On Being Wrong and Not Knowing the Answer

There’s the naive view of expertise – the one that we all have as young people – where we think that Eddie Vedder must know absolutely everything there is to know about rock music and Peyton Manning must know more than anyone else about the game of American Football. And then, there’s the more nuanced view of expertise we all garner as we get older and more experienced – the one where we know that skill doesn’t always translate perfectly to knowledge, that luck usually plays a big role, and that even the best experts frequently don’t know the answer.

That last point, however, is the most salient one for me when it comes to expertise. Not having answers is natural. Not having a certain type of experience or enough of that experience to make a smart-than-average guess is going to happen, even if you’re the most coveted, respected expert in your field. It’s what you DO when you don’t have that answer that separates the high-integrity experts from the rest of the pack.

An email I received today that spurred this post:


I don’t know if I’ve always done a good job of saying “I don’t know, but I can find out,” but it’s something that, when I see in others, makes me respect them more than even giving the answer.

Providing a great answer to a question in a field you’ve spent years or decades in is certainly impressive. But it’s even more impressive to swallow your pride, put aside the bullshit non-answer you could give, and admit to not feeling comfortable answering.

BTW – when I do this, I often say “but tweet at me or email me and I’ll try to find out for you.” I think that’s not only a great way to give value to those asking, but a great way to keep yourself at the top of your game.