There Are Varieties of Unknown

“Fear the unknown” is not very good advice.

The unknown is just that, unknown.  Could be good, could be bad, could be boring.  You need to know how to make it become part of the known and how to retain the knowledge.  That will require an open mind, curiosity and some effort.

As with most exploration, there is a protocol.  One good one recognizes that information and your awareness of it falls into one of four categories.  Each has techniques for coping.

  1. The Known Known.  Things you know that you know you know.  Could be facts or details (like your wife’s birthday, the price you will pay for gold or the combination to the door at the office) or skills (all of that technical material, facts, formulae and methods) or people connections, or just useless information that you have not gotten around to forgetting yet (the backup shortstop for the 1957 Boston Red Sox.)  It will pay you to have a fairly clear idea of what fits here, because if you do not work at it, the material will fall into another category.
  2. The Unknown Known.   All the things you know but don’t know you know or have forgotten you know or that you can recall only after a trigger is pushed.  Like a joke.  If someone asks me to tell 20 jokes, I probably could not.  If we talk for a while, I can probably find 100 or more.  A lot of what we know we only know contextually.  If the context is not there, the knowledge is unavailable.
  3. The Know Unknown.  The things you don’t know and you know you don’t know them.  Many of these are things you don’t know because you don’t need to know.  Like how fuel-injection works.  There can be gradation here.  If you run a business, knowing at least something about marketing, finance, engineering, personnel management and the law will be useful.  Probably, managers know enough to recognize problems, opportunities and traps.  In most cases people can buy the required knowledge.  Just be sure you know enough to recognize when it is time to look for help.
  4. The unknown unknown.  This is why you need to stay curious and build a circle of friends and acquaintances with diverse knowledge, skills, and experience.  I learn interesting things from business owners and professionals, but I learn really interesting things from authors, artists, geologists, athletes and old people.  Stay awake.  Everyone knows something you don’t and given the opportunity, they will happily tell you.

For people in transition, like succession planning or estate planning, the unknown known area is the most productive to attack.  If you do not work hard at it, your intuitive knowledge and much of your business network will be lost and you cannot be sure that the loss will be unimportant.

I had a client write down who he knew, why he knew them, their contact information and how they connected to others.  For a year he added to it as he talked to someone or remembered a connection.  By the time he retired there were thousands of names.  His son claimed that he knew of barely half of them.  Same thing with customer or supplier foibles, or how the motor on machine 3 tends to overheat, or why we shut down in July because the heat affects our product, or which service technicians will do the best work or ………

Known and unknown unknowns are for the successors.  Parents need to make sure the Unknown knowns come to the surface and then store and communicate them.


Don Shaughnessy is a retired partner in an international public accounting firm and is presently with The Protectors Group, a large personal insurance, employee benefits and investment agency in Peterborough Ontario. Contact: