As people, we have a propensity to think we know everything. Especially in any specific area, where we think we happen to be experts. Sometimes it’s a point of pride, sometimes it’s vanity. But uttering the words “I don’t know” usually evades us. Or we avoid them. Whatever. But there’s nothing wrong with lacking some knowledge. Vulnerability and not knowing is okay.
After graduation, I moved on to college and chose to study computer programming. I spent my entire life around computers as it was my father’s addiction, so it felt like a reasonable step to pursue it further. One thing that didn’t help was that I was convinced to attend a french college. Even if I’m fully bilingual and can speak French, it didn’t change the fact that computer terms that were three inches long in English were found to be ten inches long in French. I’m exaggerating, of course. But it doesn’t change the fact that taking the course in French, despite it being a primary language for me, caused untold difficulties. My college years were some of the most difficult I’ve ever faced, for this reason.
I learned the hard way that computer programming wasn’t for me. I may have enjoyed playing the games and watching my father code, but trying to delve into the complicated world of computer programming proved to be the wrong direction for me. It didn’t help that I had a karate belt test pending during my first year of college, and my priorities were fixed on karate as opposed to college. I did, however, learn to play a network game of Duke Nukem 3D in college. But I digress…
I had a slew of college professors; some good, some bad. Some of my professors walked in, delivered their lesson plan and walked out without making any real connection with the class. Some professors considered every student to be a “buddy” and focused on being a friend more than teaching the curriculum, which was almost worse. Picture a college professor showing up at lounge nights to have drinks with students. Not great, right? But out of the shadows emerged a professor who was the happy medium; part teacher, part friend, all learning.
Because I was having so many difficulties, I asked a lot of questions. I mean, a LOT of questions… If you’ve never experienced being around a French guy who won’t shut up, consider yourself lucky. Picture that boring staff meeting where you’re hoping everyone will keep their trap shut so that the meeting will end sooner, just to have that ONE guy constantly bring up another point. That was pretty much me, in college. But I couldn’t help myself. I hate failing. And I hate quitting.
Most of my professors would either make something up (that I would learn was false later) so as to not look as though they didn’t know their own material. Some would ignore the question and tell me that my answer was in the learning material. But this one professor would make it a point to admit it when he didn’t know something. He had no problem saying, “You know what? I don’t know the answer to that, but let me look it up and I’ll get back to you in tomorrow’s class.”
That’s class. That’s professionalism. Admitting one’s lack of an answer shows a specific vulnerability and humanity beyond what most people are capable of. He was one of my most trusted professors, and my only regret is that I don’t remember his name. Hey, come on! Give me a break! We’re talking almost twenty-five years ago! I’m getting a bit on the older side, I’m expected to forget a few things…
Realistically, I remember this professor BECAUSE of the humanity behind the teacher. Even if you’re teaching something, it doesn’t mean you’re expected to know EVERYTHING. I started studying karate in 1989 and am still learning new things, even now. And if the day ever came where there was nothing new to learn, I’d be greatly surprised. Honestly, I don’t believe it’s possible. But the point is, I learned from that professor, and have found myself often telling my students, “Give me time to try it out” or “Let me look into it.”
And being able to do that is important, because it engenders trust. Your students will trust you and believe what you tell them way more if they understand that you’ll be honest and admit when you don’t know. I’ve applied this concept in almost every area of my life. If I don’t know, I say so. Not only does it engender trust in others, it prevents making me look like a damn fool because I tried to make something up. Important food for thought. ☯