The Secret Weapon of Real Experts: Discovering Unknown Unknowns

Guided by unconscious incompetence. I started blogging. I thought I knew what I was doing. But what I knew blinded me. Prevented me from seeing how many things I didn’t know. How many things remained unexplored. It was entirely my fault. Just because I wasn’t aware of something didn’t mean this something wasn’t there. But I found out about this concept ​years later.

Honestly, before, I’ve never thought much about what I don’t know. Not to mention, what I don’t know I don’t know. The so-called unknown unknowns.

It appears, however. That these seemingly weird, and unidentifiable mystery concepts are like hidden treasure chests inside video games that you didn’t know existed when you started playing. But once discovered, they not only add a new layer of excitement, a better-equipped character, but also contribute to a much more enjoyable experience.

And it’s not only in the virtual life, of course.

Unveiling things we didn’t know existed before can equip you with the knowledge and the approach you need to battle uncertainty. Immune you, in a way, to the hidden traps that life has prepared for us ahead. And, eventually, help you become better in your field of choice.

As you can see, I’m carefully avoiding the word expert here.

Although this article is called, “The Secret Weapon of Real Experts: Discovering Unknown Unknowns”. There is something you probably didn’t know about real experts – I’m not talking about know-it-all gurus online. I’m talking about people who are genuinely interested in trying to help you in your quest to obtain more wisdom.

Real experts, people who actually know what they are doing, all possess the same quality – they don’t think they are experts.

They are wise enough to understand that what they do know – even if it’s a lot – is not everything that’s available as information. That there is always more to learn. And exactly this realization, helps them to constantly expand their worldview and thus adds strength to their skill set.

We are never thought to search for what we don’t know we don’t know for adequate reasons, I believe.

It sounds crazy to look for something that seemingly doesn’t exist. It’s like stating that you’ll go out and just wander. Hoping to find something. Anything!

Who does that?

Not a lot of people.

But those who do – as we’ll see – are the ones who find exciting things.

The Origin of Uknown Uknowns – The Knowledge Matrix

Donald Rumsfeld, during a news briefing in 2002, popularized the concept of the unknown unknowns.

He famously said: “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.”1

This idea – about not knowing things and not knowing that we don’t know about them. Is not that new.

It’s something created by two American psychologists in 1955: Joseph Luft and Harrington Ingham.

They labeled their invention the Johari window.2

Simply put, this technique can be used to help people better understand themselves and how others view them.

The Johari window theory is composed of four quadrants. Here’s the overview:

  1. Arena: Inside the arena, we have the things that are known about the person and also known to others. For instance, everyone who knows you can tell the color of your hair. Or the fact that you love to play baseball (if you do).
  2. Facade: These are the things we present to the world that are usually carefully selected to make us shine. We intentionally cover our weaknesses and present a facade – for example, think about what people post on Instagram, only the good stuff. In this section, we can put the deceptive front we present as genuine. Say you like to dress like a clown when you’re alone but tell others you hate clowns. Or you pretend that you’re rich online so others can buy your online courses. Or you’re helplessly sad but you’re acting like everything is fine and dandy.
  3. Blind Spot: This is what others know about you, but you don’t know about yourself. Say that you always confront your boss when he talks nonsense. Others might label you as bold and courageous. But you might not identify as such. From your perspective, you’re simply acting the best possible way.
  4. Unknown: This quadrant is unexplored. Hidden from both the subject and others around. The unconscious motives that are still unexplored should be placed here, but it’s up to the person to find them and identify them accordingly. Usually, people go to therapy exactly to uncover these unexplored fields of their psyche.

In the field of knowledge, we have pretty much the same outline. Some even label this as The Knowledge Matrix.3

Let’s go through the four quadrants one by one:

  • Known knowns: In short, this is what you know. For example, you know that you have read book X.
  • Known unknowns: What you know you don’t know. You know that you have 10 books on your shelf but you don’t know anything else besides their title because you haven’t read them yet.
  • Unknown knowns: What you know, but you’ve probably forgotten you know. You probably read a disturbing book when you are a child, say All My Friends Are Dead, which twisted your view on friendship but you’re not aware of it.4
  • Unknown unknowns: Things you don’t know that exist, but they do exist. For instance, all the books you don’t know exist.

Like in the Johari window concept, the fourth component – the unknown unknowns – is the field you should be more interested in. Not like… today. But in general.

It’s the hidden element we all in a way want, but we are not entirely sure that it exists and because of that, we don’t know how we can get it.

For an investor betting on companies, the unknown unknowns are the things that will either make him a millionaire or cause serious financial problems.

For an astronaut out of space, unknown unknowns can be literally the things that can save the life of the spaceman.

For me, as a regular person who’s interested in transitioning from an average writer to a slightly less average writer, the unknown unknowns are probably techniques or a set of ideas, that once found will finally help me construct shorter, and more beautifully written, sentences that don’t take forever to read.

