To Know or Not To Know: The Benefits of Ignorance

“Believe us, you think you know more than you actually do.” – Producer, journalist


Looking back many 40-something women realize they thought they knew more than they did. Some say the Millennial generation is particularly prone to this attitude but I think it’s just youth and being ready to change the world, or the workplace, with your vision and impatience for things to be anything but boring. I say embrace it. Just don’t do it from a point of cockiness. It’s funny. A lot of 40-somethings say they don’t think 20-somethings want advice or guidance because they think they know it all. One 20-something said to me in response, “I guess they all think we’re as cocky as we act!”


What 40-somethings do regret is acting like they knew rather than admitting there were some things they didn’t know. Asking questions will most likely increase the chance for change. If you’re just bluffing your knowledge,  you’re only going to repeat what others have done. The benefit to being young is that you can ask the “why not” questions and challenge the status quo without any repercussions. You are not supposed to know. You don’t have to always be right. You don’t have to prove you know as much as your boss (in fact nothing would be worse). You can be wrong and the company may learn a lot from that. After all, Silly Puddy was the result of a mistake (trying to make synthetic rubber) as were many other vital inventions.  Besides, even if you think you know it all, there’s no harm in learning more.

I spoke to a couple of 40-something entrepreneurs not long ago. They talked about how they had the best structure for a start-up. Coming from McKinsey they had what they called “management hygiene”. Then they had a lot of young people with “see no obstacle”, make mistakes, start-up attitudes working for them.  They can break new ground but  have a solid foundation to build from the mistakes.

I love the idea of mixing the young and old without judgment. Be confident in not knowing that something is not possible. Be confident asking the right questions. Here are a few other 40-something reflections on what not to know:

“Being proud and confident of being naïve, and not knowing the answer is actually the best value a twenty year old can give him or herself or a company. Shed the pressure of the need to be right or for things to be perfect and recognize that your freshness is the core of it. But at the same time, particularly if you are starting your own business, recognize that you need people around you with more experience. If you don’t learn the basic business skills it could take a lot longer for the company to grow.  – 40-something, entrepreneur, NYC


“Sometimes ignorance pays off. I got a job I totally wasn’t qualified for. It was sheer stupidity. I had just moved to New York. I didn’t’ understand how it worked. The guy that hired me said he used me as his practice interview. They had thrown my resume in the trash and then they said why don’t you use this girl as a practice interview. It was one part luck. But the other part was that I wasn’t afraid to fail because I didn’t know that I didn’t fit the part.” – 40-something, freelance consultant


“Don’t apologize for not knowing. A lot of times I found myself saying, ‘I don’t know if this is right’, but just say it. It may be a bad idea but it could lead somewhere.” – V.P. Business Development and Marketing


“It’s okay to not know. Obviously not on the interview but when you get into a job and someone offers you help — be a sponge. And you can do it in a way that shows you in the best light.” – Executive, Sales and Training


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