The benefits of “I don’t know.”

i don't know | kourtney thomas

I did an Instagram live video last week specifically because I didn’t know what it would look like. Or if anyone would watch it. Or what the heck I would say, beyond, “I don’t know what I’m going to say here.”

Funny outcome: I said stuff. Some people watched. And more people wanted to watch.

Turns out, “I don’t know” was actually pretty helpful.

I’ll back up. I had an awesome meeting with a really incredible and inspiring woman that day. She’s been a life coach for nearly twenty years (!), and she was generous enough to coach me for a few minutes during our meeting. (Seriously, coaching is the best.) She works in energy, and felt enough of mine to push me for more of it, in more spaces, in more ways. As in, I love what you’re doing, and I want more of your voice.

She’s had some success with video, and asked if I had been doing it, expressing that she really thought it could be a good avenue for me to communicate my message and connect with people. (She also asked if I had considered creating a podcast, which has been on my brain SO MUCH lately.)

My response to her was something along the lines of, yeah, I’ve thought of it, I know it’s big right now, but I just don’t know what I would say. I don’t know how I could make anything interesting. I don’t know what I could do that would be any different than anyone else. I don’t know if anyone would watch, or why on earth they would.

You may remember that video is something I’ve hemmed and hawed and polled about in this space, and on my social media. It’s one of those things where marketing folks and other successful entrepreneurs say the metrics are positive, but in reality, I can’t quite figure out if they would be for me. Every time I ask, my audience is like, meh, shrug, which doesn’t exactly convince me. And then, instead of experimenting for myself to actually get the information as it applies to me specifically, I don’t do it and continue to wallow in, “well, I don’t know.”

Gosh, “I don’t know” is so easy. It’s so easy. But can I tell you a secret? It’s a form of avoidance. (That’s probably not all that much of a secret.)

“I don’t know” is a default response. It’s protection. It’s a way to not have to push, get uncomfortable, face a fear, grow. It’s certainly common, human. Something we’ve all experienced, consciously or unconsciously, at one point or another. And while yes, it’s definitely a hindrance for progress, it can also be a catalyst for it.

I don’t need to go into detail about why it’s important to push yourself in the I don’t know situations. You know. Still, I’ll repeat that yes, it is true that discomfort leads to development in all the best ways.

That’s applicable in everything in life:

  • Uncomfortably hard workouts lead to building muscle, strength, or endurance.
  • Uncomfortably challenging classes lead to advanced knowledge.
  • Uncomfortably emotional conversations lead to relationship breakthroughs.
  • Uncomfortably risky adventures lead to rich life experiences.
  • Uncomfortably unfamiliar methods or systems lead to business growth.

And so on.

So what are we so worried about? Why do we rely on I don’t know? I think it’s two things – we might be a little afraid of what’s on the other side, no matter how great that looks. Like, maybe we shouldn’t be allowed to have that, so it’s safer not to even want it. And the other part is that we’re afraid of the in-between, because it’s really vulnerable. It’s the squishy bits I keep talking about over and over.

In my personal example, I’m continually sticking with I don’t know in case of massive failure. If I put in all the effort and time to try video and people hate it, don’t watch, or worse, check out completely from my community, that’s not great for me – personally, and professionally. I’m protecting myself from taking whatever responses come personally. And professionally, I’m relying on what I know works already because I’m not sure of ROI for a new idea or channel. I want to know that people are going to like me/what I do and it’s going to be a good investment of my time/money/energy. That’s safe.

Also, I’m sticking with I don’t know because I feel really strongly about what I’m visualizing for myself and my future, and I’m scared to actually achieve that because what if I don’t deserve it? I want to know it’s OK to want more, and have more, but the status quo is safe.

And lastly, I’m sticking with I don’t know because it takes work to move from asking the questions to finding the answers to making the choices. The choices that count, that will help me move from uncomfortable to confident, then do it all over again. I want to have someone tell me all the easy and right answers and things that will work. That’s safe.

OK, but here’s the other part of it: I’m pretty tired of being safe. We already know I am not much for the status quo, as powerful and appealing as it can be sometimes. I’m more curious and up for more adventure by the day, and I actually like doing things that I’m not totally sure of. In the grand scheme of things, talking about some stuff to 42 people on a social media video is not all that risky, and it’s certainly not groundbreaking.

Which, of course, is why I’m going to keep doing it and see what happens.

And, of course, it’s what I’ll recommend you do too. I did this little video, and then I polled to see whether anyone else related to this feeling of, “I don’t know.” What on earth to do with it. How to move forward. Turns out, 100% of people responded with a resounding yes.

Here’s the thing, though – it’s not always quite as simple as, “Just take action! Do the thing you don’t know!” That’s cheap advice.

Still, I don’t know can be a really beneficial tool.

It can help direct us to our true sources of struggle and help us work through our pain points. In doing this, I’m more inclined to say, hey, let’s talk about it. Let’s meet in the middle.

What don’t you know? Why? Why not? No, go deeper. Describe it in detail. What are you feeling? Answer again. And again.

Don’t stop here. This is where a lot of people get tripped up, but I don’t know shouldn’t be the answer by this point. So, what is it? Can we get to a point of some small part of what we do know, or what we can do, an action we can take?

Depending on where this is coming up for you, what it applies to, it could be a quandary for the imagination, meaning, it’s time to brainstorm. When’s the last time you allowed yourself to think about all the possibilities for solutions, action steps, options, whatever, with completely reckless abandon, no blinders, no question of feasibility or appropriateness? You’d be surprised how much less scary your I don’t know could look if you get thinking about it with complete openness.

A lot of times, we can turn an uncomfortable I don’t know into exciting evolution by (perhaps counter intuitively) going straight for the worst. If the source of the I don’t know is fear, great! What would happen if whatever you’re afraid of happened?

Again, describe in detail, answer again and again, down to the depths of rock bottom. In every case I’ve ever worked with, the answer is that we can live with any outcome. Humans are so naturally strong and resourceful, we can figure our way out of even the toughest situations. If we can get past that barrier, we can usually learn a lot more about the situation in a much more practical and less intimidating way.

Remember: It’s all about choice. And we can choose to use I don’t know. We can turn it into complete understanding so, so quickly, if we choose to.

“I don’t know” doesn’t have to be paralyzing. It can be enlivening.

If we dig into what we’re saying, we can discover what we can be doing instead, and how.

So guess what? I’m going to brainstorm what the heck I could say in some videos. And I’ll do them, even thought it’s scary and I have no idea if it’ll be good or not. I’ll stick with it for a while. Learn by doing, instead of wallowing in I don’t know-ing. Then, I’ll know.

Here’s to your knowing.


For a helpful framework in working through your I don’t know situations, check out the Crisis Averted workbook. And follow along with all the rest of my I don’t knows via email every week, right here.

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