The Power of Being Able to Say, 'I Don't Know'

In an Industry That Adores Young Stars, We Need to Also Prize Life Experience

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Like it or not, our industry is one dominated by young stars, and the social-media side is filled with them. I'm fortunate to work with some of the brightest young people I've ever encountered. Yet youth comes with a certain level of inexperience that only years in the industry can fill. The writer Malcolm Gladwell has popularized a theory that you need to work 10,000 hours at something before you can be great at it. That reminds me of a lesson I learned once from someone twice my age: "It's OK not to know everything."

When you achieve success at a young age, people look up to you. They expect things from you. And you assume that you're supposed to know everything -- or at least the things they expect you to know. This is the angst shared by successful entrepreneurs, agency executives and social-media workers who have been promoted to stardom.

"If he's an EVP at the hottest new social-media platform, certainly he must know about _____." Not necessarily.

My old sage taught me how to say "I don't know" with confidence that it wasn't going to erode my reputation. I stopped making decisions that required information or experience that I didn't have, and responded with "I don't know . . . but here's what I'm doing to get to a solution." The reaction was exciting. People didn't get upset. They didn't think less of me. Many times, they became part of the team that produced the necessary knowledge that led to an answer. In the process, I became a more experienced leader, learned things that I never knew before and gained respect from my peers. "I don't know" helped me to become who I am today.

As marketers, we're trained to ask questions about goals, audience, strategic plans and other things that impact our marketing campaigns. I've often said that agency people learn so many things about disparate industries that we're experts in nothing. So it should feel natural to comfortably admit to not knowing everything, and saying "I don't know." It's our job as creative leaders to inspire curiosity, inquisitiveness and a quest for knowledge. It's our job to encourage the "I don't know."

"I don't know" leads to more knowledge and experience.
"I don't know" encourages collaboration and learning.
"I don't know" builds character, respect and leaders.
"I don't know" leads to stronger teams, smarter talent and eventually . . . old, wise leaders.

Darryl Ohrt is a former punk rocker, professional internet surfer and executive creative director at Carrot Creative in NYC. He's one of the three super-hot bloggers that make up AdVerve, and admits to knowing just enough about the creative business to be dangerous. Keep your distance.
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