than beating yourself up about it, why not see it as an opportunity to learn something new? So rather than saying, “I don’t know,” choose to say, “I don’t know YET.” This way you can remain open to delving deeper into a subject, no matter how experienced you are. In this episode, we talk about what it takes to own up to not knowing something. To some degree, the environment you work in creates a culture of openness and learning, where you, as an engineer, have a safe space to talk about your knowledge gaps. However, as an individual, you can also set a precedent for asking questions openly. We talk about why you should not put anyone down when they don’t know something. Even if you’re experienced, you can see this as a learning moment because teaching is one of the best ways to solidify your knowledge. We also explore how to pivot from a fixed mindset to a growth one, the Recurse Center’s tips on creating a safe learning space, and why learning together can create stronger teams. While we may not know everything, we know that you don’t want to miss out on today’s show. Be sure to tune today!


Key Points From This Episode:


  • How workplaces contribute to developers being able to say they don’t know something.
  • Find out how people can take it too far with “I don’t know.”
  • Why “I don’t know yet” shows a can-do attitude rather than a defeatist one.
  • It’s important to be clear when something is a guess and make sure they’re not turned into deadlines.
  • A look at the xkcd comic, Ten Thousand, and how it relates to “I don’t know.”
  • The effects of belittling someone who may not know something and asks for help.
  • Fixed versus growth mindsets: The different ways they respond to not knowing.
  • How teaching someone else can help you solidify your own knowledge.
  • Some of the Recurse Center’s rules to create a healthy, open learning environment.

Transcript for Episode 155. "I don't know anything" -- It's OK to not know, It's what you do after you know you don't know




[0:00:01.9] MN: Hello and welcome to The Rabbit Hole, the definitive developer’s podcast in fantabulous Chelsea Manhattan. I’m your host, Michael Nunez. Our co-host today:


[0:00:09.8] DA: Dave Anderson.


[0:00:10.8] MN: Our producer.


[0:00:12.0] WJ: William Jeffries.


[0:00:13.9] MN: Today, we’ll be talking about the power of saying, “I don’t know.”


[0:00:19.3] WJ: Say what?


[0:00:20.0] MN: I don’t know.


[0:00:20.8] DA: I’m not sure about that.


[0:00:23.1] MN: You sure you're not sure about that because I don’t know.


[0:00:25.0] DA: I do have an opinion on this.


[0:00:26.0] MN: Yeah, you know, often times, we’re shipping code and delivering features and you may struck upon a problem where you may not know the answer to.


[0:00:36.0] WJ: You don’t know?


[0:00:38.0] MN: Yeah, I don’t know.


[0:00:39.4] WJ: You don’t know the answer?


[0:00:40.6] MN: Yeah, sometimes I don’t.


[0:00:41.1] DA: You don’t know about CSS grid, man? Get out of here. That’s old school.


[0:00:46.0] MN: Bro, no. I don’t know about that. Get out of here.


[0:00:48.9] DA: You're just like center padding things. Gosh, get out of here.


[0:00:52.2] MN: Every time I deal with CSS. I got to go and search that. All  the time.


[0:01:00.0] DA: I have my flex box, CSS tricks, articles.


[0:01:03.2] MN: You have a whole book mark. I imagine. I have like a folder of all the CSS things that I would need to know.


[0:01:08.3] DA: Yeah, that’s true. Yeah, I mean, one part of the power is saying, “I don’t know,” and it’s like you’re just like, “I will not know this but I will know how to know this.” Because you know, the Internet has just taken over our brains. And now you know, the documentation and the Internet and StackOverflow holds the answera.


[0:01:28.2] WJ: It’s like an external hard drive.


[0:01:30.1] DA: Exactly.


[0:01:31.3] MN: Your Google fool is up there enough to know how to search for the thing you don’t know at the moment and boom, you just find it as fast as possible. I mean, it’s good if you knew it. If I just knew CSS in my head, that would be great because then I wouldn’t  have to search for it but –


[0:01:46.7] WJ: But then you wouldn’t have to have a whole section of your brain dedicated to CSS.


[0:01:52.3] MN: I don’t think I’m ready for that guys. I think the idea of being able to say I don’t know demands that the workplace allows you to say that you don’t know something.


