You Don’t Know What You Don’t Know

The obstacle you can’t avoid

What am I missing?

At every stage in life we face an incredible obstacle that limits our ability to grow and develop. We don’t know what we don’t know. And even worse since we don’t know what we don’t know, we don’t know where to look for it or even what that it is that we should look for.

Experts can’t help

Many of us seek out experts because we want knowledge and we will follow the paths that those experts blaze through the discipline or profession we want to learn. We go to school. We mentor. We learn what the experts know. After some time and study, we too can become experts. We become sources of information for others. The cycle continues.

Learning can’t help

Nothing about this cycle addresses the basic problem. No matter how much we learn we still do not know what we don’t know. That is a big problem. Wherever you are in this cycle you think you see the whole range of possibilities but it is a lie. What you see is a beautifully fabricated false facade, a movie set. What you learn as you progress from amateur to expert is how to protect that flimsy facade from damage so that nobody, including yourself can see the reality – studio walls- behind the set.

Why does that matter?

Now you may wonder why this is a problem since if you don’t know what you don’t know, why should you think that others will know what you don’t know. It really doesn’t matter what others know. What is certain is that what you don’t know can cause you big problems. You can worry about things that you know. You act to take advantage of things that you know. You can protect yourself against things that you know. There is absolutely nothing you can do to deal with what you don’t know.

So what are you saying?

A commercial that I saw recently highlighted that point. A happy guy was working on his laptop in the yard. He looks comfortable and safe but suddenly he looks up in terror and runs, leaving his laptop behind. A flaming gas range falls from the sky and demolishes the laptop. Granted this is a virtually impossible scenario but it could happen and the guy was completely unprepared for it. It never crossed his mind that a flaming gas range would fall from the sky so he had no plan to deal with it. He didn’t know what he didn’t know. You may discount this example but there are other examples. For many years, doctors thought that hand washing was unimportant. They would treat patients and operate without any effort at cleaning their hands. Even when it was suggested that hand washing reduced infections and when one doctor actually documented reductions in infections, the doctors were unwilling to go to the extra effort and wash their hands. They didn’t know what we all know now that bacteria on the hands can infect patients and sabotage the healing process. They were good doctors with the best of intentions for their patients but they didn’t know something important and much worse, they didn’t know what they didn’t know.

Beware of experts

So beware of experts and distrust their confidence that they have all the answers. Remember that they don’t know what they don’t know and they may not even be open to consider that possibility. Seek advice from humble people who don’t have all the answers and are open to ideas and experiments. As you grow and learn and find that people are starting to view you as an expert, apply the same measure to yourself. Resist the temptation of thinking that your knowledge is anything more than superficial and pragmatic. Be open to ideas that challenge the conventional. Experiment with new ways of thinking and acting and hope that each day you might discover one more thing that you didn’t know you didn’t know.

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{ 9 comments… add one }
  • Ryan Hanzel March 4, 2010, 1:22 pm

    Wow very nice post. It really got me thinking about all of the ‘experts’ I have come across. The people that claim to have all the answers and can not be wrong. If I do not know something of course someone claiming that they do know can persuade me into believing them.

    I do like looking for anyone with the attitude with not knowing everything and is always open to suggestions and other ways to do things. They seem to offer some of the best advice from experiences.
    .-= Ryan Hanzel´s last blog ..Going with the flow =-.

  • Ralph March 4, 2010, 1:28 pm

    When you don’t know what you don’t know it is easy to be fooled.

  • Walter March 5, 2010, 6:34 am

    There are many realities in life that we don’t know, but I believe that it is within our capacity to know what we don’t know. However, instead of trusting ourselves, we rely on others to give us the answers, and so we end up more ignorant and confused.

    Being wise does not hold pride as most experts do. Nothing is constant in this world and with this we must allow everything to pass through our filters. 🙂

  • Ralph March 5, 2010, 7:36 am

    I am with you on trusting ourselves more than ‘experts’ but there is still the problem of knowing what it is that you don’t know.

  • Gail from GrowMap March 7, 2010, 12:43 pm

    Thank you so much for writing this post. It conveys important information that only a small percentage of people know so far.

    An open mind and a seeking nature do much to reveal what it is we do not know yet and once we become more aware it is easier to recognize those who have the most knowledge and wisdom on any particular subject.

    The world might call them experts in a specific area but the true “expert” is always aware of the limitations of their knowledge. They continue to read ALL viewpoints and consider new evidence and most importantly – CHANGE their advice if new information warrants that change.

    I do not advocate worry about anything. Worry solves nothing and takes away much. The best course of action is a calm awareness of the largest and longest view.
    .-= Gail from GrowMap´s last blog ..MEME: BizLuv in Support of Small Businesses =-.

  • Ralph March 7, 2010, 3:24 pm

    Something that I do worry about it what the experts know that is wrong yet trusted.

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