Ignore your awareness at your peril
United States Secretary of Defence Donald Rumsfeld gave a news briefing in 2002 at the NATO headquarters in Brussels.
“Reports that say that something hasn’t happened are always interesting to me, because as we know, 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. And if one looks throughout the history of our country and other free countries, it is the latter category that tend to be the difficult ones.”
“It sounds like a riddle. It isn’t a riddle. It is a very serious, important matter.
There’s another way to phrase that and that is that the absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. It is basically saying the same thing in a different way. Simply because you do not have evidence that something exists does not mean that you have evidence that it doesn’t exist. And yet almost always, when we make our threat assessments, when we look at the world, we end up basing it on the first two pieces of that puzzle, rather than all three.”
The idea of unknown unknowns was created in 1955 by two American psychologists, Joseph Luft and Harrington Ingham and is often used in project management, strategic planning and managing people.
Another example of this is of the great Dutch explorer Willem de Vlamingh. Before his discovery, the Western world always assumed that all swans were white, until in 1697 Willem de Vlamingh discovered black swans in Australia. This unexpected event profoundly changed zoology. Nassim Nicholas Taleb calls this occurence ‘The Black Swan’.
Even when we try to minimise our unknows, even when we believe we have thought of everything. Even when we have asked plenty of questions, spent days researching, got other people’s ideas and thinking on an issue, we still need to take risks and mistakes are going to happen. Why? Because we can not possibly know everything there is to know.
In addition, remember you have a very powerful ally on your team. Someone you can always rely on. Someone who always has your back. Someone who has never let you down. He/she comes charging from the back and has earnt your respect over the years.
That’s right, your intuition, your inner voice, your gut feel and interesting enough, we are more likely to forgive mistakes that we have made intuitively, than mistakes that we have spent hours trying to work out. Subsequently, we forgive our gut feel more than we forgive our brain!
So, as you finish your week and dance into the weekend, as you sip on your first wine or cold beer (for those who haven’t started yet), feel confident in knowing what you know you do know. And that is….
Ignore your awareness at your peril.
Matt Rolfe is a high-altitude mountaineer. More than that, he is an expedition leader, leading expeditions to the highest peaks in the world, an incredibly