[0:02:03.6] WJ: I think, you know, we also have to take this on ourselves like it is our responsibility to say that we don’t know when we don’t know. Like to some degree, you know, certain workplaces are more accepting and others are more hostile towards that behavior but like at the end of the day, it’s on us.


[0:02:21.1] MN: Right. I mean, when you work at a place where it is safe space for you to share that then it’s easier for you to then learn the thing that you don’t know to get the job done rather than being ridiculed that you don’t know this one thing.


[0:02:34.5] WJ: Right. But sometimes, everybody’s afraid to say one person starts saying it. People are like, “Nothing bad happened to them. I guess it’s okay?”


[0:02:42.8] DA: Right, or even if you like are an expert like if you’re like, “Yeah, I use Django. I guess I know Django,” but I think that’s like too broad –


[0:02:53.8] WJ: We’re friends, he can go to my birthday party.


[0:02:55.1] DA: That’s like too broad of a statement and be like, “Yeah, I know Django but like, there’s a lot of corners of it that I don’t know.” And that if I just say, “Oh, I know Django,” then that closes you off to like, you know, investigating and like digging into things more. Maybe having conversation with someone about the edge cases or asking questions.


Like, “I already know how to do this, I don’t’ need to do anything more and figure out a better way to do it or” –


[0:03:25.3] WJ: I think you can also go too far with I don’t know. Like at a certain point, stop telling me you don’t know, go fucking look it up.


[0:03:33.5] MN: Well, yes. But you should be given the time to go and look it up when you don’t know something.


[0:03:38.8] WJ: Yeah.


[0:03:39.4] MN: I think it’s like, “You don’t know that then you’re trash. Get out of here. You’re fired.”


[0:03:44.2]T WJ: But then there’s also like the, “Ah, I don’t know.”


[0:03:47.5] MN: I mean no. You should go, “No, you should know. You should go find out.” I think if we change the “I don’t know,” to, “I don’t know but I’m going to look into it.”


[0:03:56.6] WJ: I don’t know yet.


[0:03:57.9] MN: Yeah, I don’t know yet. There you go. I don’t think I’ve ever thought –


[0:04:00.9] DA: That’s a can do attitude.


[0:04:03.3] MN: I don’t think I’ve ever said I don’t know yet before. But I think I’m going to have to add that to my vocabulary.


[0:04:08.6] WJ: Yeah, that’s a good one.


[0:04:08.5] DA: Right, yeah. I feel like that’s a very safe alternative. It’s like you know, it’s the companion of it depends.


[0:04:17.2] MN: It depends and I don’t know yet. There you go.


[0:04:19.9] DA: I feel like it’s a reasonable thing because engineering is such a broad field. You have had a lot of experience in the field like you have like you know, five years of experience or 10 years of experience. You could have had the same five years of experience over and over again or you know, had a completely different five years of experience every single time. Who knows? It’s hard to compare.


[0:04:42.5] MN: Yeah. I mean, like the work place is picking up a new language or a new framework, right? “Hey everyone, we’re going to start – use this micro servers and Go,” and you have to go and learn Go. A lot of that times, you may not know things but if you still don’t know after working on this project for some time, then that’s a problem but if you don’t know yet, and then you figure it out and that’s nice.


[0:05:06.3] DA: Yeah, like separating out the growth versus the fixed mindset.


[0:05:10.5] WJ: Right.


[0:05:11.1] DA: Kind of looking at it and be like, “Okay, I am not a set person like who has certain abilities or limitations.” I guess, there are maybe some limitations. But you know, you can nurture yourself and grow.


[0:05:26.4] MN: Right, I mean that’s the idea. If you don’t know, if you say that phrase you don’t know, just add yet at the end of it. You don’t’ know yet, there you go.


[0:05:34.8] WJ: I think it’s also fine to guess. Just like be clear that you're guessing. Don’t be like, “Yeah, it’s definitely this.”


[0:05:42.1] DA: Yeah. But that’s an interesting thing too like when you guess, it’s really informed by your past experience


[0:05:50.8] WJ: Right, I mean, you may not be able to make a guess if you're totally out of your depth.


[0:05:56.3] DA: Right, that was like actually a point that Andy and Dave brought up in the Pragmatic Folks episode about like, you got to know when you’re completely out of your depth and be like yeah, “I’m just not even going to go out on a limb here. I cannot get this spaceship to mars, right? I’m going to go like pad a box model or something.”


