“I Don’t Know” is an Answer

I have made mistakes in my life: gaffed, erred, blundered, goofed up, failed brilliantly. It has been said that the path of failure leads the way to learning and innovation. I certainly hold this to be true. The relatively sane among us understand that repeating an erroneous method over and again in exactly the same way but expecting different results is … as Albert says … insanity. Typically, I’ll make a decision that turns out to be wrong and will learn from it. The operative phrase here: “I’ll make a decision”.

Tell me that fire is hot but not until I’m burned will I believe

Many of the miscalculations in my life could easily have been avoided. Not through forethought nor deep insight. They could have been avoided by asking, by involving others, by reaching out for opinions and guidance. Yet as far back as I can remember, I have moved in isolation. Even as a small child, I was considered stubborn thanks to the fact that I had to do it myself. But I wasn’t stubborn.

I just didn’t want to be wrong

When we take the risk to be wrong, to screw-up, we expose our soft underbelly of vulnerability, we open ourselves to ridicule, mockery, and perhaps even contempt. I was having none of that. Early on, I developed a persona as the quiet one; as the introspective smart kid who always had the answer – who knew everything. However, the fact was that I didn’t know everything (of course!). But I was running a pretty convincing game.

I would listen quietly. When I was absolutely certain I had the answer, my authority was unchallenged (it’s all in the delivery). Without that absolute certainty, I stayed my voice and found some way to redirect the conversation or, simply, didn’t answer (and being the quiet one, this was not considered out of character). However, I would take the most immediate opportunity to learn so I would never be in that situation again. The next time that question came up? I would know.

This would have made sense were I doing it for the right reasons. If I were learning purely to grow and innovate, that would be honest. But my motivations were skewed and were, ultimately, for self-preservation and, I sadly realize, protection. Aloof silence became a shield for my vulnerability.

I built up quite a reputation for being there for people. “Ask Tobey – she’ll know”. I was the go-to person who knew stuff. I helped people sell, move, build, study … I was there. And I love to give, to help, and to esteem. But I never asked for anything. Asking for help exposes weakness and invites judgment. Herein lies the rub. If you continually rebuff offers of assistance, the offers stop.

Then I got a wake-up call


I was napping on my couch when my phone rang on the evening of Tuesday, October 1, 2002. It was my brother, telling me that our Mother had suffered a stroke and she was at her local hospital. I asked, “In the ICU?” He replied, “No. In the morgue.”


I immediately called my best friend since childhood. Throughout the following days, I came to understand the importance of ‘needing’.

This was my tipping point. It was during this time that I realized I could no longer move in isolation and that I need people as much as they need me. I acknowledged that I was being selfish and robbing the people who care about me of the joyful feeling I experience when I’m moved to help them.

Trusting others to have your best interests at heart can seem an abyss-leap. Opening yourself up to judgment can be paralyzing. They may not love your idea – they may tell you it’s just plain dumb. If they love you and care for you, they are giving you the best gift by saving you from yourself. It can be a hard row to hoe if you’ve spent a lifetime safeguarding your ego but, when you take advantage of the collection of wonderful minds out there, the shield can come down.

The next time your ego pulls you to resist asking for directions, help with a project, or insight into a dilemma – fight the urge to ‘do it yourself’. By asking for assistance, direction, advice, or input, you are esteeming the other person and making them a stalwart member of your team.

The greatest assets in your life are the people who aren’t afraid to tell you:

“You know that thing you just did? Don’t do that.” – Douglas Adams

Do you cherish your assets?

This entry was posted in Food for Thought, Just Saying, Leadership and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to “I Don’t Know” is an Answer

  1. Great post! I can totally relate. Thankfully, my wake up call was not as tragic a loss as yours. It came when I lost my hearing, had extreme vertigo, and had to call for help. Thank you so much for sharing this story.

    • tobeydeys says:

      Hello Pam and thanks for reading ~ I hope to know that you’ve fully recovered! Life can certainly throw us some curve balls (I’ve been beaned in the noggin’ by a few!) and I, too, realize how crucial it is to lean against someone else sometimes.
      Thanks so much for sharing your story – I appreciate you!

  2. RIDDLE ME THIS: 3 frogs were sitting on a log, one made a decision to jump off…how many were left? The answer is 3. The frog only made a decision. Why didn’t he do it? I don’t know? Maybe there was something in the swamp he saw he thought would eat him, maybe said frog was enjoying the other frogs company, maybe the frog was scared, maybe lazy…the point might be we can’t compare our insides to other peoples outsides.
    We are all motivated differently. We all learn at different paces. It is also imperative that we listen and honor that little voice that tells something is wrong or right when we are making a decision and sometimes the best thing to do is say “I don’t know”, “I don’t want to,” “I don’t care”, and mostly importantly to say “NO”. Did you know that “NO” is a full sentence?
    When making any decisions it’s great to “crowdsource” and check in with trusted advisors BUT at end of day we have to live with our decision!
    Right or wrong…you do the crime YOU do the time.
    I believe in my gut…it gets me in trouble often but it moves me forward and I learn lessons from life that motivate, strengthen or serve as an example to others “what not to do”! I am ok with that.
    I am OK with you…I am happy when you tell me that thing that you just did or more importantly the thing you are about to do “dont do that”.
    BECAUSE you earned and built trust with me. We all need to earn and build trust with ourselves. Never let anyone else make decisions for you….unless it’s me! 😉 lol

    • tobeydeys says:

      I think that was one smart frog because who knows what is lurking in the scummy bottom of that pond! Maybe his Froggie friends told him about the alligator looking for a snack? Or that the water really was far too chilly for a cold-blooded fella like him. Maybe number one frog wasn’t so experienced and, after all, was grateful for Froggie 2 & 3 friends to give him some insight and guidance (2 & 3 knew all this because there used to be a Froggie 4…)
      After all is said, though, you are absolutely right about trusting your gut – that ‘other brain’ has served me really well over many years. Sometimes I’ve been told to ‘jump in, the water’s fine!’ but intuition said otherwise … so I chose to stay dry!
      Luckily, I have a few Froggies in my life whom I trust and who I know have experience and insight outside of my own; I can call on them when I need to know “should I do that thing?”. I’m thrilled that you are my trusted Froggie! 😉 xo

  3. Up until your wake-up call, your post could have substituted my name for yours and been a 100% accurate description of my life. Like you, I’ve always been the person with the answers–at work, with my family, everywhere. Truthfully, I still am. I like to help people. But I’m no longer afraid to say, “I don’t know” or “I’m sorry, that’s not my area of expertise” when I need to. Thinking you need to be right is a terrible burden. Glad we’ve both been able to escape it. Great post Tobey!

  4. tobeydeys says:

    The ego is a tough master! I found more confidence when I began saying “I don’t know” and it opened up my life to more experience and to people I may otherwise not have met! I think it’s true that people love to teach, to share, and to help. I know that I do 🙂
    Thanks so much for sharing, Marianne – it’s great to know that we’re not alone!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s