Sam Holstein

How To Admit When You Don’t Know Something

Knowing how to admit when you don’t know is the first step to becoming successful. After all, if you knew how to be successful, you already would be. Despite that, knowing how to admit when you don’t know something is a skill most people don’t have. 

Based on what I know of biology, our collective inability to admit when we don’t know something probably evolved as a survival reflex. In the wild, humans had to come to quick conclusions about the world and stick to what they learned. When ancient humans watched their friend get eaten by a tiger in a bush, people didn’t wonder if behind every rustling bush is a tiger; they stopped fucking around with rustling bushes. Anyone who questioned that assumption died. 

Modernity makes very different demands of us. The rustling bush is now an irate boss. The weather turning sour is now a stock market dip. Running from a tiger keeps you alive, but running from knowledge of stock market dips makes things worse. Nevertheless, our instincts tell us to run

Standing tall and admitting when you don’t know something is to act in direct defiance of these ancient instincts. To learn how to admit when you don’t know something is to learn how to defy your instincts. 

The two components of learning to rewire that neural circuitry are this: 

  1. Learning how to recognize when you don’t know something.
  2. Learning how to have the courage to admit it.

Learn to Recognize When You Don’t Know Something

We think we know a lot about the world, but we don’t really. The majority of us know very little about the world. We operate on assumptions that we have been given by other people. 

For most things, this is appropriate. Having never been to Paris, I am technically operating on the assumption that Paris exists because everything I do know indicates it does. I don’t actually know whether Paris exists. But if I operate on the assumption Paris exists, I’ll do just fine. 

However, our tendency to rely on what others tell us to be true can get us into trouble. 

For instance:

Let’s consider a common misconception between people who like to weightlift; the misconception that soy makes you produce less testosterone.

The theory goes like this: Soy has estrogen in it and that when men have too much estrogen, their testosterone drops and causes them to build less muscle. This, of course, is bad, so if you’re a serious fitness enthusiast you better cut out that darn soy. There’s a nationwide epidemic of testosterone deficiency because of the soy in everything these days. (Women have no such problem because testosterone is the male hormone, not the female hormone, and can have all the soy they want). If you’ve never heard of the term ‘soy boy,’ you now know what it means.

Except… it’s complete garbage. Here’s the truth:

Soy has been shown to alter levels of available testosterone in the body, is true. However, the consequences of consuming soy are negligible compared to the consequences of being overweight and sedentary. If you are an adult of either sex looking to have more energy and libido, don’t waste your time trying to cut out soy. Lose weight instead1.

How do people come by misconceptions like this?

A few ways:

Notice that none of those are a thorough researching of the facts. They don’t even research at all. Someone delivered a conclusion to their digital doorstep, and they accepted it without question.

How many of our beliefs are like this? 

How many things do we believe purely because we read it in an Internet article, heard it on a podcast, or were told by a friend?

How can you tell if something you believe is based on solid ground? 

The ability to test how well founded your own beliefs are is the backbone of critical thinking skills. The critical thinking skill is the skill of being able to look at all the facts you know and cross-examine them to see if they are sufficient to come to a conclusion about a situation. 

With critical thinking skills, people can hear a variety of facts and stitch them together to form a cohesive picture. Without critical thinking skills, people are at the mercy of whatever people tell them and whoever tells them the most persuasively.

The core of critical thinking skills is asking questions of your beliefs.

  1. Why did I come to believe this? 
  2. Who (or what) converted me to this way of thinking?
  3. What are some alternative positions I could take? Why am I not taking them instead?

Case Study: American Politics

Most political ‘facts’ are assumed knowledge of this sort. A pundit says something via podcast, YouTube video, internet article or another medium, providing no citation for any stated facts and not qualifying any assertions. Nevertheless, their audience swallows what they say whole2.

This affects you, even if you think it doesn’t. 

Allow me to demonstrate. Since most of my readers are Democrats, let us imagine that you are a Democrat who believes Reaganomics doesn’t work. If you don’t believe Reagonomics works, please answer the following questions:

  1. What is Reagonomics, in three sentences? (Bonus points if you can name the four pillars of Reagonomics).
  2. Please explain why, or how, Reagonomics doesn’t work.
  3. Cite three economic statistics which prove that Reagonomics doesn’t work.

If you can’t answer these three questions, especially number #2, there’s a strong chance your belief Reagonomics doesn’t work is one of those beliefs you inherited from others. 

If you don’t like that I’m picking on Democrats, here’s an alternative example picking on Republicans. Republicans generally favor the building of a wall along the Mexican border to reduce illegal immigration. 

If you are a Republican who is in favor of building the wall, answer the following questions:

  1. What are the other proposals on the table for controlling illegal immigration? In other words, what are the nation’s other options?
  2. Why did Trump select the wall over these other options?
  3. What is the projected cost of the wall?
  4. By how much is the wall projected to reduce illegal immigration?

