The Knowledge Complement

Unknown unknowns

As children, we are very inquisitive but we eventually grow up which results in us growing out of the wondering habit as well. We form opinions based on the limited knowledge we have gathered, formulate a complete theory of the world/universe around us and identify our place and role within this context. From here onward, we selectively take the knowledge as it comes.

Consider that the ratio of what we know versus what we do not know is almost equal to zero, see the figure above. In fact, I find it disturbing that most of us spend their lives roaming around in our minds within the halls of our previously gathered knowledge and continually readjusting our mental furniture. We never take the time and a little pain to look outside that cage through a window.

The fact that the universe is very very very vast is as much powerful as it is humbling. This can be frightening for one person and exciting for another. To have encounters with something that was not there in my world before is very intriguing for me.

Although one can have a disagreement with former US Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld on invasion of Iraq, nobody has put it more beautifully than him.

“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.”

The more I think about the unknown unknowns, the more I find myself in awe of the universe around me. Standing outside in a clear night and looking deep into the space can be a good metaphor.

Another interesting example that comes into my mind is classic story Silver Blaze by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

Silver Blaze


Sherlock Holmes is asked to investigate the mystery of the disappearance of a champion race horse named Silver Blaze. Below is the conversation between him and the Scotland Yard detective Gregory.

Gregory: “Is there any other point to which you would wish to draw my attention?”
Holmes: “To the curious incident of the dog in the night-time.”
Gregory: “The dog did nothing in the night-time.”
Holmes: “That was the curious incident.”

He went on to conclude that “the midnight visitor was someone the dog knew well”, ultimately leading to the conclusion that the trainer was guilty in this case.

So what does it all mean? Continue to explore!

  • Students: This is particularly important for young school and university students who have been mistakenly led into believing that they should follow their passion in life. This is by far the most dangerous advice given to young minds. Why? Because the passion gets generated by doing things that excite us. How can someone be excited by something that they have never seen or done before?

    If you are young, remember that this is the age to plan and do various unknown activities outside the curriculum and outside everything in your familiar zone. By continually exploring, say 10 different ventures, you will probably find that 6 are boring, 2 are average and there will be just 1 or 2 pursuits that will ignite your passion like a wild fire. If you had not explored and instead followed your ‘passion’, you would have never found them.

    Explore. Don’t follow your passion.

  • Professionals: Realize that the more you venture into unknowns, the more valuable you become to the world. From there comes the progress in the career. In his book So Good They Can’t Ignore You, Cal Newport argues that skills trump passion and that following your passion by quitting your job and doing what you were destined to do may not be the best advice. Instead of finding some magical work that is supposed to be inline with our passion, we should build valuable skills that lead to career capital – going so deep into our skill that makes us indispensable for the skill itself.

It is also useful to remind ourselves that the venturing into unknowns is as true for a country as it is for a person. I think that there is hardly any other reason for US being the superpower in the world than the sum total of knowledge of its residents exceeding (by far) that of the rest of the world.

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