[0:06:21.0] MN: There you go. But you have to identify, you have to like reflect upon yourself as to whether this guess is an educated guess or something out of the ballpark, I guess.


[0:06:31.7] WJ: Right.


[0:06:32.8] DA: Yeah, like your experience will let you identify what assumptions you're making and articulate what those assumptions are and how confident you are.


[0:06:42.7] WJ: How long is that feature going to take?


[0:06:47.4] MN: Man, I don’t know.


[0:06:49.4] DA: I don’t know yet.


[0:06:49.8] MN: I don’t know. We’ll find out together.


[0:06:52.2] WJ: I’m going to guess.


[0:06:54.5] DA: I’m going to know after I finish it, for sure.


[0:06:56.6] MN: That happens a lot in like certain – you know, if you working at some place where your process is like waterfall like you almost expect it to know how long something is going to take for you to deliver this one thing.


[0:07:08.5] WJ: Right, yeah. Please guess seven months in advance.


[0:07:11.0] MN: Yeah, figure it out, yeah, you got it. But like, when someone ask me like how long was this going to take, it’s usually like, “I don’t know, I’m guessing X amount of time depending on my past experience and” –


[0:07:21.2] WJ: I know that you guessed that. I’m going to take your estimate and use it as a deadline.


[0:07:24.2] MN: Yup. That’s hard, don’t do that and reinforce that if they try to do that. Hey, I said guess. I didn’t say, that’s not the line, I never agreed to that time. I guessed that time.


[0:07:36.9] WJ: I don’t understand this. You said that this was going to be done.


[0:07:39.5] DA: You got to bring the board game estimates where it’s like how long is it going to take? Yahtzee. Yahtzee. Easy.


[0:07:50.9] MN: Yeah, don’t get fooled by that one. Just be sure you’re clear in the idea that it is an estimate and not an actual and guessing is fun in that regard. Because you can’t predict the future, you don’t know how long that’s going to take you, you just don’t so don’t use it as a talent.


[0:08:08.6] DA: Yeah, one of my favorite aspects of like, just saying I don’t know is that when you feel comfortable saying it it’s like really freeing to like have positive environment for learning and discourse, like for a conversation and like figuring out where the depths of the knowledge that you have actually are.


There’s a couple of like good comics or there’s always an xkcd comic for everything.


[0:08:35.4] MN: xkcd. Yeah, always.


[0:08:37.0] DA: There’s a great one about like, this exact topic called Ten Thousand, where someone in the comic doesn’t know about the Mentos and Diet Coke.


[0:08:49.4] WJ: Yeah it’s a cue ball. Cue ball doesn’t know.


[0:08:53.7] DA: They have character names? I didn’t even know.


[0:08:55.2] WJ: Yeah, the one with the regular circle head, that’s cue ball.


[0:08:58.6] MN: I didn’t even know that. Today I learned, now I know.


[0:09:02.0] DA: I didn’t know, yeah.


[0:09:03.8] WJ: There’s a website xkcdexplained.com where they just explain each on of those comics because some of them are very arcane and kind of require somebody to break it down. And in there, they kind of codified all of the characters because they’re all recurring.


[0:09:19.2] DA: Okay. It’s not like an official name.


[0:09:21.2] WJ: Cartoonist. I mean, he’s a brilliant cartoonist but like the actual depictions of people are pretty heavily recycled. It’s like stick figure with no hair. Stick figure with some hair. Stick figure with long hair.


[0:09:36.0] MN: And pony tail. Guy with hat.


[0:09:39.1] WJ: Stick figure with black hat. Stick figure with white hat.


[0:09:44.1] DA: I’m wonder if it will bring back the XKCD and to like the meta topic of, “I don’t know?”


[0:09:50.2] WJ: Well, I mean, if you don’t know going to XKCD explained, waiting at that explanation.


[0:09:57.9] MN: I think the comic, after looking at the comic Ten Thousand has to do with the fact that on the planet, right now, approximation there are Ten Thousand people who don’t know something that you do.


[0:10:11.2] WJ: I think it was like he did some real math in order to get there. It was like for a 100% of the population to know that fact by age 30, then every day, 10,000 people need to learn that fact.


[0:10:28.1] MN: Right, yeah no. You should definitely check out. But the idea is like you know 10,000 people a day who don’t know.


[0:10:34.8] WJ: Learning that thing that everybody knows.


