Getting Comfortable with Unknown Unknowns

Earlier this month I found myself commiserating with a fellow parent around the challenges of raising a teenager. We talked about battles over homework, our effective (and ineffective) carrots and sticks, and the ever present feeling that you aren’t going to successfully get your adolescent human to adulthood. As we shared our stories I suddenly realized why this stage of parenting is causing me so much stress.

Teenagers do not believe in the existence of the unknown unknown.

To be honest, I don’t blame them. I remember the feeling of absolute certainty that came with my teenage years. I entered every discussion and decision convinced that my extensive years on the planet had given me every experience needed to know the right answer. I was a cocky, arrogant know-it-all and the last thing I even considered was the risk that there were things I didn’t know I didn’t know. Matthew Squair in his blog post¬†on the risk continuum calls it ontological uncertainty and compares it to a card game where you start without any knowledge and slowly pick up the rules as you play. You think you have it all figured out but what you don’t know is that the dealer has a single card that can be played against a rare situation, a black swan. You have no clue that it is waiting to change the rules yet again.

The only cure is more experience.

As we talked about the unknown unknown I shared that my own appreciation for how little I knew came from going off to college and being faced with hundreds of experiences that my younger self could not have predicted. Step-by-step I shifted from an incorrect certainty to a grudging curiosity and finally to a willing investigation of the world, recognizing that no matter how much I learned I wouldn’t ever be free of the not knowing. But, unlike many of the lessons I’ve learned from life, I couldn’t point to a single moment when I got it.

On the other side of the phone, I could hear him smiling. He told me he knew the exact moment when he had come to understand that he didn’t know. He told me it was a business meeting when he had laughed out loud at a funny sounding word — a technical term that his CFO had quietly corrected him over — that had jarred him to understanding how little he knew. He expressed, more than 20 years later, the embarrassment he had felt in the room of others who understood not only the topic but his ignorance. I felt for the younger version of my colleague, but the truth is that he wouldn’t be the leader I know him to be now without learning that hard lesson. In any given situation you probably know a whole lot less than you think.

What surprises me is how hard it is for individuals to accept the fact that there are things they don’t know and worse things they don’t know they don’t know. As leaders it gets harder and harder to acknowledge the gaps in your own knowledge and that of your team; the higher you get the more people expect you to have the answers. It takes real courage to say, “I don’t know” or “I haven’t seen that before” to your boss, your peers, or your team. You have to have confidence and bravery to believe that through discovery you can turn an unknown unknown into a known unknown — a gap in knowledge that can be closed through data gathering, research, and modeling.

This week I’ll turn 45 and I am officially declaring it my middle age. While I can’t know with certainty when I’ll hit my official middle, it feels right because I feel simultaneously young and old. Young because I’m (hopefully) only half way through this adventure we call life and old because I’m decades away from the teenager who knew that she had the whole damn world figured out. I have no idea how much it is I don’t know I don’t know and that’s ok. I plan to keep learning as long as I am able and isn’t that awesome?

(Post graphic created by Mike Clayton in his Four Types of Risk post on his blog “Shift Happens!“)