Admission of Naiveté

A quality I look for in every person I consider working with is the willingness to admit fault or ignorance. We grow up being told that everyone makes mistakes, but for some reason understanding and acceptance of that truth is fleeting. Time and effort are wasted on what I like to call “spinning the tires,” where someone desperately attempts to guard their ego by being dodgy or boastful instead of just saying “I don’t know.”

I see this often with developers and the tendency to not look like the fool in the room. Some new technology comes out and, somehow, everyone appears to be an expert. Have they used that technology? Maybe. Read the docs? Yes, or at the very least given them a skim. But do they really know what they’re talking about (i.e., have they put that thing into practice and understood the ups and downs of its use)? Rarely. Where a simple “nope, I haven’t looked into that yet” or “I’ve heard about it but haven’t spent enough time with it to have an opinion yet” would do, instead, we see an arms race to be the all-knowing expert of the thing in question.

Our greatest power is that we know that we don’t know and we are open to being wrong and learning.

— Ray Dalio

In tandem with this is making an assumption about the usefulness of a thing or possibility to make something happen. Instead of basing an opinion on an experience or an attempt, we hear “that’s not possible” with zero proof of work to back it up. I’ve always enjoyed Elon Musk’s take on how to vet a candidate in this situation which is, when a claim is made, ask the person very detailed questions about the thing and—if they’re being honest—they will know the answer.

A side effect of all this is seeing others apologize for not knowing something. I believe that you should never apologize to someone for not knowing something. While we may have the world at our fingertips in the form of the internet, it’s impossible to know everything—or in respect to cultural ignorances, experience everything. You’re no less than any other human being because you haven’t encountered some piece of information. As long as you’re willing to make an effort to learn whatever is missing, then that’s well enough.

Be willing to be wrong and be excited to fill in the gaps in your knowledge. If you don’t know something, that’s fine. Take the course of action necessary to inform yourself if it’s important to you and carry on. Never belittle yourself to others because you haven’t encountered some piece of information yet (or have but don’t understand it). There’s no shame in naiveté if that is your honest position.