[0:10:36.7] MN: Yeah so you don’t know.


[0:10:37.4] DA: Yeah just figuring out about Flexbox or CSS server or what have you.


[0:10:41.0] MN: So if you hear someone who says I don’t know, teach them, help them.


[0:10:45.2] WJ: Right, it is so much more fun to participate in their discovery of this thing than it is to just call them out for not knowing it.


[0:10:55.2] MN: Right because they are not the only one. There are 9,999 other people who don’t know according to this comic.


[0:11:01.6] DA: And by saying like being mean to them or having a negative reaction or it’s like, “Oh my god, you don’t know about this thing.”


[0:11:13.4] WJ: You’re just training them to never share those moments with you when they get to discover the thing.


[0:11:16.0] DA: Right. I mean like, I guess you see these like framed in pop culture like Mentos and Diet Coke but that is a wonderful beautiful thing that you should Google if you haven’t seen it but it applies for everything that we don’t know every single day, which is a lot of things, I’m happy to admit.


[0:11:37.6] MN: Right. I think something that Dave mentioned before about the fixed versus growth mindset is when people are afraid to say, “I don’t know,” can be associated with individuals who may have a fixed mindset where they beat themselves down because they don’t know about this one thing. But you shouldn’t feel that way because it allows you to then learn and grow about the things you may or may not know. So that you become a better engineer tomorrow.


So it’s often times you’re like, “Oh you don’t know that one thing?” Like, ”Oh man I feel so stupid that I don’t know about X, Y and Z or how this works.” And your mindset you should stop and think about whether you actually react to things you don’t know that way and then flip it to say, “Hey, I may not know now but if I learn this one thing then I will grow better as an engineer tomorrow and I will know that tomorrow.”


[0:12:30.9] WJ: Yeah, although at the same time there is some people who will be confused that you don’t know that thing that they think is super basic. And then they are going to judge you and think less of you and then give you worse projects and not give you raises. There are all kinds of negative consequences.


[0:12:48.8] DA: They won’t invite you to the Shake Shack party.


[0:12:51.6] MN: No I mean hey, hey everyone is invited to the Shake Shack party. But I think that is on them though. Like if you are at a place where you may not know something and then you just thrown into the worst of projects because you don’t know that one thing then you need to speak over them like, “Hey I know things now.  Like you better give me better projects, I know a thing or two.”


[0:13:13.0] WJ: Also I think that eventually it comes out that you don’t know that thing and then people still find out only now it is worse because since you never say that you don’t know, nobody ever teaches you and it never gets better.


[0:13:26.9] DA: Yeah and then people are just watching, they’re doing offer help or engagement like mentor in that situation. That is also a missed opportunity for them to deepen their own knowledge and understanding. Because explaining something to somebody like really solidifies like what you actually know. Because when you actually try to explain it, you’d be like, “Wait, I don’t know this nearly as well as I thought I did. But I am getting better at it.”


[0:13:53.2] MN: Yeah, I think if they say like if you wanted to solidify like processes or like things that you have learned, the best way to do that is to teach someone else as well. That way if you can explain it to another individual then you have a solid understanding of what it is that you are explaining.


[0:14:10.4] DA: Yeah. There are a couple of rules of thumb that the Recurse Center like the programming retreat in New York City has and there is four rules but three of the four, I think really kind of relate to this in like creating an environment for people to openly just say that they don’t understand something or have a really frank conversation. Because at Recurse there is a really wide range of skill level. You have people who are like super expert like committers to even originators to projects like Elm and all kinds of other crazy useful things that we use all the time and take for granted. But also people are complete beginners and these will give some basis for easy way to point out behaviors that are going to shut down conversations.


[0:15:03.8] WJ: Yeah. Also I think when you encounter people who actually have an incredible depth of expertise but just in a slightly different area, sometimes you run into knowledge gaps that you would normally think are indicators of a lack of expertise. And you’re just wrong. Like actually they are extremely extra, they know way more than you, doing this for way longer. I remember working for somebody who is very senior and they didn’t know some helper method for testing for the testing library that we were using and I was pretty new.


And I didn’t know exactly how many different possible libraries there are and I was like, “Oh man this guys doesn’t know anything about testing.” It’s like, “What a newb.” It’s like, “No William, you’re a newb.”


