I don’t know, the science of figuring it out

In our lives we all have people who just always ‘know best.’ If you’re anything like me, you may  have thought: what exactly does that even mean?  It’ll be the simplest of possibilities you’re curious about, asking someone for directions, learning a  new skill from someone’s experience or your friend telling you how to drive a car properly because  that is just the best way. 

All these things you are thinking of right now are being done this way because someone tested it.  Realising there was once this person who came up with how to do it is the key. I could probably  already stop right here because in all honesty, this is it, but I will elaborate on a few things that I  wish someone had told me when I needed them.

Every ‘’I don’t know’’ is a learning opportunity. Use your learning opportunities. In any field of science, a project starts with what you don’t know. Along the way of your  experimental design, you most likely will encounter problems, most of which you don’t know the  solution to. This isn’t out of the ordinary, in fact not having those problems is quite unusual. I like  to think that all things in life are like that, filled with problems waiting to be figured out. This is  probably why I decided to go into science, I just like solving problems, maybe too much at times.  I recently had a conversation with a lab colleague about how mistakes and problems are the  necessary evil because truly, at the end of the day, they are what teach us the most. Imagine doing  an experiment and everything works out – in a perfect world this is great, you don’t have to think  about optimising or troubleshooting, but in the real world you will most likely have to do these  things sooner or later.

You will have heard the overused phrase ‘’everybody starts somewhere’’, and it is most definitely  true. it’s 2023 so let’s just stop judging learners.

Ultimately, it’s how you respond to your ‘’I don’t know-s’’ that distinguish you. Do you want to find out what you don’t know? If the answer is yes – figure it out. No matter the environment you are in, there is always someone who can help. The only thing to  do is ask, the worst thing that can happen is to get a no. If that happens, you just need to look for your answer elsewhere.


I wish there was a ready to use recipe of what to do when you don’t know what to do (we’ve  probably all googled it at some point). The truth is that the secret recipe is figuring it out for yourself.  Every person, scientist or not, has their own way of learning or doing things. The important part is to know how to use this when you need it – that’s where the science of figuring it out comes in to  play.  

So take this, not as a ready to use guide, but as a DIY prompt to develop your own figuring it out  technique. To make it a little more tangible, here is an example from my own experience:

Not knowing is not shameful. It is also that majority of your time in science, things fail. Honestly it  is quite unusual to have success without failing multiple times first. This is what I call myself an  essential process of not knowing. It is quite literally in the job description to go from “I don’t know” to “I found out”. Having a question is the first step, it isn’t where you stop and fail because it’s hard. So, my message to you is: answer the hard questions. If you don’t know, try to find out for yourself  and ask for help when you need it, that is what makes a scientist.

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