"I didn't know that" is the best way to learn · [Thinking inside a large box];

"I didn't know that" is the best way to learn

This is no original thought. Nevertheless I’ve been thinking about it often enough to make it worth spending a few minutes framing it in my own words.

I’m currently working as a Software Engineer. According to Wikipedia that makes me a Knowledge Worker.

Knowledge workers are workers whose main capital is knowledge.

Most Software Engineers that I’ve met in my short career know that knowledge is their main asset. Unfortunately this can have very negative side effects.

Being paid for having knowledge in a scientific field or a certain technology makes it very hard to say “I didn’t know that”. After all, if knowledge is your main asset how could you admit the lack thereof?

I believe that being honest about what we (believe to) know and what we don’t is essential for our learning process as professionals. If it was possible to visualize the knowledge of any two people working in the same profession it would probably look somewhat like this:


In the fields we are working today the things we could know about are growing faster than anyone can learn them. We are essentially knowing less and less about our field, every single day.

Whatever sort of formal education you have, that portion is only a very small (yet very important) part of your entire knowledge. The rest of your knowledge is based on your personal experience. The chance that you know something your colleague does not know and vice versa is very high, for any given topic and for any point in time.

I think there are three potential reactions when being confronted with something you don’t know:

  • Nod and pretend you know about it
  • Nod, pretend you know about it and go read about it afterwards
  • Admit that you never heard about it and extract as much knowledge as possible from the conversation

Don’t get me wrong. Reading is great and I think we all should thrive to increase our knowledge in whichever field we are working in. But if you have the chance to learn something you are interested in from a person who knows about it at the small cost of a “I didn’t know that” it wouldn’t be smart to let that opportunity pass by.

Learning from other people is incredibly powerful and one the fastest ways to gain new knowledge. Smart people are happy to share their knowledge. You should ask as many questions as possible.

While writing this I felt like I should come up with a new definition of a knowledge worker, one that is closer to the reality of explosive information growth in the 21st century:

Knowledge workers are workers with a strong understanding of concepts in their field and an ability to quickly acquire new knowledge by the most efficient means.

You know a little, you know a lot. Make the best out of this contradiction.