Every rational person reading this will ask himself, “OK, but how do you search, and actually find, something that you don’t know exists? And, how do you know that you’ve found what you were searching for since you have no clue what was initially sought?”

I’ve come to the conclusion that our day-to-day life should be approached more adventurously. Like we are archaeologists searching for a lost city. Like we are a modern Indiana Jones.

Instead of a whip and a cowboy hat, however, we should use our pocket computers and what’s between our ears to search, and discover, what we previously thought was unexisting.

Like the time the first dinosaur was discovered…

Why Unknown Unknowns Are Crucial?

When Robert Plot – the person credited with discovering the first dinosaur bone – discovered the first dinosaur bone, two important things happened: First, he wasn’t looking for dinosaurs! How could he? Back then, we didn’t know that there were such things as dinosaurs. And more importantly, he didn’t think that he discovered a dinosaur. His best guess was that he discovered a bone that belonged to a giant human.

Crazy, right?

The geology professor at Oxford University, William Buckland, 147 years later, labeled the fossils previously found as belonging to a species we now call dinosaurs.5

The above geological story is a real example of the importance of unknown unknowns.

We are constantly on a journey, whether we realize it or not.

Most people, sadly, commit to a superficial voyage. They might travel. But they don’t discover new things. They simply visit the places that are already widely known to us, humans.

And that’s a shame because there is so much out there. So much we can learn. So much we can explore that can change the way we think in a positive direction.

This is the journey that professionals embark on.

They step one foot in front of the other to transition from unconscious incompetence to conscious incompetence to unconscious competence.

The last one means that they become so good at what they do – imagine a tennis player “dancing” on the field – that their actions become good by default. Ultimately, seemingly with less effort, they achieve greater results.

But even great athletes struggle to maintain a winning streak.

If they don’t push harder. If they don’t innovate. Eventually, they will lose to someone who goes further. Someone who explores the cave of knowledge more deeply.

In the athletic field – and not only – people lose matches not only because the other player is in better shape. It’s also because the first guy gave up.

When you stop searching for new techniques. New strategies that can change the trajectory of your game. You lose.

Focusing on the know knows and the known unknowns is the path if you want to become a good designer. A good architect. Probably a reliable accountant.

Relentlessly trying to discover more of the unknown unknowns will help you become one of the best designers. An award-winning architect. And probably a person who takes accounting to the next level – for instance, creating an accounting software that makes the whole process of reporting financial transactions a lot easier.

As I mentioned at the beginning of the article, I started blogging and building websites guided by unconscious incompetence.

It kind of started as a joke.

I just found that you can create a website online so others can visit. I sounded magical back then.

Now, it’s something common. But 10 years ago, I thought that only people who could see images in falling lines of code – like the operator Tank, in the movie The Matrix – can create a website.

My journey looked kind of like this:

  1. I learned enough to understand that even a computer illiterate can create a website (known knowns).
  2. After understanding this, I found out what I needed to learn extra to actually create a website (known unknowns).
  3. Eventually, I realized that I can type words that are not ridiculously boring. In other words, that I can write OK-ish (unknown knowns).
  4. However, back then, I was blind to a huge cluster of information that one needed to uncover in order to create a website actually worth visiting (unknown unknowns). Things like: structure of the site, creating entertaining content, maintaining a website, keyword research, creating a sustainable long-term writing strategy, etc.

Slowly, by creating a website, ditching it, and starting a new one – and doing this 8 times in a roll – I transitioned from completely useless to moderately useful when building and writing online.

The more I traveled, the more ground I uncovered. More importantly, though, I realized that the map is way bigger than what I originally thought.

Ten years ago, if you have asked me what SEO is, I would have probably answered that it’s the word CEO misspelled. Now I know enough about SEO to produce content, but I also know something more important.

The way I think has altered. I don’t think that I know everything about SEO, writing, maintaining a website, etc. Quite the opposite, I know that there are a lot of things that I don’t know, but I’m actively searching to find more of them.

At this point, you may think that the highest strategy in life should be to find more things that you don’t know exist yet.

Indeed, uncovering more unknown unknowns is surely going to change your worldview. But you should start with the most basic level.

What I mentioned at the beginning: unconscious incompetence.

What’s Usually Blocking Us From Seeing The Unknowns?

If you don’t know enough about a given topic, you won’t ask the right questions.

If you don’t ask the right questions, you won’t find the right answers.

Similarly, if you didn’t know that dinosaurs existed, you won’t search for them.

How do you start then?

Quite simple actually…

You just start!

I’m here writing this not because I knew that I wanted to write about all the topics you can now read on my site about self-improvement (or any of the other categories).

I’m here writing simply because I wanted to create. Not even online at first. From an early age, I was always interested in creating something out of nothing.

I think we all are.

