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Just Say I Don't Know

Steven Gillman -- "I am not ashamed to confess I am ignorant of what I do not know." -- Cicero, Roman philosopher (106-43 B.C.)

Why am I writing this? I don't know. I can give reasons, but I can't be sure they are accurate. Such ignorance is okay, or at least it should be. The temptation is always to explain, but that often does nothing useful. In fact, it can just get in the way of actual understanding. Let me explain...

Rationalization 101

John was hypnotised, and given the post-hypnotic instruction to get up and put on his coat whenever the doctor touched his nose. Once out of the trance, they talked. During the conversation, the doctor scratched his nose, and John immediately stood up and put on his coat.

The doctor asked him why. "Oh, I thought we were finished," John said, and he took off the coat. A minute later, the doctor touched his nose again. John again immediately stood up and put on his coat. "It's getting cold in here," he explained.

This scenario is not unique to hypnosis. There's a lot that goes into our decisions and actions, and we act as though we're aware of it all. Just like poor John, we feel compelled to explain ourselves -- and to believe our explanations. Rationalization is one of our strongest habits.

I Don't Know

A child throws a plate at his brother, and his mother demands "Why would you do that!?" He says, "I don't know," which is true, but not acceptable. Pychologists couldn't, in five seconds, understand the child's action with certainty, but a six-year-old is expected to do just that.

He may not understand, but he learns quickly to explain himself. By adulthood, it is rare for any of us to say "I don't know" when asked about our behavior. There is a problem with that, though. How can we ever learn the true causes if we already accept our explanations?

Accepting Our Ignorance

A better way to approach these issues is to get in the habit of saying "I don't know." You can follow it with "Maybe it's because of..." and let the explanations spill out, but don't be too quick to accept any of them. Understand that it isn't always necessary to explain.

For example, even if you never know why you avoid a certain person, isn't it better to leave the question open than to accept a false explanation based on a habit of self-justification? Leave questions unanswered, and you may someday have a better understanding. Quick answers mean a quick stop in your thinking.

Self-explanation can be the death of self-understanding. Learn to accept your ignorance, and to keep observing yourself. Just say, "I don't know."

Steve Gillman writes on many self-help topics including boosting brainpower, losing weight, meditation, habits of mind, creative problem solving, learning gratitude, generating luck and anything related to self improvement. You'll find more at http://www.SelfImprovementNow.com. You can also visit his Web site and subscribe for free to his Brain Power Newsletter at: http://www.IncreaseBrainPower.com/newsletter.html.

© 2007 Steve Gillman

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