Mentors 12/18: Know What You Don’t Know. Say I Don’t Know When You Don’t Know

Techstars Boulder Demo Day is this week. It always marks the true end of summer for me and it’s a reminder that I stalled out on my Techstars Mentor Manifesto series of blog posts.

The last one I wrote was #11: Clearly Commit To Mentor Or Do Not. Either Is Fine. It’s an important life rule – either commit or don’t commit – but choose! Mentor Manifesto #12 is also a good life rule: Know What You Don’t Know. Say I Don’t Know When You Don’t Know.

We all know Mr. Smartest Guy In The Room. I find him insufferable and have nicknamed him Mr. Smartypants. Unfortunately, there are a lot of Mr. Smartypants in my world as he inhabits the bodies of some entrepreneurs and the souls of a lot of investors. Regardless of who he manifests himself in, he’s still tiresome and when there are two of him in the room, watch out.

The best mentors are not Mr. Smartypants. While a great mentor knows a lot and has had plenty of experiences, she’s always learning. The best mentor/mentee relationships are peer relationships, where the mentor learns as much from the mentee as she teaches the mentee. There’s no room in this relationship for Mr. Smartypants.

I know a lot about some things. And I know very little, or nothing about a lot more things. My business and technology experience is deep in software, where even the hardware companies we are investors in (Fitbit, Sphero, Makerbot, Glowforge, littleBits, and some others) are what we like to refer to as “software wrapped in plastic.” At the essence of it all is software and that’s what I know best.

But I don’t know all software. And I especially don’t know vertical markets. We’ve consciously stayed horizontal in our investing, being much more interested in our themes which apply to many different vertical markets. But ask me about a vertical market, whether it be entertainment, real estate, insurance, auto, food, energy, or financial services and I’ll often approach it with a beginners mind.

In some cases I think something generic will apply to a vertical market. But when asked about something structural, even though I’ve had lots of different experiences, read a zillion magazine articles over the years, and might have some opinions, as a mentor I’m quick to say I Don’t Know, unless I’m confident that I do.

When I find myself in an “I Don’t Know” situation as a mentor, I immediately start trying to figure out who I can refer the entrepreneur to who might know something about the situation. And, just because I don’t know doesn’t mean I’m not curious about finding out more. I’ll often stay engaged and hear what the mentor has to say, just so I get the benefit of having more data in my head to play around with in the future.

I say “I don’t know” or some version of it at least daily. How often do you say it?

  • RBC

    Your keep learning attitude implies this. I’d like to state it outright though. It is okay to not know but if the answer is knowable and critical to your future success, the next time someone asks you the same question – know the answer!

  • The more I learn, the more I realize how little I know.

  • conorop

    Works the same with new product development, marketing campaigns, retention emails. “Do people like it?” “Is it working?”

    When you ask a CEO for a weekly/monthly/quarterly update, what’s your ideal roundup?

    Previous Goals. Hypotheses Tested. Plans of Action. Metrics for Success. Results. Next Steps?

  • Oh, if only everyone felt the way you do. And if only everyone had the confidence to do it! Bc therein lies the crux of the matter IMO.

  • The wisest people I know have a good sense of realizing their limitations and lacks, and are open about it. This is a model I’m trying to excel in – probably never will get it completely right but every time I catch myself it’s a win 🙂

  • A life of learning has taught me more about what I do not know versus what my rational brain thought it would gain.

  • Oh man. I often deal with folks who don’t know that they don’t know. Along with regular doses of programmer hubris, it can be really frustrating if I’m not in my happy place. Not infrequently I think, “it’s a wonder people communicate at all…”.

  • You can always tell Mr. Smartypants as he will have an absolute answer the second somebody stops talking about a very nuanced situation.

    There will be no questions, no pondering, nothing like “in my experience I’ve seen….but you might vary”

    Yes there are direct questions with direct answers but what we are talking about is not that.

    The worst is when he didn’t even listen well enough to understand the situation and the answer isn’t even relevant.

    Unfortunately as Meredith points out this behavior many times is seen as being “smart”.

    I think that comes from school, especially law school (sorry lawyers) but the goal is an instant response with a yes or no.

    Its prevalent in politics and makes me sick.

    But I have encountered this with customer meetings. “Just give me a yes or a no” Well its not that simple, it depends on this and that. “Ok so you are saying no, but the other vendor said yes”

    I have won and lost in these situations. Some people will understand that they have been mislead, some will just want to hear yes right now.

  • josh

    While in a recent post you demonstrated that shaming w/out naming can be effective, pulling one lever can be overused. If a particular style is so disagreeable and there’s no room for them in your life, why bother with all the nicknames and blog posts?

    • Josh – sorry – I don’t understand the question.

      • josh

        no worries I didn’t get the post really. maybe you were just venting and then halfway switching to turn it into something positive. continue about your business 🙂

  • “ديلي إيجيبت” جريدة يومية تتميز بالأخبار العاجلة والتحليلات والتقارير الساخنة ومقالات الكتاب، بالإضافة إلى عدة خدمات ترفيهيه، حرصاً من البوابة على إرضاء الجمهور وتنوع إهتماماته، تعتمد بوابة ديلي إيجيبت على الابتكار واشكال الصحافة الحديثة والتي تعتمد على التفاعل وعرض المواد بشكل جذاب، بالإضافة إلى فيديوهات اللقطات الخبرية، لنقل الحدث بصورة حية.