The Magic of “I Don’t Understand”

Any fool can know. The point is to understand. -Albert Einstein

With the new year upon us, it’s time to look forward and define what we want out of the next twelve months. My New Year’s resolutions always look pretty similar to years before: learn a new language, write that novel, reveal the abs that hide behind my love for french toast.

But before we decide what’s next, we need to look back. What worked? What didn’t? Which habits are we keeping or kicking to the curb?

Early last year, I added one small habit that ended up making the biggest difference in my life. It was something I had naturally avoided for most of my life.

It was using the simple phrase, “I don’t understand.”

This year, my resolution is to say it much more often.

You see, I’m a slow learner; a “late-bloomer” to put it gently. I’ve always needed concepts and explanations dumbed-down and spoon-fed. I catch on eventually, but always behind the pack.

To offset this, I developed a natural knack for nodding along. I learned from an early age how to camouflage confusion with comprehensive bravado. My approval-seeking smile reassures others that, not only do I understand but that I’m an empty well and every word of explanation offered is a drop of precious rain.

“Ahh, you leverage the equity to reinvest! Now I get it!”
“The relativity of time, of course. Why didn’t I think of that?!”  
“The 7th chord should be diminished there? I see… Yes, that makes sense.”

It’s not that I don’t want to understand, or that I don’t care enough to pay attention. It’s just that most things are explained in cursive, and I think in crayon.

Why did I use to do this? When did the habit of “nodding along” become my default setting? Maybe it was pride, or simply, the need to be “liked.”

It’s not easy to reveal our gaps in knowledge, especially when it’s in front of people that may already look to us as a “sharp” guy or gal.

But, learning is important to me. I realized couldn’t spend another year missing out on new concepts or useful philosophy because of pride. I had to start admitting, “I don’t understand.”

This idea of intellectual humility isn’t anything new. Socrates developed his famous Socratic Questioning for the purpose of, exploring complex ideas, to get to the truth of things, to open up issues and problems, to uncover assumptions, to analyze concepts, to distinguish what we know from what we don’t know.”

Author and teacher, Heather Wolpert-Gawron wrote about the benefits of admitting when we don’t understand something, explaining how, in the age of google, “‘I don’t know’ can really mean, ‘Wait! Let me find out!’”

The first step to breaking my habit of nodding along was a painful process. I’d force myself to stop others mid-conversation and declare, I know that I was just agreeing with you and all, but while you were talking my brain turned to mush and the truth is: I have no idea what the hell you’re talking about.”

This was met with strange looks but usually followed by a sympathetic chuckle and a slower explanation in a new way.

Now, I look forward to using the phrase. When I admit I don’t understand something, I feel a weight being lifted from my confused shoulders.

It turns out, in the day and age of fast-paced and ever-changing information that saying,

“I don’t understand, can you explain that to me again?” is the best life hack around.

Here’s why:

  • It shows the other person that you’re actually interested in what’s being discussed. People enjoy teaching others and get more satisfaction when they know the other person walks away with true understanding.
  • It leads to better conversations. Exploring concepts through deeper questions forces both the giver and receiver of information to think differently and explore ideas in new ways.
  • We start to notice the best ways for us to learn. Do we need visuals? Stories? Written out? Once we notice things coming out in cursive, we can stop and ask for crayon.
  • Asking lots of “dumb” questions eventually teaches us how to ask better questions.
  • We get to accept that some things just aren’t for us. When we don’t understand something, we can pause and ask ourselves, “Do I really need to understand this right now? Is this information useful to me?” If the honest answer is no, move on. There’s always other things to learn in the meantime.

I may not last long when it comes to ignoring french toast on breakfast menus this year, but I plan on looking into people’s eyes with proud confusion much more often.

“What? There are ways to make french toast healthy?!? I don’t understand, can you explain that to me?”

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