Wendy Kalman
There are many ways to see and understand

What I know and what I don’t

I know what I know and I don’t know what I don’t know. It’s both a simple truth and a powerful thought.

In social discourse and in everyday work world, we encounter people who make statements that are full of misplaced confidence and missing information. Be it in software or human nature; health, politics, or religion; cultural, behavioral or societal tendencies; business or anything, unless someone is a certified expert from a reputable institution or really, truly knows his/her stuff, he or she should not assume that what he or she knows is all there is to know. I had a boss who manually typed a hyphen and enter in words in Microsoft Word because it never occurred to him that the software was smart enough to insert hyphens if you turned it on. And that’s nothing compared to people who spout unsupported facts in conversations about politics, religion, medicine.

Risk management is a popular field these days. But it is full of variables. What we know can be modeled. What we don’t know or haven’t even considered cannot. Always ask “What if…?” Always think about possible outcomes and scenarios…and causes. Research what you can and use your imagination for what you can’t But never assume that what is known to you is all there is a need to know. Please. Hubris suits no one.

I love to research, I really do. Possible medical causes of symptoms, software glitch solutions, the roots of political stories floating around, you name it. And while fairly proficient at distinguishing between reputable and unreliable websites, I know that whatever I find to enrich my knowledge will only represent a small slice of the information that’s out there at best. And so, I’ve learned that when conversations get trickier and more detailed, the only thing I am confident of is that I might be missing something. This doesn’t mean to say I am hesitant or meek, but it does explain why I may use qualifiers, like “as far as I know” and “from what I’ve read.” Moreover, I am willing to admit when I am unsure. How I wish more people would do the same…

Still, I admit I have a problem. In such a rush to make my point, I do not slow down to truly listen to what my partner in conversation is saying. And that is a shame. I know I need to change. I also have taken to heart a meme I’ve seen floating around Facebook: Everyone you meet knows something you don’t. Brilliant. Think about it.

After all, the more we listen, the more we hear. And the more we hear, the more we actually know. The Jewish proverb that teaches us that because we have two ears and only one mouth, we ought to listen twice as much as we speak.

I teach Sunday school. And today I taught my second graders about derech eretz. Literally, the way of the land, it means to do the right thing. In a big way, it’s about being polite, treating others with kindness and helping others. Talking without listening is not derech eretz. Nor is talking without considering there may be more to the story than what you think you know.

The worksheet the children had included a long list of examples of what derech eretz is. Everything from holding the door open for the person behind you to putting away toys when you’re done to picking up garbage you see on the ground and putting it in the trash to calling your grandfather to just say “hi!” and many more. I asked the students to note which ones they already do and then to pick a few they’d like to be better at. And then I asked, “How will you remember to try?” Because without a game plan, we fall back on existing behaviors.

So, how will we recognize that there might be knowledge beyond what we know? By practicing derech eretz. By prefacing statements with caveats. By considering alternatives. By researching. By asking others. And most importantly, by assuming others have information we simply do not possess. Hey, none of us are the center of the universe.

I know what I know and I don’t know what I don’t know. It really is both a simple truth and a powerful thought.

About the Author
Wendy Kalman, MPA, MA, serves as Director of Education and Advocacy Resources for Hadassah The Women's Zionist Organization of America, Inc. Previous roles include senior academic researcher for an Israel education nonprofit, knowledge manager at a large multinational as well as roles in marketing and publishing in the US and in Israel. She has presented papers at political science and communications conferences and has participated as a scholar-in-residence at an academic workshop on antisemitism. Wendy lived in Israel for over a decade and is a dual citizen, fluent in Hebrew.