Again, if you can’t answer these questions, you don’t actually know whether the border wall is a good idea. All you know is that someone told you it is.

I know next to nothing about both Reagonomics and border wall legislation. Like you, dear reader, I cannot even hazard a guess to the answers to these questions, let alone answer them in a way that would make a professor proud. But thanks to critical thinking skills, we can know what we don’t know. 

Learn To Admit When You Don’t Know Something

A curious thing happens when a bunch of people huddle around a bar table — they all become experts. One person mentions the recent football game that Ohio State won. Another says that win was crap. Didn’t they see that ref’s bad call? Yet another says that win was totally legitimate because that ref made the same call in last week’s Oregon game. 

None of these people are football coaches, referees, theorists, historians, or anything else having to do with football. The referee in question alone has thirty times the experience of that group combined.

On some level, the people huddled around the pool table know this. The guy who watched the Ohio State game? He did so while simultaneously arguing with his wife about whether he was going to have time after work tomorrow to watch the kids. The guy who said that was a bad call said it because one of his friends Tweeted it was a bad call during the game. He didn’t even see it happen. And the gal who watched the Oregon game did so while hammered.

When it comes to football, this is innocent. Gathering around televisions and vehemently discussing a sport about which we know next to nothing, let alone have ever played, is at this point an American pastime. But this tendency carries over into subjects a lot more important than football. 

Something hits the news — a bunch of republican kids and a Native American man get into it at the capital, for instance — and our Twitter feeds fill with headlines. “Trump supporters harass Native American outside nation’s capital!” “Native American man harasses teenage kids, claims ‘racism.’” 

Without even clicking the links first, we click retweet. 

Without even reading the article, we turn to a friend at work: “Oh my god, have you seen this? A bunch of racist kids attacked this Native American dude.” 

Maybe they did, and maybe they didn’t, but you certainly don’t know. What’s more, you know you don’t know. You didn’t even click the article. You didn’t check the tweet’s link. Yet you turned to your friend at work and parroted the headline anyway. 

Repeating without knowing is so common.

People pat themselves on the back all the time for doing this. Some of them even call themselves educated citizens. When you share an article without understanding the larger issue — or share a headline without even reading the article — all you are is a tool for those more powerful than you.

Look, I get why we do this. I spent my entire high school career breathing down people’s necks for not being ‘informed citizens.’ I constantly berated classmates about whatever the political talking heads were saying that week. 

People who are actually well-informed are educated deserve respect for taking the time to be so. But when we do this, we’re not well-informed. When we do this, we’re not educating ourselves, we’re actively doing the opposite. At this point, our nation can’t afford it anymore.

What should you do instead? 

When you see a headline on Twitter, either click to read the article in full, or scroll past. Whatever you do, do not hit retweet if you didn’t even click the link in the Tweet.

More broadly, if a topic comes up that you don’t know about, say the following words: “I don’t know much about this.” 

When you don’t know, just admit it.

If you’re worried admitting you don’t know something will make you look stupid, don’t be. When you say “I don’t know much about this,” it gives the person you’re talking to an opportunity to tell you all about the matter. In doing so, you have a conversational topic that will fuel you for at least forty-five minutes, and they’ll feel great about being the authority. 

As you have more of these conversations, you’ll find there’s a wide variety of fascinating people in the world who know a lot of things. As a result, you will come to know many things yourself. More importantly, you will learn about who knows what in your life and who you can go to for information.

Have courage

Most of the skill in admitting when you don’t know something comes from having the moral courage to admit it. Learning to admit you don’t know something is to strengthen your moral muscle.

Like strengthening any other muscle, strengthening the moral muscle takes some time. Start small.

As you get better admitting when you don’t know something, you’ll start to see the quality of your life go up and up.


1: Especially ironic here is the fact that many of the people who use the insult ‘soy boy’ are overweight and not the sort of people to work out.

2: If you have political pundits or news sources you regularly follow, conduct a little experiment. The next time they come out with a piece of content, write down every fact they refer to. Do they include a citation? Write down every assertion or hypothesis the pundit makes. Does the pundit clarify that this is a theory, as opposed to a clear and obvious conclusion that cannot be doubted?

3: Many common gastrointestinal disorders make it so that people have to reduce, but not entirely eliminate, their gluten consumption, much like how the rest of us can only have a certain amount of fried chicken before our stomachs melt.

4: They’ll love hearing this. Even if your boss incompetent, this is true, because everyone has something to teach us, even if the lesson is just how to deal with incompetence.

5: If you think reading a book takes too much time, consider the fact that if you really do know about this subject, you should be able to skim large sections of it.