[0:15:54.5] DA: With like it really but standing very tall in one particular area like you got this experience that you have and this guy hasn’t crossed over into like your specific area yet. So, you know it’s just broader.


[0:16:09.4] MN: Dave, what are some of the bullet points that they have in the Recurse Center that you mentioned earlier?


[0:16:14.6] DA: So one of them is basically in the xkcd comic that we talked about before, which is no feigning surprise. So if you hear something or someone doesn’t know you can’t be like, “Oh my god, I can’t believe you didn’t know about that.” You’d be like, “Oh that’s great, let us learn that right now.” And yeah just not making people feel bad about having the opportunity to learn something.


[0:16:35.3] WJ: It is just a strange cultural phenomenon the way people feign surprise like that like what? Why would you do that? Because it is extremely common.


[0:16:45.6] DA: It really is like it happens all the time and my fiancé does it to me all the time and I’ll be like, “I am laying down this ground rule.”


[0:16:54.3] MN: I mean you really don’t know about the Mentos and Coke though? Like everybody knows that. Everybody knows that.


[0:17:01.0] DA: Yeah, I am so bad with the like actors and people who are in different movies and just like, “Oh people, it is just a bunch of pigments on a TV.”


[0:17:11.0] MN: There you go.


[0:17:12.4] WJ: It is just flashing lights. They’re not real people.


[0:17:14.7] MN: People will make up pixels.


[0:17:18.2] WJ: What you give names to those pixels?


[0:17:20.9] DA: That is strange. Yeah another one is like no,” well actually” which relates to kind of subtle corrections for something may not actually matter, where it’s like you know the property is like text align and someone is like, “Oh yeah just use a line text.” And it’s like well, you can’t just be like, “Well actually it is a line text or whatever.” They’ll figure out what they like doing doesn’t work and whatever like I think it has a more nature thing but like –


[0:17:53.6] MN: They just like going out of your way to correct someone with the, “Well actually,” it is not a great place to share your thoughts because then if you know that someone will “well actually…” you, then you are less likely to share when you don’t know or even when you are kind of comfortable.


[0:18:10.1] DA: Or like you want to go out on a limb a little bit kind of like cuts you off. I think the comical example that they had in their page on these roles is like, “Oh yeah I love using Linux” and someone’s like, “Oh well actually it’s called the GNU Linux” or actually I don’t know what I am saying there right? It’s GNU.


[0:18:28.8] WJ: The ‘G’ is silent.


[0:18:30.3] MN: GMU Linux. Well actually it’s GNU Linux.


[0:18:33.6] DA: Oh Lord. You people.


[0:18:37.5] MN: Oh man, which is more actual strand. There you go so.


[0:18:44.1] DA: Not planned. Yeah that’s it. I feel embarrassed.


[0:18:46.8] MN: Yeah, he is never going to share any now.


[0:18:48.8] DA: I will never get over.


[0:18:50.2] WJ: I usually have no idea. I just speak with tremendous confidence.


[0:18:53.0] MN: There you go.


[0:18:53.5] DA: And then no one can shoot you down.


[0:18:56.9] WJ: Oh no they do. And you fall way harder.


[0:19:01.5] MN: I think hey, the ability to say I don’t know is important and I think that we should all change our mindset to not just say I don’t know but I don’t know yet. Because then it allows the other person, it allows everyone to know that you don’t know right now and you are willing to learn about it and you will take the time to do that as long as you have a safe space to say I don’t know when you should be able to use that muscle in a way that will bring the ability to learn about the thing that you didn’t know and then share it with your team.


[0:19:30.2] DA: Definitely. And make assumptions, but know they are.


[0:19:34.8] MN: Yeah know what they are, educated guesses are good and when you’re not sure then be sure to say you don’t know, something that is the hardest. Don’t fake it until you make it.




[0:19:45.5] MN: Follow us now on Twitter @radiofreerabbit so we can keep the conversation going. Like what you hear? Give us a five star review and help developers like you find their way into The Rabbit Hole and never miss an episode, subscribe now however you listen to your favorite podcast. On behalf of our producer extraordinaire, William Jeffries and my amazing co-host, Dave Anderson and me, your host, Michael Nunez, thanks for listening to The Rabbit Hole.



Links and Resources:

The Rabbit Hole on Twitter

Pragmatic Folks Rabbit Hole episode


Ten Thousand

Explain xkcd

Recurse Center