I was talking with a young lecturer colleague yesterday over a drink, and she was telling us about how rewarding she found it when a student asked her a question she didn’t know the answer to. She used it as an opportunity to go and find the answer, instead of getting defensive and avoidant.
“My students can smell bullshit a mile off, so I couldn’t give an avoiding answer, even if I wanted to.”
She is relatively new in her professional career, yet she had already sussed out one important lesson. If you don’t know, it’s probably best to front up and say so and explore the question. In fact, if you can use it as an opportunity to learn from a naive position, and perhaps reveal the intention behind the question (e.g. the student wants to know how to apply the knowledge in a particular context), everyone wins. You look like a tolerant and open person who is willing to be guided by your students or colleagues on your blind spots, and your students / colleagues feel valued and heard and may actually get some personalised learning out of it too. As Shunryu Suzuki said, “In the mind of the expert, there are few possibilities. In the mind of the beginner there are many.”
More broadly speaking, sometimes when we come to a situation of thinking that we know all there is to know, then we may already risking missing some vital elements of what might make this situation different. Although you might be an expert in a technical field or as a manager, when you aim to communicate or create change in a complex environment it is in your interests to adopt a ‘beginner mind’ and open up to additional possibilities. Sometimes, to see the most possibilities for change in a certain situation, it may actually help to know little or nothing about the field concerned. As John Ziman has observed, “It is well known that major scientific progress often comes from scientists who have crossed conventional disciplinary boundaries, and have no more authority than a layman in an unfamiliar field”.
Challenge yourself to build up your ideas from scratch for each assignment. Respond to this case, not last week’s. The solution this time if probably a bit different, and will stem from what you discover from starting afresh.