Why is what you don’t know more important than what you do know? Let me give a couple of examples.
When walking home in Manhattan during a recent heatwave, I saw an older woman who had fallen on the concrete at the bottom of a short flight of steps. A crowd had gathered, and I asked if anyone had called 911. A young man shook his head and said, “She said she’s okay and that she didn’t hit her head.”
One of the women who saw her fall didn’t see whether or not she had a head injury. I tried to speak with the downed woman but she was disoriented, making me wonder if she actually had hit her head after all. Time to get the experts involved!
While I called 911, a man pulled over in a truck and began to take charge, though he had no medical background. As I talked to the medical professional on the phone, the man who stopped to assist got a bystander to help him pull the woman into a seated position on the ground. This happened while I relayed the instructions from the EMT on the phone not to move her.
The man who stopped to help didn’t know what he didn’t know.
He dispatched a bystander to buy water from the nearby pizza place because it was hot and the woman who fell was thirsty. Sounds reasonable, right?
Not to the EMT! He instructed me to not let her have anything by mouth because we didn’t know the nature of her injuries. If she lost consciousness, she could choke.
I was glad I stayed on the phone with the medical expert and stopped the take-charge guy from giving her water. Soon, after he sat her up, the woman who had fallen began to deteriorate and she became unresponsive. I stopped the take-charge guy from further interventions as we waited for the ambulance, which arrived momentarily.
The well-meaning, take-charge guy could have killed the woman who fell because he didn’t know what he didn’t know. My guess is that he became very anxious and dealt with it by swinging into action half-cocked, rather than asking an expert. Or, he may have thought he should know everything.
How often do you mean well, but are unaware of your knowledge gaps?
I live in one of the more confusing parts of New York City, where some addresses listed as being located on 20th Street are actually on 18th Street. The addresses just don’t make sense and it’s a huge area. Delivery people often stop and ask for directions. Unless I know exactly where the address is, I say I don’t know. Better to do that than give inaccurate information.
It’s not a humiliation to admit you don’t know something. Being humble is a good thing! Admitting that you don’t know something allows you to continue learning.
As I remind patients, no one knows everything. Sometimes that admission is the difference between life and death. Other times, it’s just dinner!
If you have difficulty admitting you don’t know something because that seems like a big deal, you can benefit enormously from treatment. If you have difficulty managing your anxiety, get help so you can enjoy your life to the fullest. Feeling bad about yourself because you believe you should know everything is a waste of time. Pretending you know everything or being unaware of your knowledge gaps can be dangerous.
Therapy with a knowledgeable therapist who isn’t afraid to admit that he or she doesn’t know everything is a step in the right direction. Please call for a consultation.