But you will never unravel the unknown unknowns unless you start.

Ignorance is bliss they say. Use it to your advantage.

Robert Plot, the name I mentioned earlier discovered the giant bone because he directed his attention to the systematic study of natural history and antiquities.

He was guided by curiosity. Interest to learn more. Surely not perfect in what he was doing. But his desire to acquire knowledge helped him become the first person to see a fossil of a dinosaur.

Or in other words, the most important part of learning is not exactly the unknown unknowns. Primarily, it’s about starting.

It’s a journey.

And we can consider the four quadrants above as the guiding principles.

We can consider it as a progression from novice to expert.

You are careless enough to start doing things you are not really good at.

It requires first to hop on the first field – what you know.

The more you learn. The more you see what’s possible.

You know that you want to learn more about 3d digital art, for example (known knowns).

In this case, you search online to see what other 3d digital artists are doing. With this, you find what you should learn (known unknowns).

Somewhere along the way, you find out, or you don’t, that one of your friends is involved in 3d digital art (unknown knowns). Thus, you can ask him questions about this field so he can better prepare you.

The more you progress, the more ground you uncover and thus the more you find yourself in unknown fields (unknown unknowns). Things you didn’t even know existed. And this last step propels you forward.

Once again, it all begins with you and your desire to become better.

How To Discover Unknown Unknowns?

The best strategy that will help you uncover unknown unknowns – which will help you move faster to excellence in your field – is by looking at the end result.

To continue with the example from above, say we do want to become 3d artists. In this case, we can research and find the most famous 3d artists right now.

Once we know, we can do these 3 things:

First, reach out to them and ask: “What do you wish you’d known when you were starting out?”

This question will help us focus on the right tasks. Tasks we usually didn’t know existed before – or at least we didn’t know were crucial.

Even if you can’t directly ask this question. You can find literature, interviews with the person, probably, that can help you answer this question on your own.

Secondly, we can think about failing at this task. Writing a premortem is considered to be one of the best strategies to help us dodge failure. In other words, you imagine that you’ve failed at this skill, task, or whatever you’re doing. Then, write down what led to failure. Defining disaster at an early stage will help us find solutions to what might lead to it.

Thirdly, we need to adopt a more holistic view of the field we want to master. We can easily see what 3d artists do today. We can simply search online. But to really excel and distinguish ourselves from the rest – create a name for ourselves. We need to seek to find an answer that is quite harder. We need to think about how 3d paintings will eventually change. How 3d paintings will look in the future? Then, think about what other fields we can use to make our art both different and better.

As Steve Shapiro, a famous innovation advisor, concluded in a viral TEDx talk: “Best solutions to your challenges don’t reside inside of aerospace but they might be from other disciplines.”

Later he adds: “If you’re working on an aerospace challenge and you have 100 aerospace engineers working on it, the 101st air space engineer is not going to make that much of a difference. But you add a biologist. You add a nanotechnologist. You add a musician. And maybe now you have something fundamentally different.”6

Finding the unknown unknowns is a quest. Relentlessly searching. Exploring different fields and thinking about the relationships between them.

Your biggest breakthroughs in life won’t come from what you know. Nor from what you know you don’t know. Innovation and improvement will emerge only when you look beyond your area of interest and field of knowledge.

Actively searching for what you don’t know you don’t know.

Some Closing Thoughts

Most commonly, we confuse what we know and what we know exists with what’s available. This chain of thoughts persuades us that there is nothing more to learn.

This can be a huge problem. Not only because we don’t uncover new topics. But because we solely rely on what’s already available which prevents us from progressing.

To create new inventions. To upgrade your experience. To come up with new concepts and ideas, you need to look at different fields. To combine the dots, sort to speak. To be an explorer.

Open-mindedness and not being afraid to be perceived as a beginner are advantages here.

Don’t only read books, articles, watch videos about stuff you already know – simply to feel good about the things you know. Study subjects outside of your field.

And as extra, don’t try to be an expert.

Don’t think you’re an expert.

We are all newbies. The difference is that some people know enough on a subject to think they know the entire field. The other group of people understands that regardless of what they know, there is much more to learn.

The latter thrive while the former settle for mediocre work without even knowing it.

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  1. There are known knowns. Wikipedia.
  2. The definition for this concept is as follows: The Johari window is a technique designed to help people better understand their relationship with themselves and others. Johari window. Wikipedia.
  3. It’s also commonly called The Awareness Matrix. The idea here is that the more you learn, the more you become aware of what’s actually possible and available in the world.
  4. Yes, indeed. There is a children’s book called All My Friends Are Dead.
  5. Epifani, Mike. The First Dinosaur Fossil Was Named Before We Had A Word For Dinosaurs. Discovery Science.
  6. TEDxNASA – Steve Shapiro – 11/20/09. TEDx Talks, YouTube channel.
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