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How ‘I Don’t Know’ Propelled My Career!

How 'I Don’t Know' Propelled My Career!

This blog stems from my parental experience that made me reflect on an awesome career move without explicitly realizing it. Hope you enjoy this dot-connecting ride.

Two Sundays ago, a day before the first day of school, my 8-year-old daughter was riding in the back seat of our car with her younger sister. My wife and I were in the front.

School start dates were delayed by two solid weeks due to the unfortunate experience of Hurricane Harvey.

Rides are awesome times for conversation. I modeled a question, what if your teacher asks, “How many families lost their homes due to flood waters in Houston?”

My daughter thought about it and answered, “I will tell her, I don’t know.”

I was hoping for words like many or lot of families – at least as starters. Instead, it dawned on me that my daughter gave full consideration to my off the cuff question. I had asked “how many” and she strived to give me exact numbers.

In my daughter’s interpretation of the question, I saw an engineer like precision for specifics. My newfound awareness of this facet of hers brought a smile on my face.

Yet the parental instinct took over. My wife and I looked at each other almost the same time. #Letsgethonest The laudable “I don’t know” has baggage – social awkwardness. We wanted to wrap her and guard her.

That parental dilemma is a powerful one.

I made a split second decision – suppressed my urge to shield. Without a lot of thought, I shared my own experience.

My job interview: ‘I don’t know’ with a twist.

I was young. Right in my final year of graduate school, I was in an interview room unprepared. The interviewer was an elderly statesman, who led a 50-member quantitative analyst team.

The question he posed was a simple one. “Do you know what is volatility?” I paused and then answered back, “I don’t know?………..But I can venture to guess.”

For a moment he was surprised and then he leaned forward and said, “Go ahead.”

I answered with a question, “Does it have something to do with standard deviation?”

He smiled and was gracious enough to walk to the whiteboard. We both partook in the calculation.

Back in college, I got a call from the recruiter. My student apartment was busy. I took her call seated in the stairs outside my apartment. I still remember her words during the conversation, “I do not know what you did, the head of the group was particular we extend an offer to you.”

While narrating this story to my 8-year-old, I did not shy away from volatility and standard deviation. My usually curious daughter did not ask me what the words meant. Her thoughts were wrapped around my experience of “I don’t know.”

And my wife and I let it linger on where it mattered.

My daughter is a fan of Harry Potter Series.

Like the young wizard, I found an invisible pathway to 9 ¾ platform that amplifies the value of the truth. The perfect 10 is the truth – I don’t know.

The invisible 9 ¾ option, so close to the 10 – share the truth and take initiative.

In all this, I realized – What is true for math problems is true in real life. The marks allocated for the exact answer is only a small percentage of the pie. The steps to reach the result carry most of the weight.

Related Read: Success Has Nothing To Do With Self-Improvement

Careers and ‘I don’t know.’

As I reflect back on the car ride and that blurt of inspiration from my past, I chuckled.

I have read many books on careers and many suggestions on what to say and ask during pivotal conversations. None I know advocate – “I don’t know.”

I have been using that line in my most pivotal moments in my career, in all my first jobs – my first job out of graduate school, my first job as a team lead and my first job migrating from geekdom to sales.

Even today, the conventional wisdom is that consultants are hired for experience. My experience is different. There are leaders who smile when I exercise the 9 ¾ invisible option “I do not know but this is what I think”

And hire me anyway.

The unspoken reality within all this – those leaders are rare. The question is how to spot them?

To each his own.

What has worked for me is a simple pause after I share. “I don’t know. But I can venture to guess.”  The facial reaction of many folks on the other side of a conversation is priceless. They cannot move beyond the idea that you do not know. Rightfully so for certain type of jobs. Either way, time to mutually move on.

Rare leaders lean forward and when you are done articulating your best guess, they egg you on for better options and even partake in the discussion.

Something magical happens – the combination of “believe in you, your early haphazard thoughts” and “learning new stuff” does something to our brain. It triggers the same sensors as a good sporting game or a new exciting adventure.

You just know that you are in the right place and in right company. I knew that when I was in that room with that Polish gentleman, Vince Kaminski – the man who knew volatility.

Wrapping everything together.

In searching on how to shield my daughter from the social awkwardness of ‘I do not know’, I connected the dots on the biggest driver that propelled my many ‘first’ jobs.

When my daughter wanted to share with her class that she did not know something, I sensed the words ingrained by my parents – translated from Tamil – “What you know is a speck of sand, what you do not know is all the sand, world over.”

I felt proud that the baton was passed.

I rarely use the word ‘but.’ Yet, there is one place it was a great game changer in my life – “I do not know, but I can venture to guess”

In sharing my own story around that magical extension, I hope I added an invisible sprinkle to the baton – to make my daughter sparkle in life and seize the moments as they happen. With lifted shoulders, open palms et al.

Related Read: ‘9¾’ Leadership Lessons That Would Change Your Life Or Even Save A Life

(Disclaimer: This post was previously published in LinkedIn by Karthik Rajan and has been reproduced with permission. Techstory is not responsible or liable for any content in this article.)

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