Know what you don’t know: self-improvement starts with self-awareness

Originally written by Thiago Lima.

Donald Rumsfeld, United States Secretary of Defense, once said:

[…] there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns — the ones we don’t know we don’t know.

But what this play with words is actually supposed to mean? For sure there are tons of interpretations we can take off of this sentence. I’ll make my own interpretation based on previous readings and personal experience.

First things first

I’d like to bring these words to a knowledge/self-improvement point of view, that is, how we can extract some benefit from this mindset to improve the way we’re improving (pun not intended) on a daily basis. Putting it into an easier way to visualize, we ended up with this picture:

A Cartesian plane with the word knowledge on the X axis and the word awareness on the Y axis. On the top-right quadrant there are the words “known knowns”. On the top-left quadrant there are the words “known unknowns”. On the bottom-right quadrant there are the words “unknown knowns”. And on the bottom-left quadrant there are the words “unknown unknowns”.
Fig. 1: Awareness and Knowledge

Known knowns is the quadrant where conscious knowledge lives in.

All the knowledge we’ve learned through our experience, curiosity, and practice. It’s available to be used when we need it and usually, we can deal with them very well, teaching others or putting them into practice.

Known unknowns is where our conscious lack of knowledge is at.

Everybody has a lack of knowledge in some aspect of life, usually related to our career, but not exclusively. Everything we know we should take a deeper look at, study, or focus our time to practice and be better at. This is some sort of a “knowledge backlog” in a sense.

There is nothing wrong with having known unknowns. It’s the opposite, I’d say. It means we admit we have knowledge gaps and we’re trying to cover them in the long term.

Unknown knowns is the place where our unconscious knowledge lives.

Have you ever felt that something should be done in a specific way but you couldn’t explain why? This is, usually, our unconscious knowledge: all the things we’ve learned by experience or interaction with other people, but we didn’t experience a formal knowledge about it.

We learned only by practice and it’s very hard to teach other people. It’s similar to an instinct. Although this is still useful and valid knowledge, we should take care to not take everything for granted and stop trying to convert this unconscious knowledge into a conscious one.

Unknown Unknowns is the quadrant where everything we don’t know is placed. Not just things we don’t know but all the things we’re not even aware we should know. This is where we’re left in a completely dark room.

Using the wind in our favor

Ok, we already know the meaning of each of the funny word junctions we just saw, but how we can use it in our favor?

Well, I believe we’re in a good place with the conscious quadrants (known knowns and known unknowns), after all, we’re aware of the things that are placed there. Things get more complicated with the unconscious ones: the things we’re not aware of, especially the unknown unknowns.

But how we can turn some lack of knowledge into knowledge if we don’t have even a clue of what is this knowledge? We don’t even know what we should be learning. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

You may agree with me that there isn’t a single correct answer to this question, it really depends on what you want to become in the short and long term. The knowledge you need depends on your goals.

There isn’t such a thing as the right path. We’ll build the path as we go. Start off by thinking about the person you want to become and pointing out the knowledge you’ll have to learn along the way.

Do you want to be a leader? A technical reference in our team, company, or field? Travel around the world? Be a good mother or father? Anything is liable for thorough analysis. You just need to properly set your goals and start sailor to the unknown.

There is no favorable wind for the sailor who doesn’t know where to go

— Seneca

It turns out that the unknown unknowns will always be there. But knowing where you want to go, and the goals you want to reach, makes it much easier to identify them and find a way to turn the game in your favor.

See you at the sea!

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