There’s nothing wrong with admitting you don’t know everything. Here’s when you should consider speaking up.

We all hate to admit when we don’t know something. Especially if we’re new at a job, have a boss we’re trying to impress, or like to be seen as someone who’s always on top of things. So rather than raise our hands when we’re not sure what to do, we try muddling through on our own, resulting in more work and more stress than is necessary.

Well, I’m here to tell you: It’s OK to ask. We don’t know everything, and it’s alright to admit that. Sometimes it’s actually your best strategy.

When you can – and should – ask for help:

When you’re not clear on the details of a project. Some bosses expect you to be a mind reader. They dump a pile of illegible notes on your desk, tell you a report is due on Monday, and walk away, leaving you completely clueless as to what the report is supposed to be about or which project it’s even for.

They’re often just incredibly busy and don’t stop to consider their instructions may have been less than clear. Some bosses have mile-a-minute brains and think they’ve already told you what to do. Whatever the reason, you can sit around staring at the notes for two hours and panicking over where to start, or you can just go up to your boss, put on a professional face, and say, “I’m sorry to bother you, but I’m hoping to get a little more clarification on this project. What specifically do you need me to do?”

Or better yet, try to ask him right when he dumps the notes on your desk — if you can catch him fast enough.

When you’re not clear on priorities or deadlines. Most of us have piles of projects to juggle, so knowing the urgency for each task is crucial to making sure everything gets done on time. If you’re not clear on a deadline, ask.

Maybe that “emergency” someone threw in your lap can actually wait till Monday. Maybe that status report a co-worker casually requested you write up is actually due in an hour because the client’s coming in. Always, always make sure you know which projects need doing when. That’s working 101.

When “figuring it out yourself” will take way too much time. There are some aspects of my job that I can figure out on my own — and that I’m expected to figure out on my own. If I’m filing a pleading in a new court district (I’m a paralegal) and I’m not sure on their procedures, I can look up their rules on their website, call the court clerk, etc. I’m paid, to a certain extent, to take initiative, save attorneys the hassle of details, and just “get it done.”

But if one of the cases I’m handling involves some complicated real estate issues, and we have a thoroughly experienced and knowledgeable real estate paralegal on staff, it makes a heck of a lot more sense for me to stop by her office and ask her for a quick lesson on what I need to know.

Use your resources — and your resourcefulness — wisely. Picking the brain of someone with expertise can save you time and guarantee you get the most accurate information. Most people are flattered to be asked for their advice, anyway.

When you really, really don’t know what you’re doing. This one can be the most difficult since we all hate to call attention to our weak areas. But you know what makes you look even worse? Spending forever muddling your way through something you don’t understand, turning it in late, and then finding out you’ve done nothing the way you were supposed to.

I recently took over the administration of a large estate that’s nothing like anything I’ve ever done before. I was paralyzed by every phone call I had to make to gather basic information, because every inquiry resulted in all sorts of follow-up questions I couldn’t begin to answer. So I put off making the calls. And the stress just built up the more I dragged my feet.

What finally solved my problem? Admitting that I had no idea what I was doing. If I called someone to ask for a figure on one of the estate’s financial accounts, and they started asking me for specifics in terms I didn’t even recognize, I was completely upfront with them. I told them this was my first time working on a file like this, that I was learning as I went along, and would they be so kind as to bear with me and explain what it was they needed from me? I was amazed at how friendly and willing to help most people were once I put myself out there (and put myself at the mercy of their kindness).

I’m a smart, capable worker, so I knew that once I learned the basics, I’d be adept at them. If you admit to the loopholes in your knowledge with that confidence in mind, you’re not making yourself look any weaker or less able. You’re just admitting you don’t know everything, and there’s nothing wrong with that. The only way to learn is to ask.

Kelly Gurnett, a.k.a. “Cordelia,” runs the blog Cordelia Calls It Quits, where she documents her attempts to rid her life of the things that don’t matter and focus more on the things that do. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.


  1. Take the Interview

    Great advice, Kelly. Learning to ask for help when you need it is a skill – and many people forget that.

    Thanks for sharing!

    Take the Interview

  2. Chrysta Bairre

    Great post, Kelly!

    I believe asking for help, when appropriate, is a career builder.

    There are many reasons asking for help can improve your reputation at work. For example, if you truly have too much on your plate and you don’t ask for help, you may find yourself in hot water if you fail to meet important deadlines or turn in less-than-thorough work.

    Asking for help can also be a great way to build relationships at work. We may believe someone doesn’t want to bothered, but I have found that often asking someone for guidance or collaboration shows them that you respect and value their expertise.


    • Cordelia

      Very true, Chrysta. Most people are more than willing to help, and are even flattered to be asked.

  3. Lijiaxin8819

    I think we should learn to deal with some difficulty by ourselves. But sometimes we still need ask for help appropriate!
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  4. Darcy Eikenberg

    Great reminder that “help” is not a four-letter word! Also, let’s change the framework that asking for help is a sign of weakness–it’s actually a sign of strength and confidence that you know what you know–and what you don’t. Plus, asking invites people to contribute their gifts and knowledge, and may open up new possibilities you never would have created alone. Thanks for the reminder of the importance of a good ask!

    Darcy Eikenberg, ACC
    Author, “Bring Your Superpowers to Work: Your Guide to More Clarity, Confidence & Control,” (coming Jan. 2012)

    • Cordelia

      Exactly! There’s nothing wrong with admitting the things you don’t know–it shows that you’re confident in what you *do* know, willing to learn, and eager to gain more experience. Any employer/coworker should be happy to find out that you’re willing to risk “the ask” to do your job to the best of your ability.

  5. amilyjoe

    This is true that people hesitates for asking something because they don’t want to admit that they don’t know something. But if they don’t ask then it takes much more time and even then they are not able to successfully done their task. So at this situation asking a question will be the best option.General Dentist Anchorage

  6. Edward - Entry Level Dilemma

    “When “figuring it out yourself” will take way too much time.” But figuring it out myself is my favorite part. Once I know how to do something, it gets boring.

    • Cordelia

      I feel you on this; I’ve gotten where I am at my job by figuring things out on my own and teaching myself how to do things. I also get bored by doing things by rote and prefer to keep myself challenged and evolving.

      That said, there have been some situations where I’m at a total loss–where I have nothing to go on, a deadline is impending, and I have no clue where to even start looking. Sometimes it’s more expedient to ask for a clue when you’re totally in the dark and time is of the essence. That’s more the type of situation I was speaking of.

      • Edward - Entry Level Dilemma

        The impending deadline is a good point. I have been fortunate enough to never receive a truly new task with a short deadline. I’ve always had plenty of time to get up to speed. My favorite work-related accomplishment was when I received 15 minutes of training for a new job and still completed my one-year project 3 months early.

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