Try Pretending Like You Don’t Know Anything

“It’s not enough to be an expert at something. Sometimes you have to have the wisdom and experience to pretend like you don’t know anything.” – Pulitzer Prize finalist and award-winning journalist Binyamin Appelbaum

Mr. Appelbaum gave this word of advice during a speech he made last night at a campus event, and it really stuck out to me. While he was referring more specifically to being an excellent journalist, his words ring true regardless of domain.

The application of this to career seems salient enough. Those who are truly excellent in their fields are good at playing dumb. They’re good at going back to basics, and catching the things everyone else has missed because they’re busy doing something much more complicated. Everyone else is trying to figure out which formula would work better while the true expert has realized there’s a number mistyped.

I found his advice to be logical in the area of career, but I think where it really struck me was in an area perhaps Mr. Appelbaum had not thought of: relationships.

How often do we assume we are “experts” in our relationships with others?

It’s so easy to make snap judgments about those around us and their feelings, especially when they are people that are close to us. We do this almost without thinking about it. “Oh, I said this, my friend said this, I responded like this, and he ended the conversation. He must be upset. Typical reaction.” We assume that we know the thoughts and feelings of those we engage with closely because it only seems logical. “She’s my sister. Of course I know what she thinks of….”

While it seems so comfortable to make these judgments and it sure makes us feel like we’re super-smart, I think there is a lot of value in “pretending like we don’t know anything” about the people around us. Without invoking a strange “shrink-like” feeling (“So, how does that make you feel?”), what would happen if we stopped assuming and started asking?

Friends have told me that I’m a good listener, and I think it’s because when I’m actively listening, I’m asking a borderline obnoxious amount of questions. So, a big life change happened to you. I’m assuming you were super excited, but were you? Were you a little nervous too? How did it make your family feel? etc, etc. These are the kinds of questions we so often forget to ask, and I still don’t ask some people these often enough.

Not only do these questions make the people in our lives feel understood and valued, they serve to help us understand our relationships better and to strengthen them. I send my friend a text that’s a little snarky, and she doesn’t reply for a day. I automatically assume she’s angry and so I get annoyed, because I’m an expert and I always know how my best friend acts when she’s angry. If I were to only ask her about my comment and how she felt about it, I might find that I was completely incorrect in my thinking, avoiding what could be an unpleasant situation entirely.

The example I just mentioned is a little simplified, but the message is clear. We ask people about their lives but rarely ask them about what really makes them unique: how they see the world and perceive and internalize the events that happen around them.

As you go about your day, think about how often you’re asking and how often you’re assuming. Because you know what they say about “assuming….” it keeps us from having meaningful conversations with those around us. Oh, and it makes an ass out of you and me.

**Note, the quote from Mr. Appelbaum was slightly paraphrased from his speech.

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