October 19, 2023
October 19, 2023
What if you just don't know the answer? What then?
My first job after college was at Northeastern University Press in Boston. My mentor there, Jill Bahcall, was smart, generous, and understated. In casual conversations, Jill would dispense what to her were probably straightforward reflections about business; to the young professionals in her orbit, though, they were shining nuggets of wisdom and clear windows into the world we were about to inhabit.
Jill's most-enduring observation—to me, at least—came as we were discussing the researchers we were publishing. "Here's how I know I can trust an 'expert'," she said. "If they're willing to say I don't know. When those people say they know what they're talking about, it's likely to be true." It was permission—encouragement, even—to be comfortable not knowing something. It was an affirmation about how much authenticity matters, and it was just what I needed to hear at exactly the right time. A few years later when I started my first business, it became my operating principle: Never shy away from saying what I didn't know. It worked: My clients trusted me.
But when I became a parent, it was tempting to throw Jill's advice out the window. Isn't it important, I asked myself, for my kids to see me as an all-knowing guide to the universe? How else will they know to follow my lead? Then I realized that her observation was even more applicable to parenting than to business. For one thing, kids are quick to smell when you're faking it. More important, showing young people that every human is learning all the time, even parents, removes the stigma of not knowing that can get in the way of growing.
So... does it actually work? Does admitting to your kids that you know some things but not all things give them a view of a future in which they're free to make mistakes and learn from them? I think so... and I trust my kids to figure it out.