Can We Confidently Say “I am Not Sure”?

Sadness and anger are companions of pride. Calm and joy are companions of impeccable humility.

~Lao Tzu

In our society, we value knowledge and expertise, and we admire people who achieve outward success, like money and power, with their knowledge and expertise. This “success” driven culture has led us to subconsciously associate success with “being right”, and failure with “being wrong”. It has become part of our psychological being, secretly shaping how we think and act at work, how we relate to each other, and how we teach our children. It has caused anxiety and isolation.

  • Have you worked for a boss who would not admit they are wrong, who shut down dissent and command the team to follow their orders? How do you feel going to work for that boss every day?
  • Do you think you might be that boss? You know you are wrong about something, but couldn’t bring up the courage to admit it, afraid of being perceived as incompetent or weak. Do you really like yourself?
  • Have you ever worked with someone who is arrogant, cocky, and loud? They always like to point out how they are right about things. Do you genuinely enjoy working with them? How do you feel being around them?
  • Have you heard loving banters from wives about their husbands, “Oh, he would never admit he was wrong.” Or husbands about their secret for long-lasting marriages: always say “honey, you are right.” Does that remind you of your own frustration or resentment?
  • Have your parents ever told you something like, “I want you to do this, because I am experienced, and I know it is the right path for you.” They were so sure about it, despite your lack of interest or conviction. How did you feel about that? How has that affected your other decisions later in life?

When we focus on “being right”, we let our ego dictate how we process information and relate to others. The phrases “ego bias” and “confirmation bias” are psychology terms coined to describe the tendency for people to interpret events or facts to support their need to feel superior. When we are controlled by this need, we stop listening to each other. When conversations only serve as a way to confirm others’ pre-existing opinions, we tune out.

What if we learn to disassociate success from “being right”? What if we learn to say, “I am not sure” or “oops, I was wrong”, without feeling inadequate? I can think about positive impact in at least three ways:

  1. We will be more engaged and creative at work. Human beings are motivated by the desire for excellence and mastery, but often the fear of imperfection or mediocracy prevents us from achieving our best potential. When we feel safe to learn, to experiment, without being constantly judged, we actually are more likely to work harder. The work becomes more meaningful and more fulfilling.
  2. We will become more effective leaders. When a leader is comfortable saying “I am not sure”, it sets the tone for the team, relieving the pressure of protecting individual egos. It fosters trust and collaboration. Innovation and superior performance will follow.
  3. We will be more fulfilled in our personal relationships. We human beings long for genuine connections. But genuine connections are only possible when we are open, listening to others without thinking of your own agenda, and willing to be vulnerable.

The great religious scholar and poet Thomas Merton said, “Pride makes us artificial and humility makes us real.” When we can confidently say “I am not sure”, we are putting aside our pride, signaling to ourselves and others that we are real. Imagine if everyone can do that and it becomes part of our psychological being, how different we will feel every day?


Jackie Luo
Jackie Luo
Jackie Luo is an investor and entrepreneur, with expertise in software and technology businesses. Most recently, as the CEO of a Maryland based SaaS (Software as a Service) company, Jackie was responsible for growing the company as an early innovator in SaaS and mobile technology profitably, before selling the business to a publicly-traded company in 2018. Currently, Jackie is the principal of her own consulting business BAM Advisory LLC, helping entrepreneurs to accelerate growth and maximize the value of their businesses by taking a holistic approach. She believes that we need to cultivate authenticity and growth mindset in order to realize our true potential as an individual, a parent, and a leader. Jackie was born and raised in China, fluent in both Mandarin and English. She holds an MBA from the Wharton School of Business in the University of Pennsylvania. Currently, she lives in Virginia with her two daughters.

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  1. Interesting question and very close to everyday reality.
    Being right can be very rewarding, but in some situations it is preferable to be kind rather than argue at any cost. It is better to avoid clashes on irrelevant topics or when the ego is very present.

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