When I was a child, my father told me between him and his brother they knew the answer to every question. I responded, as he knew I would, by asking a random trivia question. He smiled and said, “My brother knows the answer to that one.” We lived in New York; my uncle lived in Florida. I had no reasonable way to contact him. After several rounds of this back and forth I realized the joke was on me.
I know that’s bad, even for dad jokes. But in this category my father had no shame.
The absurdity of proclaiming you know the answer to everything is obvious. Since nobody knows everything, it should increase the frequency of how often we say and hear, “I don’t know.” But when was the last time you said it? When was the last time you heard it said?
Provisional Knowledge and Alternative Facts
Our understanding of the natural world is limited and dynamic. In this sense, knowledge is provisional. There was a time when smart people, godly people, based on the best available information, believed the world was flat, and the sun rotated around the earth. Believing this today, given what we have learned about the world, is absurd.
We know almost nothing about the world from our personal firsthand experimentation. We learn what we know from others, through books, teachers, and professors, as well as informally through family and friends. Learning from others requires trust. When it breaks down people choose alternative sources of information and come to different conclusions. This is why some people I know struggle to believe anyone really landed on the moon.
Humans walked on the moon. Refusing to accept this isn’t a question of provisional knowledge. It’s about “alternative facts.”
The tension caused by alternative facts is growing exponentially in the story we tell ourselves about science, politics, and culture for two reasons. The circle of trusted sources of information is shrinking, and it’s being decoupled from subject matter expertise. As a result, people have fewer “reliable” sources and the basis for trust is compatibility of worldview instead of knowledge about the issue at hand.
The people I know who don’t believe humans walked on the moon get their information from YouTube videos, not aerospace engineers. Their skepticism is less about how hard it is to believe the science and more about how easy it is to believe the government would lie to the public.
I’m Not Crazy, But that Doesn’t Mean I’m Humble
Admitting I don’t have all the answers means I’m in touch with reality. The fact that I’m not crazy, doesn’t mean I’m walking in humility. It is easier to admit I don’t have all the answers than to admit some of the answers I do have are wrong. I just don’t know which ones. So, when I discover something I believe is wrong, I change my mind.
Not having all the answers is nowhere near as big of a problem as believing you do.
What level of arrogance does it take to assume all your beliefs, ideas, and opinions are one-hundred percent true? The more we let this sink in, the easier it is to lower the temperature when someone disagrees. The more curious we become about understanding the contrarian point of view. The more humility and grace we have in articulating our perspective.
Humble leaders are not confident in what they know. They are confident in their ability to learn. There’s a difference. The ability to learn hinges on accepting the fact that I don’t have all the answers, and some of my answers are wrong.
If you found this helpful, go deeper with the latest episode of Learning @ the Speed of Life, 3 Questions to Expose Macro Self-Awareness Blind Spots.