The Beginning of Wisdom Starts by Saying I Don’t Know



I write a lot about the things I know on this blog.  For once I want to switch things up a little and talk about those things I don’t know.

I’d hate to admit it, but that’s a lot.  Even though one of my long-term goals is to learn everything, there is still a lot out there that I just have to shrug my shoulders and say, “I don’t know it”.

Yet I don’t consider that a bad thing.  Just because you don’t know something doesn’t make you stupid.  It just means you haven’t learned about it yet.

Plus being able to say “I don’t know” can be a wise and powerful phrase.

The Beginning of Wisdom

As you can see from the title of this post, the beginning of wisdom starts by saying “I don’t know”.  It’s fun and catchy and I’d like to take credit for it, but I can’t.

I have to display my nerd-cred with this reference.  The phrase comes from an old episode of Star Trek: the Next Generation.

Here’s a 40 second clip of the scene:

In the clip, the crew encounters a strange phenomenon in space (isn’t that every episode?).  Data is completely unsure about what he’s looking at and is told his evaluation of the thing is unscientific.

In response, he says:

“The most elementary and valuable statement in science, the beginning of wisdom is ‘I do not know’.  I do not know what that is.”

“the beginning of wisdom is I don’t know”.  It’s so simple, but at the same time so true.

Many people would see this phrase as a sign of weakness.  We all like to think we’re knowledgeable about things even if we’re not entirely sure.

This is something I think we develop at an early age in school.

I remember a time when a teacher asked for my opinion on a topic I didn’t know very well.  When I said that I didn’t know enough to give an opinion, she told me to just say what I thought anyway.

It was an uninformed opinion which is the worst kind you can have.

What You Think You Know

My opinion was uninformed because I didn’t know all the facts.  I wasn’t going off information, I was going off guesses.

When you don’t know something all you can do is make assumptions and jump to conclusions.

That’s not a smart way to do things.

Smart people don’t jump to conclusions before all the facts are in.  They don’t pretend to know something when they really don’t.

A smart person will wait until they get all the information, context and perspectives before drawing a conclusion.  It means looking at all the evidence so you can find the real truth.

Guessing ignores that.  It means coming up with a conclusion and later finding evidence to support it.

Read this example:

Alice is a driver waiting at an intersection.  As the light turns green, her car inches forward when suddenly another car runs a red light and cuts her off and speeds away.

What do you think of the other driver?

If Alice said the other driver was reckless, unskilled or even an idiot, would you agree with her?

What if I told you the other driver was on his way to the hospital.  He’s hurrying to get his dad to the emergency room after a massive heart-attack; it is life or death.

We don’t know.  And we shouldn’t pretend to know.

Don’t Jump to Conclusions

It’s easy to think we know something before we have all the facts in.  It’s a trap we all have to recognize and avoid.

If we’re not on the lookout for it, we might jump to conclusions without fully thinking things through.  We might just think we know.

How many times have we stopped ourselves from trying something because we “know” it won’t work?

How often do we make bad decisions based on faulty or misinformed information?

When I was young, there were a lot of girls I never asked out because I “knew” they wouldn’t go out with me.

There were a lot of opportunities I never took because I “knew” they wouldn’t work.

I don’t know.

What I do know is that we shouldn’t be afraid of saying “I don’t know”.

It’s the starting point for collecting information and perspectives before weighing everything as best as possible.  By admitting it, you’re opening yourself up to new information, ways of thinking and ideas.

There’s nothing stupid about that.

It’s stupid if you pretend to know and close yourself off to new information.  You won’t think things through with all the facts; it’s a handicap.

If you can admit you don’t know, you’ll open yourself up to more information.  You’ll make better, more well-informed decisions.  It will make you see a world of possibilities rather than a world where you jump to the first conclusion.

Data had it right: the beginning of wisdom starts by saying “I don’t know”.
photo credit: Marc Eliot

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  1. I started a new job 3 weeks ago, so I have a lot of “I don’t know” moments. As you suggest, I use them as learning opportunities. Since I am customer facing, I bring them over to whomever would have the answer so we can both learn the answer together. Doing this already has provided me with a depth of knowledge in some areas that surpasses my coworkers. I hope these “I don’t know” moments continue long into the future.

    • Oh, there’s a lot of learning opportunities when you start a new job. You never quite know what will happen in a new position. Some places I’ve worked for have provide me with some great life lessons plus a lot of valuable skills.

