Three Wise Words

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To listen to this reflection as a podcast, click here.
Economists Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner – famous for their Freakonomics bookswonder if you think you can out-perform a group of British schoolchildren, ages five through nine.
First, listen to this story. Then answer four questions:
A little girl named Mary goes to the beach with her mother and brother.  They drive there in a red car.  At the beach they swim, eat some ice cream, play in the sand, and have sandwiches for lunch.
Here are the questions:

  1. What color was the car?
  2. Did they have fish and chips for lunch?
  3. Did they listen to music in the car?
  4. Did they drink lemonade with lunch?

So how did you do?  The British school kids nailed the first two with ease:  Red and No.  They had a lot more trouble with Questions 3 and 4.  Even though no information was provided to answer those questions, a whopping 76% of the kids went ahead and answered Yes or No.

Levitt and Dubner write: “Kids who try to bluff their way through a simple quiz like this are right on track for careers in business and politics, where almost no one ever admits to not knowing anything.”

What are the three hardest words to say out loud in the English language?  Some suggest I am sorry.  Or I was wrong.  Or I love you.  Or, depending on how long you’ve been waiting to hear them, Please marry me. 

There’s good evidence, however, that many people find it exceedingly hard to say I don’t know.  If you say those three words you might look weak.  Or indecisive.  Or just plain ignorant. 

Think of politicians and elected officials who must continually sustain the impression that they know what they’re doing.  Journalists and interviewers press them with questions like:  What do you recommend concerning fiscal deficits?  What about immigration?  How should we respond to Russia, China, and North Korea? 

Church leaders are routinely asked:  How can a loving God stand by in the face of so much suffering?  How can God be three and one at the same time?  And how can I know his will for my life?

Parents of young children have to field their share of tough ones, too:  Why is the sky blue?  If God made everything, who made God?  Why do Sofia’s mommy and daddy no longer live together?

“I don’t know” might be an entirely truthful response.  But those three words might also lead your constituents, congregants, or family members to conclude that you might not be the fully rounded, have-it-all-together person they thought you were. 

This has led to an epidemic of ultracrepidarianism – a fancy, 19-letter way of describing “the habit of giving opinions on subjects outside of one’s competence.”

In other words, even if I don’t have any idea what’s about to happen on Wall Street, or with regard to this winter’s weather or the NFL playoffs, I’m still going to boldly share my remarkable insights.

Are you concerned that you might be an ultracrepidarian?  Most of us seem to have at least a few of those tendencies.  Here are some things worth considering:

Speak less.  Listen more.  We rarely give offense if we choose the gift of silence.  “When words are many, sin is not absent, but he who holds his tongue is wise” (Proverbs 19:10).

Don’t be afraid to say I don’t knowLet others know that you can be comfortable in your own skin without posing as a resident expert.  “For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted” (Luke 14:11). 

If there’s a confirmed ultracrepidarian in your world, choose to be merciful.  “Get along with each other; don’t be stuck-up.  Make friends with nobodies; don’t be the great somebody” (Romans 12:16, The Message). 

We can help build a culture – at work, at home, and in our places of worship – where not-knowing isn’t the end of the world.

More often than not, it’s actually the beginning of real wisdom.