What You Don’t Know You Don’t Know

Quick: think of 3 things that you know. Here’s mine, off the top of my head: I know that my name is Deborah. I know that 2+2=4. I know how to drive a car.

Now think of 3 things that you don’t know. Again, off the top of my head: I don’t know how to speak Russian. I don’t know how to fly a helicopter. And I don’t know the capital of Cambodia.

The two exercises above help us to think about all the knowledge in the universe in two big categories. There are all the things that you know and the things that you don’t know. Pretty simple, right?

But what if I were to tell you that there’s a third category? Let’s call it what you don’t know that you don’t know. The image below puts all three together.



Imagine that the pie chart represents everything that could possibly be known. This includes the kinds of things you can look up on Wikipedia, but it also includes everything about the world that hasn’t been discovered yet, and every thought and memory of every person who has ever lived. Everything.

Notice that the two categories that we began with represent a small fraction of the whole. The majority of what can be known falls into the third category – what you don’t know you don’t know.

Let me tell you why this is so important.

A couple weeks ago, Joel’s daughter Grace was getting ready for the Homecoming dance. She and her friends were planning to take pictures at the house before heading to the dance, and I felt conflicted. Part of me really wanted to be there and share that moment with her. Ever since Joel and I started dating last fall, I’ve been looking for ways to get to know Grace better and have wanted to be there for the important moments. But there was something else in me that resisted. I couldn’t articulate it. I wasn’t even really aware that there was “something” to articulate. It was more a vague sense that I should wait and not get to the house until the kids had left for the dance.

That night before I went to bed, I took a moment to reflect on my day and I had a realization. It hit me in an instant, the way insights often do when we make space for them. I’m a source of shame for Grace. That was the thought. Followed by, I’m an embarrassment to her around her friends. To be clear, the realization wasn’t those thoughts themselves. What I realized in that moment was that I had been living as if those thoughts were true. The hesitation I’d felt when I thought about being at the house for the Homecoming photos flowed from a subconscious belief that doing so would cause Grace shame and embarrassment.

Here’s the point: I didn’t know that I believed those things. More to the point: I didn’t know that I didn’t know that I believed those things. Why is the second proposition so much more destructive? Because if I know that I don’t know something, that’s a piece of awareness that helps me to make wise decisions. Since I know that I don’t know how to fly a helicopter, I’m not going to try to fly a helicopter. But if I don’t know that I don’t know something, I’m being driven by forces completely outside of my awareness. Think about someone who drinks too much and gets behind the wheel – not only are they not fit to drive, but they don’t know it and that’s what makes them so dangerous.

Back to me and Grace – before the moment of awareness, I was behaving in unhealthy ways. By not showing up at the house, I was giving credence to the idea that it’s not ok for me to be present in those moments. It was a place of “stuckness” that couldn’t be overcome until the belief that was driving me (i.e. that I am a source of shame) moved from “what I didn’t know I didn’t know” to awareness. Now that it has, the situation has become an opportunity for growth. I can explore where the belief comes from and I can thoughtfully decide who I want to be in this relationship – a calm, consistent, loving presence.

All of us have innumerable areas like this in our lives. At this very moment, there are things that you (and I) don’t know that we don’t know. These things will keep us stuck until we can see them. Check out part 2 of this series, where I address the question: How do we learn to uncover what we don’t know we don’t know?

For Reflection:

  1. When you think about the idea that there are things “you don’t know you don’t know,” what gets stirred up in you? Fear? Hope? Anxiety?
  2. Have you ever found yourself acting a certain way (e.g. getting frustrated with someone or avoiding certain types of situations) without realizing why? Take a moment to wonder about that behavior. Can you see anything under the surface that’s driving you?