Saying “I don’t know” is a necessary condition for engaging in lifelong learning and enhancing one’s intellectual vitality. Mahatma Gandhi reminds us to: “Live as if you were to die tomorrow. Learn as if you were to live forever.” The idea is to be on your toes in terms of curiosity and learning throughout one’s life. This happens in a natural way when we are born and through our infancy and early childhood years. During those years, we are filled with curiosity and zeal for learning about the things we don’t know. This should resonate well with the joy and frustrations experienced by parents answering the incessant “why” questions of their young children. Unfortunately, a lot of children, as Einstein believes, stop asking questions and are rather expected to answer the questions once they begin formal schooling. In a way, they’re expected to state what they know based on someone else’s knowledge rather than asking question based on their curiosity. Thus, if the necessary condition for lifelong learning is saying “I don’t know,” asking questions provides the sufficient condition as a mode of inquiry and learning.
The fact is that every one of us knows and understands very little of the vast knowledge and information vested in our universe and among our fellow human beings as well as other living creatures who inhabit our small and beautiful planet. Given this, the courage of saying “I don’t know,” is indeed liberating. First and foremost, it liberates us by lifting the unbearable weight of the expectation to know beyond what we are capable of. Second, it liberates us from trying to be an omniscient as it encourages us to relate to and connect with other people by asking questions. Third, as a corollary, it liberates us from being an omnipotent by knowing that we need others to help us with the answers and solutions.
If you have a watch, you learn about the time on your own. If you don’t have it and need to learn about the time, you ask and it makes you and the responder both feel good. The same is true about finding your way when you’re lost. President Abraham Lincoln did not know about military warfare. Yet he presided over the Union army adopting the mode “I don’t know” and “you know it better than I do” in relating to his generals. He trusted the military knowledge and decisions of his generals including Grant and Sherman. In turn, Grant respected President Lincoln’s mastery of political affairs in a divided nation. He never gave in to the calls and temptations for running for presidency against Lincoln. Indeed, Grant considered Lincoln’s re-election equal to a great military victory. Lincoln’s generals are eternally remembered as the military heroes and he is known as the greatest President of the United States.
Saying “I don’t know,” is not supposed to be a permanent and omnipresent mode for effective living and working. Yet it should be the primary mode in lifelong learning. Lincoln and Grant understood it well.