I’ve been reflecting on the concept of the unknown recently and the way it is often referred to as a homogenous ‘thing’ that defines itself. The unknown is the unknown.
When we see a concept as being self-defining (ie. ‘it is what it is’) it’s easy to fall into the trap of accepting that concept at face value, instead of being curious to learn more.
But what is there to know about the unknown? Well, ironically quite a lot.
For example, did you know that there are three types of unknown? And, when we are able to recognise them in the moment, it helps us to feel more in control.
The first kind of unknown occurs when we don't know but other people do. For example, playing the piano is a skill that is unknown to me. However, there are people who do know how to play the piano who could teach me. It is a knowable unknown.
The second kind of unknown is where I don't know how to do something and nor does anybody else. When the first people landed on the moon, it was unknown because no one had been there before and no one could teach anyone else that was there and what was happening. This is the acceptable unknown, in which we can incrementally piece together the answers we need to move forward.
The third kind of unknown is when we used to know something but due to certain changes of circumstances we no longer know it. I think of this as un-knowing.
For example, when we first shifted to working from home, many of us experienced this sense of un-knowing. We used to know how to have a meeting. We used to know how to communicate with people. Then, suddenly these basic, auto-pilot tasks felt foreign and left us feeling a bit helpless.
Of the three types of unknowns we experience, I reckon un-knowing is the toughest. That’s because it brings a sense of loss. We work hard to build our knowledge and expertise. We prize it in ourselves and in others and so losing it leaves us feeling lost. Un-knowing also brings with it an expectation that ‘we should know’, because we knew before.
Next time you find yourself or your team uttering the words “I don’t know”, here’s a thought experiment to try. Ask:
What kind of unknown am I/are we experiencing right now?
What expectations do I/we have of myself or my team around knowing?
Are these expectations helping or hindering progress?
I look forward to hearing how you go.