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What to Do When You Don’t Know

Not knowing is the worst.


It can be frustrating when your boss (or a friend, spouse, colleague, client) asks you a question and you don’t have the answer. Especially if you are responsible for owning the solution.


When you don’t know, here are the steps you can take to find solutions:


1. Admit you don’t know
My anxiety level instantly lowers the second I acknowledge to myself and others that I don’t have a solution. It gives me permission to take a step back and solve more effectively. Don’t lie to yourself or other people if you truly don’t know. It’ll be a total distraction and people will lose confidence in you—including yourself.


2. Identify what you don’t know
Inventor Charles Kettering is famous for saying, “A problem well-stated is half-solved.” When I take the time to consider what I don’t know, I am able to focus on the areas that I need to better understand. You can’t solve a big problem all at once—you have to attack it bit by bit.


3. Learn what you don’t know
To learn new tricks, you need a good teacher. If you don’t have a mentor, you can find good substitutes quite easily. I read articles, watch videos, and interview subject matter experts to better understand the topics that I need clarity on. Bookmark and save the most resources you find so that you can reference them in the future.


4. Explain what you learned
In teaching, there is a methodology called, I do, we do, you do. By taking the time to learn something (I do), and then teaching it to someone else (we do), you will be able to increase your own comprehension of the information you just acquired. This step doesn’t have to be formal. You can simply ask a colleague to sit with you for a few minutes to help pressure-test your thinking.


5. Apply what you know
Take the knowledge you’ve gained and apply it back to your initial challenge or opportunity. If it works, bask in your own genius for a fleeting moment—you’ve earned it! If you still don’t have the right answer, repeat these steps until you do.


One thing I know for sure:


I don’t know WAY more than I do know.


If you have feedback or a better process for getting unstuck, I’d love to hear about it.