How “I don’t know” Created Space for Greatness

Elizabeth Schmidt
6 min readMay 1, 2020

At my first job in marketing, my boss said something to me that I still refer to today. It’s actually something he told everyone at the company, and it quickly became our unofficial ethos.

If I ask you something and you don’t know the answer, I don’t ever want to hear you say ‘I don’t know.’ Instead say, ‘Let me find that out for you.’

I immediately understood what he meant. In fact, his statement kind of floored me. I was in my early 20’s then and eager to learn. Now, after thirteen years in marketing, the lesson still resonates. It’s this lesson that inspires my work ethic, passion, commitment, and determination.

Over the years, I worked for various start-ups, Fortune 500 brands, and a few A-list celebrities. I understand the demands of a high-pressure workplace. I dreaded coming into the office on days when the layers of anxiety floating around were palpable. I constantly battled lengthy to-do lists while simultaneously impressing both clients and executives. The only way I achieved what I set out to do was thanks to a supportive and collaborative team and a drive to be better. I learned how to delegate, ask for help, and most importantly, how to do it with humility and determination.

Thanks to a traumatic pandemic, I am reflecting on my current role over the past two years. In March of 2017, my partner and I uprooted our Los Angeles home of 16 years and moved to Chicago. Later that year, I closed my successful consultancy to join the passionate and dedicated team of creatives at Threadless as their marketing director. The change of scenery, culture, and a unique Midwest mindset inspired me to look back at all the lessons I learned over the years. Some were rather difficult to experience, and some were quite eye-opening. Every lesson ultimately elevated the way I approach things in life.

Here are my learnings.

Be optimistic.

We all have busy and difficult days. A bad attitude doesn’t help anyone, and perpetuating negativity can adversely affect those around you. It’s one thing to vent and unload the annoying moments of your day to a friend or loved one. It’s an entirely different experience to sit and complain about everything that doesn’t go your way. We possess the unique ability to change our way of thinking. It takes loads of practice, but it is possible. Take a break and clear your head if you’re feeling off. Everyone will understand that you need a minute. Go for a walk if you’re able. Sit in the sun. Focus on the positive thing that happened that day.

This quote helps me when I’m having a tough day…

“Optimism is the most important human trait, because it allows us to evolve our ideas, to improve our situation, and to hope for a better tomorrow.” — Seth Godin

Keep learning.

This goes back to the quote I mentioned earlier—the one my former boss said to me at the beginning of my career. If you don’t know the answer to something, find it. Look. It. Up. Teach yourself new software or collaborate with an in-office veteran that knows all the tricks. Don’t say “I don’t know” or even worse, “that’s not my job” and think you’re off the hook. Find a way to help. People need problem solvers. Be one—present solutions instead of problems. Contribute something of value. The information is literally at your fingertips. Hello Google.

Manage your time.

In the workplace, projects tend to pivot, and deadlines get moved around frequently. This is especially true if you work in entertainment or e-commerce. When things aren’t set in stone, it’s important to be malleable and go with the flow. Managing your own time keeps the flow constant without holding your team back. It could be for the day, for the week, or even structured by the project. Time management really helps avoid distraction and ensures constant progress, even if it’s slow going. Use a notebook or an app like Things to stay productive, or organize your day by timeboxing. When you block off time and schedule your day, you can mentally (or physically) check things off as they are completed, which is rather rewarding. However, if you’re like me and prefer to delete items off your to-do list, an app is likely the best solution. Most importantly, don’t put things off. Daunting tasks will only cause you more stress and frustration.

Be a team player.

Being a team player can mean many things, but one core characteristic sets a team player apart from a non-team player. If one member of your team is flailing, find a way to be supportive. We can redistribute work, we can extend due dates, and in some instances, if your team member isn’t cutting it, we can evaluate their role and contribution to the company. Talk to your team. Discover their challenges and their passion projects and help them tackle both. As a team leader and executive, it’s my responsibility to encourage my team and ensure they stay motivated and focused. This is no easy feat for anyone but an important part of the overall goal, to maintain productivity and positive morale. My team and I meet weekly to review our projects both as a team and one-on-one. We share challenges, brainstorm ideas, and discuss ways we can shake things up in our industry. It’s cathartic, inspiring, and laughter always ensues.

Ask for help.

We all have mile-long to-do lists. Even when things get accomplished, there are likely 20 more things you’ll add to your list by the end of the day. One frequently unused approach to tackling your never-ending list is to ask for help. Now I say this with a caveat as it’s entirely possible to approach co-workers, ask for help, and be met with unavailability. And that’s completely fair. Not everyone can drop their own to-do list to help you accomplish yours. Though in a work environment, being helpful, conscientious, and willing to take a moment to help a team member in need does make a difference. Not only will your openness be appreciated, but those kinds of acts of service don’t go unnoticed. I’ve spent many years of my career always doing whatever I could to help out teammates. Frequently, I would put aside my own tasks to help another simply because I wanted to be helpful. This proved both good and bad as there were times when my own work suffered because I was busy helping others. It’s just as important to vocalize your availability, or lack thereof, when asked for help so you can still keep checking things off of your own list.

Write it down.

In a perfect world, we would rely solely on our brains to remember everything. (Shoutout to my earlier statement about time management.) But that’s just not realistic, nor is it wise. Let’s face it; we’re forgetful. Or everyone in your family would be thanking you right now for that birthday, holiday, or thank you card they just received. This is why we take a notebook or laptop with us to meetings. This is why we make grocery lists. You never know when an idea may hit, and you should be prepared to write it down. I would be lost without Evernote. Even their tagline resonates with me daily.

“Get organized. Work smarter. Remember everything.”

Talk about words to live by!

No one is an expert in life. Everyone struggles. But we’re learning and constantly looking for ways to improve and evolve. By being honest and removing guilt and self-pity, we create space for greatness.

Being a decent human will take you further. Perpetuating positivity will attract opportunity. Learn from mistakes, so you don’t repeat them. Learn to be vulnerable and trust the process with open eyes. Learn to try new things because no one always has the “right” answer. Learn to listen. Learn to speak up. Learn how to grow. Let’s all move forward together.

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