Thanks to Donald Rumsfeld for making the very Zen, Philosophical concept of “unknown unknowns” rather mainstream. This notion reaches deeply in the field of analytics where my career focuses. I can’t ever say “there are unknown unknowns” in a presentation without someone attributing it to Donald Rumsfeld’s wisdom.
It’s easy to be cognizant of questions known to us for which we simply don’t know the answer. For example, when renting an apartment, I know to ask if there is a time after which loud music is prohibited. It’s something I learned to ask after once renting an apartment in a complex without such a rule. It’s a known unknown, which I resolve by asking the question.
However, I learned after renting another apartment that I didn’t know to ask if the parking space directly under my apartment was mine or someone else’s. I guess I assumed the space under my apartment was mine and so if I came home late, opening and closing the garage door would only disturb me.
Everything we ask today was once something we didn’t know to ask – an unknown unknown. In fact, I can’t recall any instance – renting an apartment, taking a job, buying a car – in which I wished I knew to ask a question about something that later surprised me. After experiencing some gotcha we suffer from that ignorance, we know to ask it the next time. It’s now a known unknown – a question we know to ask in the future.
Throughout our lives we collect these questions, these tips and tricks of life. If we’re smart, we can smugly go about life stating, “Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.” We grow into wise old folks who don’t fall for scams and rookie mistakes.
The problem is the rules are always changing. If we’re lucky an outdated rule is merely useless. Applying an outdated rule is often costly. That can be frustrating, tiresome, and in the jungle, it’s fatal. But knowing the rules are always changing is 99% of the solution!
Awareness of the Unknown Unknowns
I’ve often mentioned The Beginner’s Mind as the single most important aspect of Zen practice … if one must have a “one thing”, as Curly suggested in “City Slickers”. It’s #1 of the Three Zen Stories upon which the Eternal Fishnu’s teachings are based.
Couple the Beginner’s Mind with the knowledge known to even novice Zen practitioners that change is the only constant, you never walk in the same river twice, blah blah blah. With these two near-axioms in mind, in order to evolve with change, we must constantly learn the new rules. And to learn these new rules, we must make room for them by clearing out space by dumping out the old stuff.
The inability to cultivate a Beginner’s Mind leads to a brittleness that easily shatters with a well-placed strike. That well-placed strike can be in the form of a cat catching a mouse or someone losing their life savings to a scammer.
The Beginner’s Mind is the awareness of unknown unknowns. But an awareness of unknown unknowns doesn’t sound like the primary Zen advice of having a laser-like focus in the Now. It sounds suspiciously like the senselessness of worrying about the countless things that could happen, the bulk of which will not happen.
That’s one way to look at it. However, one could also look at a lack of awareness of unknown unknowns as un-Zen in the form of clinging to a past that no longer exists – i.e. applying rules you’ve already learned that lost its validity due to constant change. For the most part, being in the Now means to keep your mind focused on the present where things are actionable. It doesn’t mean to ignore the value of your unique experiences towards actions moving you in the direction of your path.
Our LCD McGoogle World
Awareness of unknown unknowns must be built into all planning. If you’re truly honest with yourself, do you recall any plan that was executed as planned? Even if successful, the plan succeeded due to heroics addressing the unknown unknowns. Rather, unknown unknowns are swept under the rug as we sign off on a plan, coerced into a belief it is bullet-proof and/or we knew that all along.
The way to build in an awareness of unknown unknowns into all planning is not just beyond the scope of this blog, but requires volumes of books. However, in a nutshell, it requires embracing the complexity of the world – in Zen terms, living the notion that change is constant.
In very secular and “tip and trick” terms, this means mastering the fundamentals. Fundamentals are relatively few core concepts underlying a wide range of application. Underlying the complexity of the Universe, or good software, or good practice of medicine and law, are layers of composition of simple rules.
The problem with mastery of fundamentals is that mastery of relatively few rules on the surface looks a ton harder to master than learning a lot of simple tips and tricks. The key is this: How many billions of tips and tricks do you need to learn to fully cover a knowledge domain – versus how hard it is to master a relatively few “tough” concepts from which you can answer almost anything?
As with any notion of foundations, it must be done correctly, thus requiring a long time to master. In these McGoogle days of immediate gratification (quick ROI), notions of true mastery of are considered indulgences.
Humility, Not Stupidity
Don’t mistake the Beginner’s Mind for stupidity. The Beginner’s Mind is genuine humility – the full acceptance that the only reality is the Universe, as opposed to the pitifully inadequate model of the world housed in our brains, as deficient as an aquarium is a model of the ocean.
However, it’s not a matter of dropping your experiences from your brain. Your experiences are data encoded in your brain. It’s a matter of dropping your beliefs from your mind, the rules you’ve computed from that data long ago. Only then can you re-compute rules based on that same data and new information now at hand. Your experiences are still of value today just as are the somewhat and arguably outdated works of Aristotle, Freud, or even the Buddha himself.
People unaware of the unknown unknowns are often insulted by others with the facetious phrase, “He knows everything.” That person to which the insult was thrown would unwittingly take it as a compliment. But that insult is hurled out of frustration to people unaware of unknown unknowns who are like huge boulders, a dam in the river – steadfast, unmovable, an obstacle to the flow of all else.
But don’t be hard on those people because we’re all guilty of it most of the time.