  2. antaeus says:

    I tell people the word “know” should be one of the least used words in the English language because we really don’t know much of anything. I am a ignorant person which is why I strive everyday to learn or improve something. I was messing with somebody but I was trying to prove a point. I told this guy he will never “know” if he gf is cheating on you. You can believe she is not but you will never know. That messed his head up lol.

    I am surprised you didn’t quote any Socrates or Confucius since you where speaking on wisdom.
    “The only true wisdom is in knowing you know nothing.

    “By three methods we may learn wisdom: First, by reflection, which is noblest; Second, by imitation, which is easiest; and third by experience, which is the bitterest.”

    • Yes, using Socrates or Confucius would have been appropriate, but I had to give credit to where I first heard it. Your quotes are great too so I’m glad you included them in your comment.

      There are some limitations to what we can “know”. If you want to get really philosophical, we can’t really know much of anything – not even our senses. Wasn’t that the starting point for Descartes when he said, “I think, therefore I am”?

      • Yes I believe it was. I try to get that threw people’s head that they don’t know much of anything.Instead of saying “I know”, I now say “I believe”. Socrates,Descartes and Confucius have taught me a good bit.

  3. If we all walked around assuming we knew everything, we probably would encounter a few strange phenomenons right here on earth.

    I am with you though Steve – often I won’t do something because the end result is a foregone conclusion – in my head. And this is why I like to test, test, TEST things out so see if I am right.

    Doesn’t happen with everything though……must change this……

    – Razwana

    • You got it right: test your assumptions. They might be right or they might be wrong, but if you don’t test them out, you’ll never know for sure. It’s what I do too.

  4. I still struggle with assuming I know everything. I can hear my own thoughts criticizing and making remarks when I hear certain opinions and I try to change it, but sometimes it’s hard. The good news though is that I know it’s a bad thing. That’s further than most people are so when I find myself thinking I know everything I try to step back. I step back and wonder if there’s something to learn.

    A good saying I heard the other day went something like: instead of criticizing someone’s method for doing something, analyze and figure out why they’re doing what they’re doing. You might learn something from their approach.

    • That’s a good saying. I like it because it says to examine why people do what they do. People don’t usually do things without a reason and if you look closely enough, you’ll usually find one. If it’s a good reason, you’ll learn something. You might even find their method for doing something is better than what you’re currently doing.

  5. Well done, Steve! Even as a guitar instructor who has played for over 20 years and taught for 15, I am still asked guitar questions for which I do not know the answer. It is tempting to make something up since I am in a position of authority and I sometimes am with very young students. But I have become very comfy with I don’t know and no one has ever quit to my knowledge because of it. Ozzy had a lot of wisdom back in 1984 with the lead track on the Blizzard of Oz!

    • Ok, I had to look the lead track on the Blizzard of Ozz to see the title “I Don’t Know”. Good reference.

      I know the temptation you’re talking about. When I teach, kids often ask me difficult questions I’m not sure about. I’m in a position of authority and want to keep that up, but I should resist that when I truly don’t know the answer. Besides, people can tell when you’re making things up.

  6. Our brains are amazing and sometimes crazy things, aren’t they? While it is great for survival to have such a highly evolved brain, it sometimes jumps to the wrong conclusions. It served us well thousands of years ago, but it sometimes hinders us now when we’re rarely in imminent danger.

    I find myself wasting a lot of time thinking I know something only to find out later that I was very wrong. It’s challenging for me to remain present, and I am working toward more of that every day.

    This is a great reminder that we don’t know everything, and that is ok. Thank you so much, Steve.

    • Our brains really are amazing. In some ways they work really well and in others, they just don’t. That goes for more than when they jump to conclusions too. But we have to work with what we’re given.

  7. I love the Star Trek clip. It says it all. This is a great post, Steve, and something it takes many of us years to admit. For me, higher education helped me to see how much I did not know.

    • Higher education helped me see how much I didn’t know too. Some classes really opened my eyes and shaped how I think to this day.

  8. Steve, I think this may be my favorite post ever on your blog. How true. The only way to become truly knowledgeable, to gain true wisdom, is to admit that there are simply things that we do not know. The next step, then, is to seek to understand.

    I guess I’m one of those people who love learning for the sake of learning, knowledge for the sake of knowledge. Your goal of learning everything is about exactly that, I think – simply seeking to know. Like Benjamin Franklin’s goal of attaining moral perfection, perhaps knowing everything is a likely impossibility. But so what? Even in failure – as Franklin also realized – there is success and growth.

