“I don’t know…”
A lot – maybe even most – people will do almost anything to avoid saying those words. I knew an extremely intelligent and articulate woman, back in North Carolina, a university professor by trade, who admitted to me one night at a party, fairly drunk, that saying that caused her actual, physical discomfort.
“I’ve made my life’s work out of Knowing Things,” she sighed, “People expect me to have answers when they ask me something. And I usually do, when it’s within my scope. You got a question about Chaucer, I’m yer girl. The trouble is, I sorta reflexively extend that quick assumption of wisdom almost everything. I spend a lot of time saying ‘Uhhhh…’, stalling, trying to come up with something. It’s like an addiction and I can’t seem to stop.”
For those of us with healthy egos, saying, “I don’t know” often feels like weakness or failure, especially, as she alluded to, when it is within our scope. She confessed to completely misinterpreting a famous line from Shakespeare once and, when called on it, had a hard time looking people in the face, for a while. Made it worse when I knew what it meant, already, having done the play twice and having to find out what Billy was saying.
But IDK carries a ton of freedom, also. If we follow, “I don’t know…” with either a verbal or mental, “…but I’m damned sure going to find out!“, we embrace a learning challenge which, for many of us – me, absolutely – is a lot of fun. Some of those shards of knowledge that were acquired because of that feeling of free-fall that comes from uttering…those words, are the facts that have stayed with me most powerfully.
In my line of work, I’ve had to spend a LOT of time in what actually amounts to protecting myself from having to say IDK. Happily, adult beverages are fascinating to me, in very small part because of the pleasure of drinking them but mostly, by miles, because the way they’re made still, after well over thirty years of selling the stuff and working as a buyer and consultant, seems like magic. You add yeast to some vat of liquid, seal it up in a barrel or tank, and out comes this near-infinite variety of colors and flavors and aromas and several physical sensations that are rarely experienced any other way. I’ve lately come to realize that the real reason I’ve never set about making wine, beer, or booze has been not so much about financial obstacles as because I don’t want to pull the curtain back on those processes, much the same way that I don’t want to see a great illusionist scheming out his tricks. I know, intellectually, that it is not magic…but I love feeling that it is.
The power of “I Don’t Know…”
But, for most of us, the wisdom in using that problematic phrase comes only with a LOT of pain and discomfort. I know people my own ridiculously-advanced age who have never been able to force themselves to say it. The damage to their egos feels too great. It took me until well into my late forties to figure out where the keyhole was that the words unlock; the feeling of sudden liberation that comes from letting yourself know that you have NOT made a fool of yourself by absurd posturing but bought a reprieve, a chance to learn it and use it later.
Unless you’re a total idiot, you CAN learn. You can learn anything you become interested enough to study. For me, the thing I find most heinous about Trumpism is that millions of people have, deliberately and with an Agenda, chosen not to learn, to swell up like toads in their prideful ignorance and dismiss facts as though they mean nothing. Somewhere down the road, the foolishness of rejecting learning will come back to haunt not just the Trumpers but anyone who inflates their ego by ceasing to Find Out.
In wine, especially, there is the equivalent of all the world’s oceans of disinformation, half-baked notions, outright fabrications, and even base lies. That happens in beer and hooch, too, but wine seems to be the prime growth medium for fables and distortions. In working as a wine steward for fifteen years, I heard some of the dumbest shit I’ve ever heard outside of politics. I watched a guy come into my shop, one day in 1998, with two women. He walked around all the sections, sermonizing about selected bottles, heaping on those poor women a steaming load of misunderstanding, lies, and faulty info. And these were not obscure issues, either. They were basic facts about wine that anyone could verify in 60 seconds, if they bothered. Zinfandel originated in America. Oregon grows only Pinot Noir. Chianti is a grape. Champagne doesn’t age. Reserve means blended wine. Chardonnay originated in Italy. Malbec doesn’t grow anywhere but South America. And on and on. They were there for an hour. I had to literally bite my lips to keep quiet.
But I realized that, for this guy, the visit was not about wine at all. It was about his self-image; his need to be seen as an authority. He asked ONE question: “How long will this Viognier age?” I happened to be reading the exact page – in fact, had my finger stuck there in the book when I stood to answer him – on which Jancis Robinson, the British wine writer and advisor on wine to Queen Elizabeth, explained that Viognier is one of the grapes that does not improve with age. It maintains but should ideally be consumed young. I said this and the guy sputtered, “Well, I don’t agree!” He also called it “an American Condrieu” and I blurted out that Condrieu only comes from the Condrieu appellation in France. He literally blushed and stalked out, muttering darkly about “…idiots in wine shops.”
I was in the wrong, there. Even at that tender age in my forties, I knew he was just showing off and Lord Knows I’ve done that, too, to impress women. I knew to keep quiet but, as I told myself later…”He asked!” Yeah but…still shouldn’t have done it, because the inability to say IDK is maybe more widespread than the common cold.
Take any – absolutely ANY – arena of human knowledge or any profession and the same principle applies. If you can handle the momentary ego bruise, admitting you don’t know but will find out is the very key to learning. Most of us cease academic learning, at least in an organized setting, when we graduate from school. Learning after that tends to be a solitary process and without either immediate reward or penalty. It takes motivation and that has to be supplied from within. Nobody forces you to sit down past your bedtime and read up on where Verdejo comes from or how a saison is made or why wooden barrels are the very soul of whiskey. You have to want to. I am especially hard-headed, which will come as no surprise at all to anyone who has ever read this website. My own studying of All Things Booze had a certain edge of desperation about it. I was going to have to go back the next day and possibly run into some other question about beverages and the fear of IDK drove me far into the wee hours a couple of thousand times.
But this odd and kinda, uh, wonderful thing happens if you just accept that learning never ends and you have zero hope of ever learning everything: after many years and as few assumptions as you can manage, you don’t have to say IDK nearly as often. Wisdom is very, very rarely ingrained or realized at birth. It is cumulative. It grows. It becomes, to some degree, hard-wired in and accessible at the speed of thought. There is liberation in that, too. And while you may, if you’re a good enough fabulist, fake erudition well enough to hoodwink most others, you will never, even if you struggle mightily, fool yourself. Sooner or later, you will run face-first into an existential Moment when you collide with your own lies and posturing…and many people never recover from it.
I originally named the Seattle P-I blog and then this website “The Pour Fool”. I have been asked about this at least a thousand times and have refused to explain it.
So here it finally is:
I adopted “The Pour Fool” as a continual, daily, reminder that I am basically a fool when it comes to even those subjects I know very well. That I am never allowed to stop learning. That I can be dead-wrong and, when I am, I HAVE TO own it.
“I Don’t Know” does not have to be a source of shame and embarrassment. Many of us, even if we don’t consciously think it, see people who admit that as brave and dependable; they are not willing to saddle us with misinformation which, in today’s alt-facts/bullshit reality, is an act of great kindness and consideration. It’s a small Gift that you give out of respect for the other person’s curiosity and their bravery to admit, by asking you, that they don’t know, either.
Do yourself the ultimate favor: NEVER – and I do mean never, even when reading me – just take flat statements about anything as fact. Check out anything you question. Use multiple sources and not – as the lunatic Right does routinely – only those sources that service your confirmation bias.
Learning will not hurt you. Not knowing usually does.