Four: The Magic Words

Note: A version of this post will appear in the April issue of Njuspeipis, the student newspaper of Kauno Technologijos Universitetas (KTU).

Through my experience as a student and a tutor, I have found there are many approaches to learning. There’s the slow, methodical approach; the skimming approach; the study group approach; and, of course, the panic-because-the-paper-is-due-tomorrow approach. Most of these have some degree of merit, though the ones that contain essential elements of learning such as time, effort, and patience seem to consistently produce better overall comprehension of new ideas. Still, it’s difficult to say that there is one “best” approach, since what works for one student may not work for another. However, I have discovered a technique—a magical phrase, actually—that can increase the learning potential of any approach:

“I don’t know.”

The phrase “I don’t know” is magic for this reason: it makes presumption disappear. To gain knowledge, you must first admit that you do not have knowledge. But presumption—the arrogant belief that you know something when you really don’t—is the very antithesis of such an admission. Presumption creates unfounded assumption where there should be only open-minded observation; it limits what can be learned in the same way that manacles limit movement.

Saying “I don’t know” frees you from presumption by forcing you to humble yourself and acknowledge that you do not yet possess knowledge of whatever it is you want to learn. It provides you a solid, and necessarily empty, foundation upon which to build understanding. When you say, “I don’t know,” you become a real student rather than an false expert. You are truly prepared to learn.

The phrase “I don’t know” is magic

for this reason: it makes

presumption disappear.

“I don’t know” has become my mantra while I study, work, and live in Lithuania—and it has served me well. Before I left the United States, I was told many things about Lithuania. I was told that it was essentially an underdeveloped country. I was told that Lithuanian people were rude. I was told that the country was dangerous, and I was a fool for going. All those things I was told have two interrelated things in common: none of them are true, and they were all told to me by people who have never been to Lithuania, people whose only knowledge of the country was based on presumption. But being well-versed in the power of “I don’t know,” I politely dismissed their advice. If I hadn’t, I wouldn’t know how beautiful and quiet Kaunas is at midnight. I wouldn’t know the thrill of investigating the nooks and crannies of Vilnius. I wouldn’t be able to trade stories and share music with my Lithuanian coworkers. I wouldn’t have done, and I wouldn’t continue to do, a hundred different things that bring me closer to this country and its people every single day.

Of course, it isn’t always easy to say the magic words. They often feel heavy and awkward on the tongue because many of us learn, one way or another, that it is not okay not to know something, that not knowing is weakness. It’s not weakness, though. If anything, it is only the bravest seekers of knowledge who can utter the phrase loudly and without shame.

I’ve been here for two months now, and I can say without presumption that I do, in fact, know a few things about this country, even if they are only small things. Every day, I learn a little bit more, but that wouldn’t be possible, no matter what approach I took to learning, without the magic phrase. I knew when I came here that I didn’t know anything, and that has opened me to everything.


3 thoughts on “Four: The Magic Words

  1. I actually seem to think and say “I don’t know” a lot. Every day, I research stuff. Mostly for “work,” but I have a thirst to find out new things all the time. Tom calls me the “over-researcher.” Sadly, my memory fails me a lot, so I don’t retain many things that I learn and have learned. I congratulate you on leaving the USA for a bit to find out what the world holds. Americans seem progressive in many ways, but in many ways they aren’t.

    Everyone should live abroad for a while. I have friends in what people call “poor” countries, but what they tell me first-hand about them never fits with what “they say.” Every place in the world has something good, I believe. Even if their leaders bomb it to pieces, there are many facets you can find. Finding out new things is one reason for my postcard hobby! And I can tell you, no one describes his or her country with negative words. No one.


    1. I know a lot of Americans who have never left the U.S. (I was one of them until recently), and I can see how they might not ever see the need to visit another country. After all, the U.S. is so big and there’s so much to see. Plus, traveling to some states can feel like going to another country. Still, there’s always value in exploring the things you don’t know. Coming to Lithuania is one of the best things I’ve ever done. It’s too early to say whether it has changed my perception of the world, but it certainly has given my mind a lot of new material to play with.


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