    Somewhere along the way, people have decided that it is wrong not to know something or that it is a sign of weakness to admit that we do not know. I disagree. Humans have the unique ability to learn and understand things that other creatures can not – to admit that we do not know means that there is more to explore, more to become, more to do and more to grow. I like the idea of knowing everything…but I hope I never quite get there because I so love the process of trying.

    My husband will enjoy the Star Trek clip.

    • I like learning for the sake of learning too. It’s probably impossible, but that’s ok. I’m with you in that I love the process of trying. There’s something great about finding something you didn’t know before. It’s fun at times.

  9. Hey Steve,

    I love this man. It’s definitely tough to be a student when you are also a teacher – but it’s so damn important.

    We must continuously learn new things and expand our horizons. If we don’t, we will be blind to the world around us.

    Keeping an open mind and not making snap judgements is definitely something that I struggle with. Like Malcolm Gladwell said in his book “Blink” we all make split-second decisions based on other peoples appearances.

    But with some conscious effort, anyone can pause after that moment and hold off on uneducated judgements.

    Solid post man.

    • Malcolm Gladwell is right. Whether we like to admit it or not, we all make split-second decisions based on other people’s appearances.

      I like that idea of making a conscious effort to hold off on uneducated judgements. First impression can be wrong. It still makes them important though.

  10. There is one three lettered word which stops people from admitting that they don’t know something.
    And it’s the word ‘ego’. Being egocentric is the sure way to a ditch!Ha..ha..,
    I readily admit when I don’t know.

  11. Shit, “I don’t know” is practically my mantra. The world is one helluva big place, and to think we understand anything more than a smidgen of life is one of the greatest fallacies of them all.

    The problem is that so many people take themselves too damn seriously. I can’t quite fathom it. People can’t laugh at themselves, and they can’t admit when they don’t know something.

    So pathetic.

    These people just need to get over themselves and open their minds. Life’s gonna be a lot more enjoyable and enlightening when they do.

    Good stuff Steve!


    • Yeah, it would help if people stopped taking themselves too seriously. We should all be able to laugh at ourselves and just shrug our shoulders and admit we don’t know.

      The problem is when we think we know. Just like the example of the person in the car. She thinks she knows what the other person is like, but honestly she has no clue. She just doesn’t stop and think for a second that she doesn’t have all the info before making a conclusion. So in that instance, it’s just someone not waiting until all the facts are in.

  12. I like your point about not jumping to conclusions. How many mistakes we could have avoided if we could do that? How many people would have not been hurt if we could do that? How many opportunities were missed because of that? Admitting that we don’t know everything is the first step to self-improvement.

    • Waiting until all the facts are in is definitely a good step. We’d all make less mistakes and stop jumping to conclusions if we did that.

  13. Being able to say “I don’t know” shows you are wise. People resist people who think they know it all or have the best answer to everything.

    Remembering we don’t know everything will allows us to always grow and learn. Great thoughts!

  14. It is such a different approach when you go in with the attitude that you don’t know what you don’t know. We need to give ourselves permission to learn and grow and acknowledge we don’t always have the answer. Now, that is wisdom. Thanks!

  15. Actually the quote is not from Startrek TNG it’s from a japanese show from the late 70s called Monkey dubbed into english by BBC – episode 7

  16. Peter McEwen says:

    “I don’t know” is the beginning of wisdom. I have a sneaking suspicion that “I don’t know” is also the conclusion of wisdom.

  17. Steve G. says:

    In her new book, The Wisdom of Not Knowing, psychotherapist and Kabbalah scholar, Estelle Frankel, explores the theme of “not knowing” from a psychological and spiritual perspective. She speaks about “curiosity” as “the engine that drives the process of self-discovery.” By constantly looking towards what is unknown rather than known, “we grow our souls.” In her work as a psychotherapist Frankel finds that “the pursuit of self-knowledge is an infinite process. Each discovery opens up new sets of unknowns that provide additional opportunities for increased knowledge and so forth….” Scientific inquiry, mystical contemplation and creative processes follow the same pattern. By “not knowing” we invite new levels of wisdom, understanding and knowledge to emerge. And those very insights invite new questions, new experiences of the unknown, which in turn reveal more knowledge. We begin to discover that “We humans are living mysteries of unfathomable depths, living in an unimaginably mysterious universe. What we know of ourselves (and the cosmos) is just the tip of an infinitely vast, divine iceberg. All our knowledge rests in a vast sea of not knowing. it is figure, while the unknown is our ground. Finding the balance between these energies is the key to expanding consciousness.”


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  2. […] to understand that not knowing something does not make one stupid. Intelligent people see it as an opportunity to learn more about things that they may not be familiar […]

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