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  • Madeline Topf

Embracing “I don’t know.”

If you asked my friends, they’d say I’m a biologist, but not a very useful one. I don’t ever know what the plant is they're pointing at, where birds go for the winter, why humans evolved to be ticklish, or if apple cider vinegar really helps your immune system. I lost the biology category of our group zoom trivia to a mathematician.

My biology repertoire, I thought, is so specific and technical that I don’t have tiiime to understand what is happening in all realms of nature. “I don’t do macro organisms,” I’d say.

But, a big aspect of being a scientist is listening to other people present their specific and technical research. It now makes up a significant portion of my week. Thus, I am spending a significant portion of my week with the hopeless feeling of not understanding, and the even worse feeling of not wanting to ask.

“I don’t know” isn’t inherently hard. It is when I should know that it is hard. I should know what that plant is. I should know how to pronounce “Prague.” I should remember intro bio concepts, or I should know what a presentation is about. I should be an advanced enough scientist to follow along. Failure to be what I should means I’m not good enough, I don’t deserve to be here, I will never be successful. Is that true?

What if I just embraced that I don’t know? Embraced being stupid, uncultured, or on the wrong track. I don’t understand a concept: that’s the hard fact. Why not ask about it, and learn something? Embrace weakness and its power dissipates. From there, we grow.

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