Figure It Out vs I Don’t Know

As someone who prides himself on figuring out hard problems, saying “I don’t know” hasn’t come easy or without hard lessons. There’s no shame in setting down your pride and asking for help.

Go look again.

When I was a kid, my parents were always busy with a project around the house. Inevitably, as a bystander, I’d be roped into helping. A common task was to go get a thing somewhere in the dark, crowded and detached shed in the backyard, like an Alan wrench or drill bit.

I’d walk into the shed, wait for my eyes to adjust to the darkness, and scan the walls and shelves from the doorway. The first few times I was sent on an errand like this, I’d give up after 30 or 45 seconds of looking. I’d go back to my mom or dad and tell them it wasn’t there. And they’d give a silent look for a moment and reply, “Go look again.”

Time after time, year after year, I’d be sent on an errand to the garage. I learned that if I didn’t find the thing at first, to just look again before going back with bad news. And with enough disappointment and exhaustion in the tone of my dad’s voice, I’d tell myself heading to the garage, “If you don’t see it, just figure it out.”

Figuring it out.

For most of my working adulthood, I’ve prided myself on figuring stuff out. Coming to professional age in the digital era pushed me into roles where most people I worked with had less familiarity with the tools I used — social media, email marketing platforms, or content management systems. A manager would present a business problem and I would set out into the digital Wild West to analyze, diagnose, and fix or recommend a path forward.

In a previous role during my annual performance review, my manager wrote, “I don’t have to ask Andy anything more than once. He just figures it out.” For good and bad, it’s something I’ve prided myself on ever since I came back from the shed with the right thing the first time.

Asking for help isn’t failure.

There’s a downside to staking your claim on this attribute, though. Sometimes, things just can’t be figured out. Sometimes the problem is exceptionally complex. Sometimes there is no right answer — or answer at all. You find yourself with the only non-answer: “I don’t know.”

“I don’t know” is a difficult statement to make. It admits inadequacy. It has social expense. It’s vulnerable.

I’m used to being in “prove it” situations. These are jobs where you’re younger, a bit of an underdog, or haven’t built credibility with the team. In these situations, the best way to minimize your risk and maximize your value is by figuring things out. When you are new, admitting ignorance might feel reckless. The underdog might feel like a failure when all she wants is to feel like a hero.

The truth is, admitting you don’t know something isn’t admitting failure or giving up. You can move from solitary problem-solving to saying “I don’t know” without actually giving up. An honest assessment of what you can figure out within your expertise and personal connections might lead you to the right conclusion — that you don’t know, and you need help to get to the answer.

Not worth the wait.

It’s possible to say “I don’t know” too late. In many cases, I’ve spent days or weeks spinning my wheels looking for solutions to problems that I can’t solve alone, driven by the fear of defeat and letting someone down. Yet, all that time I spent in retracted arrogance only added to the eventual and unnecessary pain of asking for help. Or much more, I missed a deadline or negatively affected other people downstream.

I’ve learned to recognize when a problem falls outside my wheelhouse. Under limited time, I don’t attempt to exhaust every possible option before pulling in other team members or outside support. I know that asking for another perspective or feedback will not only make me stronger as a person, but lead to better outcomes.

There’s pride in figuring things out. But, there’s no shame in saying you don’t know. Don’t let the fear of crossing that line cost you time, money, or respect.