Dear Diary moment: a man admits he doesn’t know something

I’m a man and I regularly say “I don’t know”. Maybe too often, maybe I should know some more things. But I promise that I don’t fit the stereotype of a guy who blusters through saying yeah, yeah, ‘course, everybody knows that, easy, done it twice this morning myself.

It’d be good to think that I was just a superb human being but the truth is that I get a little kick out of seeing people’s faces. Especially in teams, especially with editors, most especially – to be fully honest about it – with women. People tend to blink a lot at me. You can see the cogs processing. Occasionally, yes, the cog is saying “So why are we paying this guy?” but most of the time it’s a much more positive surprise.

There was one editor I had who blinked at me quite a bit at first. Later she told me that I’d done what she’d asked me to do and that when it wasn’t right but she’d explained again, I’d changed it until she was happy. “Yes,” I said. “And?”

“Just not used to it,” she said.

I’ve always recognised that the real benefit of admitting you don’t know something is that it is ferociously easier than pretending you do and then having to answer detailed questions. I’m slightly schizophrenic about this because I’ve often said yes, I can do something, when I’ve not done it before but am confident. Still, when it comes to a fact or to my opinion about something, if I don’t know it, I tell you.

What I’ve been told today is that it has one more benefit. The blog 42 Floors – continuing the honesty theme, I’ve never heard of it before thirty seconds ago – includes a piece recounting the story of an interviewer named Kiran asking a difficult question and being told “I don’t know”:

[H]e smiled and responded back, “I was waiting for that. I like it when people say I don’t know.” Kiran explained that he likes it when people say I don’t know because it lends credibility to everything else that they’ve said.

I don’t know – Jason Freedman, 42 Floors (2 March 2014)

Tip of the head to 99U for the link.

“How many days is it since 26 November 2013?”

I’m just after telling you that it is 265 days since The Blank Screen news site launched – but I didn’t tell you how I knew that.

It’d be good if you thought I was some incredibly organised savant type but, no, I just know about Wolfram Alpha.

You’ll think it’s a search engine when you see it but rather than looking for websites that happen to have something like the answer you want, Wolfram Alpha does its best to work out that answer. It’s easier to give you examples so here are the last few questions I’ve asked it:

How many days is it since 26 November 2013?
How deep is the English Channel?
What percentage of 2Gb is 250mb?
What is the date in 934 weekdays?
How far is New York from here?
What is 16% of 919.86?
When is mother’s day?

I need to explain that last one: mother’s day is on different dates in the UK and the US and I get easily confused. I’m sure one year my mother got two presents though, curiously, she didn’t complain.

I’m not saying that Wolfram Alpha is flawless: I asked it what the tourist population of Paris was and it threw up its hands. (I worked it out from a combination of tourist board information and general Paris statistics though, maddeningly, I can’t remember it now. I do remember looking out across from a café and being sure that something ridiculous like four out of five people I could see would be tourists.)

I am saying that not enough people know about Wolfram Alpha and when it’s the right tool for you, it is superb. Plus it’s free – with an option to pay for a premium version – which you can go to right now on the web at the official site. You can also get an iPhone or an iPad app for it.