A story I tell my students to help them experiment more in their thinking is that the biggest mistake I made in school was being “a straight-A student.”

I defined myself as very smart, which meant that I had to get good grades all the time. If I messed up or made a mistake, that would mean I wasn’t smart.

So I did everything I could do to look smart. I put all my energy into understanding the expectations of the assignments and then met them exactly. It worked…on paper. I had a 4.2 GPA, but in practice I was intellectually very rigid. When I left the structure of school, I found myself totally unprepared to make discoveries and structure my own thinking and learning.

Being Smart Means You Can’t Be a Beginner Anymore

When you define yourself as smart, you don’t allow yourself to make mistakes. You can’t be a beginner and learn creatively because you’re supposed to always “get it.”

Being a beginner allows you a lot of freedom to learn and grow that you lose if you refuse to wear the white belt anymore.

When you hold on to a need to always be good at something, you cut yourself off from the creativity that comes from trying to figure it out.


Everyone is Trying to Look Smart, so Let Them

Maybe you weren’t a straight-A student in school, but you probably have at least one area of life where you feel you always have look smart all the time, like you’re the expert.

We tend to think that we have to do things that way, because if we don’t, we will lose other’s respect. That isn’t usually the case though.

  • Others may not even notice or care. They are probably too worried trying to look smart themselves (just as you are)
  • They might notice but find it irritating that you spend so much energy posing instead of actually solving the problems at hand or offering advice on things you aren’t knowledgeable about
  • If they do care how smart you look, they probably aren’t worth dealing with for long.

People want to look smart themselves, which is really hard to do when you brush off everything they say as obvious, or worse, one-up their insights.

The Power of “I Don’t Know”

As a teacher, the class would sometimes ask me math problems I didn’t know the answer to. I’d be standing up in front of 12 kids who all expected me to provide them with an explanation. I would sweat and fumble around and they would get frustrated.

Then, I tried telling them that I didn’t know how to find the answer, so let’s all work on it together. Occasionally, one of the kids would already have found an answer and she got to feel smart in front of the whole class. If not, then the class got a much better lesson from me because they were actally learning how to figure out something they didn’t already know. They were writing their own script instead of simply being told the steps to follow.

“I don’t know” frees you to make mistakes, to try new ways of solving problems, and learn new things. It lets you be a beginner.

  • If you are talking to a peer, it invites exploration and collaboration as you join forces to find the answer. You will both learn something new and might even come up with discoveries that you would never have found on your own.
  • If you are taking to a teacher, they might stop and show you what they mean instead of just skimming on, and you can actually learn something more deeply.
  • If you are talking to a superior asking for your input, you can say, “I don’t know, but I will find out.” This assures them that you aren’t just providing an answer to look good, but want to make sure you actually have something accurate to contribute to the conversation.

When was the last time you said, “I don’t know”? Try it the next time you have the opportunity and see what happens.


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