I Don’t Know What That Means

Through college I always thought it was unacceptable to admit mid-conversation that you didn’t understand something that was being discussed.

I don’t know where this belief originated from, but I didn’t realize how deeply embedded it was in me until I discovered it was there at all:

I had a great roommate in college named Jon. Smart, fun dude. He was talking to someone in our living room, something business related, and at once point he interrupted the other person to ask/tell them “I don’t know what that means.”

So the person naturally took a moment and explained the term. No big deal, and the conversation moved on.

This was a revelation for me. Until then I didn’t realize you could just openly say “I don’t know what that means” and admit your ignorance.

I know, I know… what a crazy idea: you’re not expected to know everything!

But until you take a moment to internalize this, you don’t realize how often you’re hiding ignorance for fear of being shamed. 1

  1. To be sure, in some places where some base level of knowledge is expected it would be bad to reveal you don’t understand a basic concept. Especially if it happened multiple times.

    But if you’re generally doing a good job at work and contributing, I say you have carte blanche in asking for clarifications.

    It’s also possible you work in an organization or an industry where ignorance is perceived as weakness. If that’s okay with you, great, but if you’d prefer to work somewhere where people can ask questions openly then get the hell out of there. Life is too short.