“Have more than thou showest/Speak less than thou knowest.”
That’s a quote from King Lear, a play by William Shakespeare, who was very good at writing things. As far as the plot goes, it probably revolves around a guy named King Lear who–I’m assuming–betrays someone, or gets betrayed, or something happens mid-betrayal–likely involving poison. The point is that I’ve never read King Lear, or much Shakespeare at all for that matter.
On the other hand, if I want to pretend like I’ve read King Lear, all I have to do is visit Wikipedia, memorize a snappy quote or two, and boom–I’m a semi-cultured, presumably literate guy at a cocktail party! You know what else that would make me? A know-it-all. You know, someone who pretends to know more than they really do.
In the working world, it’s easy to find yourself in jillions of meetings of all shapes and sizes. One thing I’ve noticed is that the most productive meetings usually involve someone conspicuously being not a know-it-all. Namely, someone who can own their total lack of understanding of a particular subject.
Confused? Here are three reasons why openly embracing ignorance can actually be the smartest thing you can do during meetings—even when you’re way over your head:
Pretending You Know Something Takes Up Valuable Headspace
To put it in terms my grandfather would understand: It’s hard to keep your eye on the ball while worrying about your fly being down (Yes, I was a terrible Little Leaguer).
I can only speak for myself, but pretending to know a bunch of stuff I don’t know, or half-know, or think I might know takes up a good bit of brain space–brain space I could otherwise use to apply the knowledge I already have to contribute something worthwhile. Making up pseudo-factual talk, tossing out canned responses to difficult questions, and focusing on salesmanship over craftsmanship might make for a snazzy meeting performance, but not necessarily great work.
Instead, focusing on what I know allows me to really showcase my strengths and do what I do best. For example: I like presenting ideas. It’s fun! I enjoy explaining why a concept I worked on is new, exciting, and a good idea for our clients. However, I know that this does not make me an expert when it comes to analytics, emerging tech, or a bunch of other stuff that I only understand at a surface level.
That’s why when questions about metrics or software engineering come up, there’s nothing I enjoy more than turning to a highly skilled coworker who can answer that question with actual expertise. This way, once they’re done, I can go back to talking about ideas.
Of course, everyone wears multiple hats to some extent, but a limited primary skill set is not a limitation in itself. Trying to do too many things outside your wheelhouse leaves you a jack-of-all-trades, which can lead to diminishing returns in industries that value specialized knowledge–like most do.
Being Self Aware About Your Weaknesses Is A Strength
People are always amazed at how “brave” (highly relative term) stand-up comedians are. Now, it’s worth noting that stand-ups don’t go around saying, “Attention everyone, I am a perfect specimen of a human being!” In fact, they do the opposite–talking about shortcomings over strengths, failures over successes and, more specifically, what they don’t understand over what they do.
Why? Well, partially because being able to expose your flaws to a group of strangers is one of the most confident things you can do. It shows that you’re comfortable exposing yourself as a less-than-perfect person, while engaging in what is statistically the most frightening thing anyone can do: public speaking. When you don’t have a single smart thing to share in a meeting, never forget about the one thing you can still offer: a humble display of self-confidence.
Saying “I Don’t Know” Invites Collaboration
Like most people, I’ve been in some not-great meetings. Meetings where a client–irritated by a miscommunication, some kind of inaccuracy in the slide deck, or what they had for breakfast–asks questions faster than we can answer them. Sometimes they say we don’t know their business, and things get stressful.
At those moments, the best bosses I’ve had (so far) will almost always say something the effect of, “Look, I don’t know everything about your industry or category or everything you’ve ever done, but I do know how to get people’s attention and communicate what your product means to them, so let’s figure out how to do that together.”
Instead of disagreeing, doubling down, or trying to position oneself as an unassailably perfect ad-wizard, the smartest, most effective people in my field admit that advertising is a collaborative process–just as most difficult tasks are in lots of other industries. Shockingly/not shockingly, this kind of sentiment usually gets clients to chill out and look at the work with an open mind.
Will that happen every time? Of course not! But that slight acknowledgement of ignorance can help move the conversation to a productive place. Plus, an ownable area of expertise gives you more credibility to sell whatever ideas or work you’ve brought to the table with the understanding that if you combined your powers with those of everyone else in the room, you’ll be unstoppable.
So the next time you feel the urge to pretend you know more than you do, take a step back. It might be better for your career, not to mention the meeting itself, just to say three simple words instead–“I don’t know”–and make way for someone who does. Knowing when to do that might make you the most useful person in the room, which is way more valuable than being the most knowledgeable.
Thom Crowley (@thomcrowley) is an Associate Creative Director at RAIN, a digital consultancy in New York. He’s also a writer and comic.