Unknown Unknowns

What they are and how you can go about discovering them

I was introduced to the concept of unknown unknowns by this quote¹:

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.

- Donald Rumsfeld

Intrigued? Let us deconstruct it.

What are Unknown Unknowns?

Unknown unknown Venn Diagram
Unknown unknown Venn Diagram
Image credit: Ph.D. Scam

Known knowns are things like using a smartphone — you know that you know how to use a smartphone.

Known knowns are meh. You already know what you know. You are not missing out on anything. The maximum you can do here is to become better at what you already know.

Known unknowns are things like flying an airplane — you know that you do not know anything about how to fly an airplane².

Known unknowns are a conscious decision. You already chose to not put any effort into learning how to fly an airplane. You stayed away from it because you decided that it is simply not for you.

Unknown known is your intuition. Rumsfeld missed this one in his quote but there is not much to say here.

Unknown unknowns are like that restaurant in your neighborhood that you have not tried yet. Neither did you know that such a restaurant even existed.

Unless you discover and visit that restaurant, how will you know what you have been missing out on? You could be missing out on food that tastes like trash. Or, you could be missing out on some of the best food you will ever have. You would want to find out, right?

So, how do you go about discovering your unknown unknowns?

[#1] Seek New People

Diversity is key to the growth of any organization.

It is key for the growth of an individual too.

I am not talking about gender, ethnic or racial diversity. I am talking about diversity in a broader sense.

Each one is unique irrespective of their race or gender or ethnicity. Each person brings something different to the table — be it an opinion, an idea or a perspective. Leverage it.

Like Seth Godin says³ “Even if you’re not self-employed, your boss is you”. So, it is your responsibility to ensure your network has a high “diversity score”.

How do you ensure a high score?

  • Don’t stop having conversations with your friends
  • Seek conversations with acquaintances (and befriend them if you want and can)
  • Scout for (and be open to) conversations with strangers
  • Always ask yourself ‘what do I not know’ instead of ‘what do I know’

The more people you expose yourself to, the more diverse perspectives and ideas you get to hear.

The more people you expose your perspectives and ideas to, the more you can stress test those perspectives and ideas.

Keeping your identity small⁴ is foundational for having conversations that can lead to the discovery of unknown unknowns.

If someone strongly identifies himself as a theist, he would not be able to hold a conversation with an atheist or an anti-theist because each argument from them feels like a personal attack. That is unfortunate because no one can challenge a theist better than an atheist or an anti-theist.

If someone strongly identifies himself as a theist, he would love to hear arguments that reinforce existing beliefs. Why? Because to him, those arguments are not merely arguments, they are compliments. They validate beliefs that are core to his identity. They validate his identity.

If you do not keep your identity small, you will get sucked right into the black hole that is confirmation bias.

[#2] Converse with the Dead (& the Alive)

An Oracle once told Zeno — ‘the best way to live, is to have conversations with the dead”⁵.

What was the Oracle talking about? He was talking about reading. When you are reading a book, you are essentially having a conversation with the author of the book or with the characters in the book. By picking up a book, you can put yourself in the same room as Issac Asimov or have a chat with Sherlock Holmes.

By extension, you can have conversations with not just the wisest people from the past but also with the wisest people that are still alive — by reading their books, blogs, and listening to their podcasts.

Naval perfectly captured the power of reading when he said the following⁶:

The great thing about reading is you can pick up any skill. If you learn how to learn, it’s the ultimate meta-skill. You can learn how to be healthy, learn how to be successful, learn how to have a good relationship and so on. If you can learn that is a trump card, it’s an ace, a joker, a wildcard — you can trade it for any other skill. And that all begins with reading.

- Naval Ravikant

If you think about it, #2 is a corollary to #1. In both cases, you are exposing yourself to more people (and as a result, to more ideas and perspectives).

The above two methods are the ones that work best for me. There are several other ways to discover unknown unknowns. Few I can think of are:

  1. Seek new experiences: Put yourself through different experiences such as sky diving, hiking, volunteering for a non-profit organization, playing video games, parenting, and so on.
  2. Pick up a new skill: Learn to code, learn to play the piano, learn to drive a car, learn how to write, learn how to bake/cook, etc Each new skill that you acquire can teach you things that you can apply in other spheres of life.
  3. Travel: Exposing oneself to different cultures probably has the highest unknown-unknown discovery rate (i.e # of unknown unknowns discovered per unit time). From the way people greet each other to the food and the language, you are constantly bombarded with something new and unfamiliar.

At the very least, the process of discovering your unknown unknowns is fun. At the very best, discovering them is life-changing. Strive to convert as many unknown unknowns into known knowns or known unknowns.


[1] Came across the Donald Rumsfeld quote in this article from Deepdish.

[2] If flying is your hobby or your profession, then this example does not apply to you.

[3] The World’s Worst Boss by Seth Godin

[4] Keep your Identity Small by Paul Graham

[5] As read in this Daily Stoic newsletter

[6] As heard in this Tim Ferriss podcast episode

Figuring out life one article at a time. More at bitsoveratoms.substack.com