Let’s flash back seven years.
It’s 2003. I’ve decided to take a coaching class. I’m curious, and want to find out what all the buzz is about coaching.
So it’s the first day of class. We’re in the midst of an activity, walking around the room, and the instructor randomly chooses students and asks a question.
When it’s my turn, I respond, “I don’t know.”
Suddenly, the group is silent. Movement halts, all eyes trained on me. I freeze. And the instructor tells me, “You can’t answer that way. It’s a cop out.”
Huh? In the space of a minute, this charming man has labeled me a quitter, a dodger, an excuse-maker. And I’m totally confused.
Thus began my checkered history with those three little words: I DON’T KNOW.
Up until that point, I’d never thought much about them. Afterwards, they seemed to follow me around like a hungry cat at dinner time, howling and rubbing up against my legs.
They followed me into a class I was teaching, where one day the conversation settled on the topic of how to engage clients who don’t know what they want. One bright student announced that she knew exactly what to do.
“Just ask them this question,” she said excitedly. “Ask them – If you did know what you want, what would it be?“
And not long after, the three words followed me into my office. A client shared that a therapist once told her that replying with “I don’t know” was akin to dropping the f-bomb.
Finally, they followed me all the way to a wake-up call, when a few years ago another client immediately pulled back her “I don’t know” and sheepishly said, “Sorry, I know you don’t like it when I do that.”
Apparently, all the demonizing of this oft-used phrase had attached itself to me, stealthily working its way in. So much so that I was actually judging people who used it, without even being aware of it. So it was time to open my eyes and consider what it meant.
The first thing I noticed was this ubiquitous message: YOU MUST KNOW WHERE YOU’RE GOING. It’s almost inescapable; at each turn there’s another admonition that if we don’t know, we will be lost. So better get a five-year, 10-year, 20-year plan. Goodness, I’ve even seen 50-year plans touted.
Second thing I noticed was that I certainly had internalized this belief. And as I unpacked it, I came face-to-face with its absurdity. I mean, most people, looking back five or ten years will tell you they’re surprised (often pleasantly) about the way things turned out. But it wasn’t necessarily what they planned.
Fact is, we’re not very good at envisioning the arc of our lives.
I sure haven’t been accurate. Recently I unearthed some yellowing papers from a workshop I took 10 years ago. In it we were asked that old chestnut: where do you want to be, professionally and personally, five years down the road?
Let’s see. I had my eye on a community college counselor job. Among my peers that was the holy grail – good pay, great benefits, summers off. I also anemically speculated that I might want to venture into business for myself, but figured if it did happen, it would be far in the future.
Bet you can finish the story for me.
I never set foot on a community college campus, but instead started my business just six months later. And the rest of it? The dog I wanted? Nope. (My friend Deb got a dog though). Yes, I did get it right about the kitchen redo; I failed to see, however, that home improvement projects replicate like viruses, and that one minor kitchen update was merely the tip of the proverbial iceberg.
And as I rolled around in these revelations, something new began to take shape. The possibility that “I don’t know” was not about being lost, but rather about being an explorer.
An invitation instead of a rejection.
You see, I’ve come to believe that “I don’t know” opens the door for discovery and experimentation. A trip onto the side roads. Those less traveled. Because it’s okay not to know exactly where we’re going. I mean, if we stick to the main highways all the time, we’re likely to miss out on the wonders that are deep in the forest.
And the deep wisdom underneath the I don’t know.
Yes, I’m beginning to think that this space of not knowing is actually a call to drop down into the deeper, quiet wisdom that’s always available to us. The kind of knowing that lives within metaphor and symbol rather than concrete answers.
Here are some ways to move toward that wisdom (and away from the anxiety that often comes from I don’t know):
- What kind of energy do you experience with the I don’t know? Stuck? Curious? Anxious? Relaxed? What does that energy need from you right now?
- What stories occur to you as you experience it? Write or talk about them.
- What does the I don’t know look like? Find or create an image that represents it to you.
- What does the I don’t know want to tell you?