Things I Don’t Know

The things I don’t know every day could fill volumes. Just today, looking at my calendar, I can see I don’t know enough to do half the things I should do. That country budget that was slashed? No idea what the reduction means in real dollars and people and projects. I haven’t read it carefully enough and I’m not sure I understand the way it is constructed. The paper I am helping to write? I am intimidated by academic writing and don’t know what, exactly, to put into the piece. The colleague asking for things I can’t deliver? Yeah, I have no idea where to go with that one.

Yet. I don’t know these things yet.

This is the way I start my day, in ignorance. With an in-box full of questions I can’t answer and problems I can’t solve. You’d think, with this dire reckoning of my situation, that I was trying to solve problems like climate change and dark matter rather than the mundane challenges of my work. And yet to me, with a stack of things I don’t know how to fix piling up, some days feel insurmountable, and I would really like to just go back to bed. What I don’t know can be exhausting, and exposing my ignorance is frightening. My favorite way of dealing with that exhaustion and fear? Avoidance. I’m pretty good at that.

And yet, by the end of the day, I usually have solved something or fixed something or answered something that seemed unsolvable, unfixable, or unanswerable a few hours before. The only reason I get to that point is because I have learned to use mind games on myself.

I have some tricks up my sleeve that fool me every time.

One: I recognize that feeling of lethargy, of avoidance, that overcomes me when I face some tasks, and see it for what it is: fear of not knowing. I don’t want to do that thing because I don’t know how to do it. When I find I have an urgent need to clean the sludge from the bottom of my coffee cup I ask myself: What are you avoiding, Lisa? I usually know.

Two: I remind myself I was born with a brain and I should use it. I require myself to think about the thing I don’t know. This is terribly uncomfortable for me. I hate the things I don’t know. They embarrass me. Yeah, I don’t understand that budget. But maybe if I set aside half an hour to read it, and read the emails associated with it, I will. So I force myself to do that. By “force,” I mean I coerce myself (this is where the tricks come in). I put an appointment on my calendar, and if I think I might try to sneak out of doing what I need to do I promise someone a deadline having to do with the darn thing. Ha! Tricked you, fearful brain! Often this process of simply engaging and thinking about the problem is enough to untie a knot of decisions that need to be made. I just didn’t know what to do yet, and what was needed was effort, not knowledge.

Three: I tell myself I have colleagues and I should ask them what they know. Sometimes the hardest, and most useful thing to say to a colleague (particularly a more senior one) is “I didn’t know that information. Could you tell me?” or “I don’t know how to do that.” Or “That’s new to me. I was wrong.” It is horribly uncomfortable to step forward and say something that will expose your ignorance or mistake. But often it is the quickest way to make progress. It is so much easier to procrastinate the things we don’t know how to do, or simply bluff our way through them hoping someone will tidy up our mistakes later. But that is madness. If I don’t know how to do something, and someone else has ideas, or processes, or information that I don’t have – why wouldn’t I ask them?

The reason I hesitate to ask for help is simple. I don’t want to look as ignorant as I am. But what I am learning (oh-so-slowly) is that my ignorance is largely immaterial. I don’t have to know everything. I can’t, because the world is too big and interesting and changing, and people are too weird and complicated and lovely. I’ll never know enough. But you know something different than I do, and I can ask you. And I can use what you know, and what I know, and the intelligence we all possess, and stumble toward something like a solution.

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