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I Don't Know

ByTom MillerThe Secret Life of Scientists and EngineersThe Secret Life of Scientists and Engineers

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Click here for Jessica’s profile.

I’ve always had a horrible time acknowledging when I don’t know something. I guess I don’t want the world to see the chinks in my armor (as if the world doesn’t already see the chinks in my armor… my rap name is “MC Chinky Armor”).

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As part of my ongoing charade, I’ve perfected the wise “ah yes” nod and the classic “you and I have privileged knowledge that no one else in the world has, and I almost feel sorry for them” expression of delight and sympathy. That last one, I practice at the mirror after brushing my teeth.

It took Jessica Banks to set me straight or at least, to begin the process.

I Don't Know-jessica_practicing_her_archery.jpg
Jessica practicing her “archery” at her studio.

Jessica was always good at math and science, wanted to be an astronaut (and Christie Brinkley) and always thought of herself as pretty smart, which she was. And then she decided to go to MIT for graduate school to study Robotics….

“When I went to MIT, I essentially had a complete ego breakdown… like, a complete bashing. I got there and I thought, ‘I’m a smart girl. I did great in college. I’m a physics person.’ And I got to MIT, and I was like, ‘Wow, these cats are really smart.’ And then I was like, ‘Oh my god, they are so smart! These people think about things that I actually don’t think about yet.’ And for a while when people would say, ‘Do you know what I’m talking about?’ – I would nod and agree. And then later I would go home and try to look everything up. I’d try to record all of the things during the day that I didn’t know, all the references that I wasn’t sure of.”

It sounds exhausting, right? Turns out that it was. More from Jessica:

“I think I probably got really tired, you know? Like, from just always researching on my own and kind of feeling like I had this front that I was upholding. And so, I think I probably just got worn down. But you know – luckily, so. And one day I was like, ‘No. I don’t know what you’re talking about.’ And the person told me. And I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, this is so awesome. I don’t have to go home and do any work. They’re just going to tell me now the answer.’ And then it was like learning how to ask, ‘Why is the sky blue?’ again. You know? It’s like, ‘Tell me what you’re talking about. Why is this this way? Why is that that way?’ And it really felt like I became a child again. I was re-learning a lesson about inquiring about the world And it was such a gift. To be vulnerable to new knowledge, it’s really the only way to grow. And that’s what we’re doing when we’re children. We’re just trying to grow. And the brain really equips us well with some initial ways to overcome all those fears of having to have a certain personality, or to project a certain kind of strength. And it’s so great that we’re so vulnerable as children. I really wish there were more ways in our lives we could really get back to that, own it.”

Let people in. Learn new things. Be willing to say “wow” and “I don’t know.” Wonder.


OK, smarty-pants adults (and I’m the very first in line), let’s all go there.

Original funding for "The Secret Life of Scientists and Engineers" was provided by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation.