We don’t know what we don’t know

We used to have a small fish tank in the kitchen for our children. Sometimes I’d come down in the morning and find a fish flopping around, dying on the kitchen floor. Because we didn’t have a lid on the tank, they thought they’d jump out and escape.

It didn’t occur to the fish that there was no water outside the tank. In fact it didn’t even occur to the fish that there was water inside the tank.

The concept of ‘water’ just didn’t occur at all, until lack of it came as a nasty surprise. Because, inside the tank, the whole world was water. They didn’t know what water was, because you couldn’t show them a drop of water as a separate thing, So, for them, water didn’t even exist.

They’d grown up in it, they’d always lived in it, they’d never known a world any other way. So they simply never even questioned it. This is “what you don’t know you don’t know”.

It breaks down like this: there’s stuff you know that you know. (eg: how to read.) And there’s stuff you know that you don’t know. (eg: whether there’s life in outer space.)

But there’s an infinite amount of stuff you don’t know that you don’t know. Until you find out that you don’t know it. The way the fish found out.

As the Chinese sage Lao Tzu said, “The wise man knows he doesn’t know. The fool doesn’t know he doesn’t know.”

That happens to all of us. We grow up with some things so deeply ingrained we don’t even know they’re there.

That’s how it was for me, going to New York. I’d never been outside London until I went to New York. So London was my fish tank.

I had nothing else to compare it with. When I got to New York a surprising thing happened. Something was so unfamiliar I couldn’t work it out at first.

Very gradually it dawned on me. People were listening to what I was saying, evaluating it on its merits, and responding.

The fact was, I realised no one had ever listened to what I was saying before. I had grown up with people listening to each other’s accents.

Then judging the worth of what they had to say on their accents rather than what they were saying. The accent created a stereotype even before they’d finished speaking.

I hadn’t even realised that. It was so ingrained into me, just like water to the fish.

Being in New York was the first time anyone had listened to what I said instead of just the accent I said it in.

This was like taking me out of the fish tank and showing it to me from the outside. When I came back to London I had what I’d never had before. A choice.

Because I now knew the water existed. This is how we are with our environment.

We don’t notice it. So we can’t appreciate it. So it isn’t exciting. That’s why we like to go abroad so much.

That’s why we come back refreshed and excited, and full of all the new things we’ve seen.

Bill Brandt was a great photographer, he took some of the most iconic, atmospheric pictures of London. He said, “The secret is to always to look at your country as if you’re a foreigner, seeing it for the first time.”

This is a big part of approaching anything truly originally. Remember to stay a foreigner.

Remember to look at it as if we’re seeing it for the first time. Stay inquisitive, stay innocent, stay fresh, stay open.

If we try to learn too much all we learn is what won’t work, what hasn’t worked, what we shouldn’t even try.
We get bored, we get stale, we get dull.

And it’s like we never left the fishtank.

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    I drive past Warwick castle every day, twice – it’s an amazing building, even if you’re not in to castles – a couple of times a week I genuinely notice it. Stunning. Eyes wide open.
    I love to watch my kids in the car, staring out of the windows, taking everything in and asking questions about all of it – eyes wide open – like perrenial toursits – mind wide open like genuine thinkers. Brilliant.
    Reading the above reminds me that they have the best view, even if they can’t see all of it or Dad’s driving too quick to take it in properly.

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    Hi Dave,

    Travel is brilliant. I had to go somewhere for an interview recently and decided to transfer via Prague. Why? Because I’d never been there. As we landed I was hit by the golden yellow blobs on the runway verges. It had all been farmed and rolled into bales of hay. You’d never see that in England.

    On several occasions I drove across the Arabian peninsula. The mood of the people, their culture, what they wear and how they wear even a black garment changed. Even the colour of the sand, the desert, the stones, all changed from east to west, and the clarity of the water. The Persian Gulf is far saltier and shallower than the Red Sea, which at its deepest point is 6 miles deep, and in some places 16 miles out at sea, you can see 150 feet down to the seabed into the water full of coral towers of unimaginable beauty. Incredible.

    We live in a fantastic world and we just dont appreciate it. I love to look up when I’m in London. There is so much architecture to look at, but everyone is so self-absorbed, all they seem to do is look down at the paving slabs of their own goldfishbowl lives. People should use their eyes more. London is a great city. I once visited it with some French Visitors. It was so weird. Experiencing London as they did. Jean-Pierre said to me: “watch this. I will deliberately walk into someone, and HE will say SORRY to ME!”
    He did, and they did! It was so funny, especially when he replied “SOWWY.”

    The French have a real difficulty pronouncing the word ” CRISPS”.

    They say “KWIPSPSPS”.

  • Don’t you mean …

    “There are known knowns. These are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns. That is to say, there are things that we know we don’t know. But there are also unknown unknowns. There are things we don’t know we don’t know.”



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    Thanks, I so much enjoy starting my day reading your blog Dave. Keep ‘em coming. Arguing from symmetry, though, it would seem there is an option you haven’t considered:

    1. Knowing what you know
    2. Knowing what you don’t know
    3. Not-knowing what you don’t know


    4. Not-knowing what you know

    And in the scale of things I think #4 is probably the most common (followed by #2, and then #1.) I would agree with you that #3 is by far the most rare. 😉

    If not-knowing what you don’t know (something you might possibly never know, or might know at your peril) is akin to the air your poor fish had leaped into; not-knowing what you know (there is an element of hope to this I like) would refer, then, to the Obvious to which one is somehow Blind, and would be more akin to the water the fish has always taken for granted.

    And then there is the amphibian!

    The ambitious amphibian leaps from the water and lands on the kitchen floor and…to his wonder is breathing! I tend toward the opinion that the human mind has facilities and untapped potentials and out-of-the-box talents which make simple knowing a thing of shadows. And that these other-than-knowing facilities have practical application in our day-to-day business lives which can be called into play when simple knowledge is not up to the task. Just to name it, let’s call one of these air-breathing facilities Intuition? From whence creativity…


  • I know I can fly. I know what it feels like to fly. I do it regularly in my dreams. I can feel it right now as I write. A kind of reversed polarity that comes from inside me lifts me up. I tilt to move forward. I bank to turn. The recall is as vivid as riding my bike or driving a car. I also know I can also breathe underwater. I do that in dreams too. It is so real to me that I know it. I really do. What I don’t know yet is, how can I do it while I’m awake. What is interesting is that everytime I fly in a dream, it feels like my first time. Even though I say to myself, “Go on, you can fly. You’ve done it before”. It’s like I don’t want it become familiar. So I become a willing foreigner to my own experience.

    Life. The beautiful risk.

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    Bob – your “willing foreigner” post just above is beautiful. Thank you. Made my Saturday morning. But I must fly off now and get some errands done.