It’s okay to say “I don’t know”

If you ever have a chance, I recommend sitting in on Thomas Grohser’s presentation called “Why candidates fail the job interview in the first minute.”  (Tom is a great speaker, and I suggest you go hear him talk, anyway!)  In his presentation, he discusses a number of reasons why job candidates often blow the job interview.  The first time I sat in on his presentation, I asked him what I thought were some good questions — so good, in fact, that the next time I attended a SQL Saturday where he gave that presentation, he asked me to sit in just so I could ask those same questions and make some comments as a talking point for the audience.  (He even joked about utilizing me as a prop for his presentation!)

One of the points that he makes in his presentation is that a candidate is not expected to know everything.  We are human, and we are not perfect.  Nobody is all-knowing, and as well-versed as we try to be on a subject, we won’t know everything about it.  Even experts in a subject field won’t know every little thing about their subject

Tom mentions that when he interviews a job candidate, he will ask at least one question that either does not have a correct answer, may have multiple correct answers, or is ambiguous.  (For those of you who are not DBAs, data professionals often joke that the standard answer is, “it depends.”)  He is not looking for a singular correct answer; rather, he is looking for how the candidate answers.

This brought to mind a memory of a class I took in grad school.  I missed a class because I was out sick, and it turned out that the material covered that day ended up as a question on the mid-term exam.  I don’t remember exactly how I answered that question, but I remember starting it something like this: “I don’t remember going over this subject, but based on the nature of this question, this is what I think it means…”  Not only did I end up answering the question correctly, I ended up getting a 97 (out of 100) on the exam.

So if you don’t know the answer, how would you go about getting it?  These days, technology makes it easy to look things up online.  “Google it” has become a part of our lexicon.  Trying to find answers is our basis for research; if we don’t have the answer, we try to figure out what it is.  That is how we learn.  I’ll go as far to say that not knowing an answer is better than trying to fake your way through providing an answer.  Would you rather give an answer you don’t know and end up giving a wrong answer, or would you rather take the time to do your homework and give a better answer?

Too many of us stress ourselves out because we try to be perfect.  Any time we are tested — whether it’s on an exam, a job interview, or any instance where we are expected to give testimony — we expect ourselves to be perfect.  We expect to have the answer to every question.  The reality is that this is impossible.  We won’t have every answer, and we shouldn’t expect to.  “I don’t know” is a perfectly acceptable answer, and too many people don’t realize that.  Just say that you don’t know, and explain how you’d go about finding out.  And the next time you’re asked the question, you’ll have a better answer.