Rookie Mistakes 101: Not Admitting That You Don’t Know

Early in my founder journey, I had an overwhelming feeling that I had to have all the answers. I felt like it was expected of me. Whenever the team asked a question, especially about direction, I thought I should know the answer. I worried that they would lose confidence in me if I didn’t. As I worked with suppliers, it was the same. I felt like I had to have an answer or they would look at CCAW differently. Even when speaking with entrepreneurial peers, I felt the same self-imposed pressure. It was ludicrous.

As I settled into running a company and leading a team, I became more self-aware (partly through reflection on failures and partly from people pointing out my shortcomings). I realized there were things I was really good at and felt confident answering questions about. Other things I was inexperienced in or just plain bad at, and I wasn’t well equipped to answer questions about them. As I matured, I stopped trying to come up with a good-sounding answer that would let me squirm out of the corner I was in when the true answer was “I don’t know.”

Those three words are simple, powerful, and scary all at the same time. They’re scary because you’re admitting you have a knowledge gap. This can feel uncomfortable (it was for me), but it helps to think of saying them as acknowledging that you’re human. They’re powerful because they signal self-awareness, confidence, and honesty, and they give you the opportunity to learn something. And they’re simple because . . . well . . . they’re only three words.

Nowadays, when I’m asked about something outside my wheelhouse, I usually admit my ignorance (I still slip up, though). I try to turn it into an opportunity to learn. Usually I say something like, “Honestly, I’m not sure, but I’m actively seeking different perspectives on this. I’d love to hear yours.” People will tell me what they think, which adds to my fund of knowledge. Or they’ll admit they don’t know either, which reassures me that I’m not the only one.

When I speak with entrepreneurs now, I try to tell them what I wish someone had told me early on. It’s OK to not know. In fact, it’s normal. You’re human and no one expects you to have all the answers!