Hey, What Do You Know…

In a recent LinkedIn post, Rached Alami discussed the fear of not knowing.

Having spent a couple of sleepless nights with a.o. this question in the back of my head, a memory from a very distant educational experience came back.

The education was in this case related to Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs coupled with Hertzberg’s theory of motivation and hygiene factors.  I will not elaborate on Maslow; Melissa Hughes has done such wonderful pieces on this platform that I will just refer to her writing.

Hertzberg put Maslow into the organizational context by dividing the motivational tools organizations use into two groups:  those whose presence motivate us and those whose absence demotivate us.  Good stuff.  For more on that

But the memory was not about motivational theory per se as much as about learning.  Or perhaps it is layered…

Early in my career, I did computer programming and systems planning.  My employer had sent a couple of colleagues and yours truly on a project management course arranged by IBM.  I am sure you can see how teaching motivational theory is relevant to project management.  Personally, as I was studying organizational development at business school on the side, I had an additional deep interest in this field.  So I asked questions from a desire to suck in practical application and what “meat” IBM could put on the theoretical skeleton I was studying at school.

The instructor was at first very good about taking questions, but then he became increasingly annoyed, even as the questions seemed to interest all the other students as well.  Because of other events that happened during the next days of the course, I was sure the teacher had it in for me, and I was making up all kinds of stories, none of them good.

Fortunately, as is common on the last evening of a week’s course somewhere away from home, there was a goodbye party where everybody played pool and had a little too much to drink, and I mustered my courage to ask the instructor what I ever did to annoy him.  The answer blew me away:  He thought I was trying to make him lose face in front of the class by asking questions to demonstrate holes in his knowledge – which, reasonably, was more about computing than about motivational theory.  Realizing that I was just more than average interested in the field, he totally retracted and assured me that what else had happened during the week was by totally random selection and was not planned to single me out (and the next day when he was sober, he asked if I had ever thought about working for IBM.)

This brings us back to Rached Alami’s fear of what we don’t know.

In a comment to his discussion, I wrote that “to me, The Unknown seems to hold three conceptually distinct areas:
1) That which is not known.
2) That which is known but not known by me (and is really not necessarily relevant to my day-to-day life but is still intriguing enough that I can be curious about it.)
3) That which is unknown and potentially relevant”.

The first group, what is not known, could be whether organic lifeforms exist “out there” in the rest of the universe.  It can be known, we just don’t have the technology or wherewithal to figure it out – yet.  As much as some of these still unknown facts would be very nice to know, I doubt anybody feels personally ashamed about not knowing.

The third group is where we usually operate with talks about “fear of the unknown”.  We are at a crossroads and one direction is assumed to be tomorrow is like yesterday and another direction is – well, not like yesterday:  a new job – or no job, a new home – or no home, a new spouse – or no spouse, a new way of being…  What will we learn about ourselves and others if we are put into new circumstances?  Are we as resilient as we believe – or perhaps more?  Will people we care about love us less – or perhaps more?  What new people will we attract?

Feel free to elaborate.

It seems to me that my story falls into the second category: transferring knowledge, this is where we operate – regardless of whether the knowledge is relevant or not.  And I want to dig a little deeper.

When I was thinking about knowing and not knowing, to me a significant difference appears between things we know because we have read about them and things we know because we have lived them.  This could lead directly to a dissertation about different people’s “truth” with all its political implications, but I will not go there as much as go back to my “case story”.

Shooting from the hip:

  • When do you feel comfortable saying that you don’t know something?
  • Some things – ancient history – can’t be experienced, only studied through secondary sources. Do you feel different about these things compared to knowledge that could come from first sources, including by doing them yourself?
  • Are you more comfortable if your knowledge is book learning, and this is just something you haven’t learned yet, or do you feel more vulnerable if your practical experience in the field is limited?
  • Is there a sweet spot when you have applied knowledge and have a framework to hang it on in your mind as well?
  • How do you feel when you have a lot of applied knowledge but no theoretical framework to structure it? How do you feel about the people who have a relevant theoretical framework but little relevant practice?
  • Does it make a difference if you have a title, letters after your name? Or the people you talk to have these credentials?
  • Does age matter? Are you more afraid to be found having holes in your knowledge if your age indicates that you could have 20 years of experience – or were/are you more vulnerable young and afraid of not being taken seriously?
  • Who are you comfortable asking for insights if you don’t know something? Do they match a certain profile and if so, why that profile?
  • What is your personal definition of a know-it-all? Why this definition?
  • Do you feel “not knowing something” is a threat to your social standing?

There may be much better questions than what I have thought of asking.  And I don’t know the answers for me; they are probably individual, anyway.  But I do know from experience that some people, if they feel vulnerable about their knowledge, are inclined to make up stories that are not flattering about other people’s intent with a significant risk to their connection with these people.  I wish that not to happen to you or me.  And I certainly don’t want that to happen between you and me.

I will continue to think about what situations make me feel challenged or feel comfortable not knowing.  And why.  But hopefully, I will not think about it at night.

Please bring your insights. 

(P.S. Jetlag, not Rached Alimi’s post, kept me awake at odd hours.)


Charlotte Wittenkamp
Charlotte Wittenkamp
Charlotte Wittenkamp is an organizational psychologist who counsels international transfers, immigrants, and foreign students in overcoming culture shock. Originating from Denmark, where she worked in organizational development primarily in the finance industry, Charlotte has lived in California since 1998. Her own experiences relocating lead down a path of research into value systems and communication patterns. She shares this knowledge and experience through speaking and writing and on her website Many of these “learning experiences” along with a context to put them in can be found in her book Building Bridges Across Cultural Differences, Why Don’t I Follow Your Norms?. On the side, she leads a multinational and multigenerational communication training group.

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  1. Quite an interesting perspective, Charlotte. I think I tend to shoot from the hip depending on the circumstances. Or perhaps I don’t ask the question until I’m in the middle of the fire. But I can tell you I have no problem admitting when I’m wrong. But I also fiercely defend myself if I believe I’ve done something correctly. Probably to the point of ad nauseum. (a nice way of saying an a-hole).
    What’s interesting is what I got from your article is more about observing – and changing – my future behavior.

  2. Great post and great questions, Charlotte.

    We live in a world where the known unknowns and unknown unknowns are increasing. Wisdom necessitates that we ask probing questions to understand. This what you have done in your post by asking a good number of relevant questions.

    The fear of the unknown will chill our minds and asking the right questions becomes difficult.
    It is the realization that we progressively know less that calls for brave hearts to face the darkness of the unknowns for in this darkness lies the light of hope. To find this light we need to ask questions not at all with the intention of “to make him lose face in front of the class by asking questions to demonstrate holes in his knowledge”, but to understand.

    Holes of knowledge are there and are increasing in number and size. We all have these holes. It is how we try to fill the gaps with what.

    • Thank you, Ali, and I know few people as curious about the world as you.

      Did any of the questions cause reflections on how you – personally – move in the world? I know I coped out by writing that I didn’t have my own answers to the questions, yet. I guess I need to do a follow up post at some time when I have pondered more.