Imagine a young girl who lost her parents while going on a walk. The sun has gone down. It is dark, and she does not know where her parents are. What should you do?
Life can feel like this sometimes...lost and blind. The world is so complicated. Not knowing can make us feel small and insecure.
We all feel that way sometimes, but there is a mental model that can help. I call it, "Know what I know".
Know what I know
It starts with categorizing what I know into four categories.
I don’t know.
I did not know!
I thought I knew!
Let's take each in turn...
1. I know.
The first category is everyone's favorite. We love to know things! Knowing things feels so good that humans often make the mistake of thinking they know more than they do...and knowing things that just ain't so. This can get us into trouble.
The lost girl can see the stars. She can feel the ground. She can hold out her hands so she doesn't bump into anything. She also knows that she has two loving parents and caring neighbors out there with flashlights looking for her.
2. I don't know.
There are also things we don't know. When we know we don't know it's not a big deal. Accepting that we don't know can help us to learn and ask the right questions. Knowing we don't know helps us avoid making big mistakes by knowing the limits of our understanding.
The lost girl does not know which direction her home is or where she is. She doesn't know how long it will be before the morning comes. It could be hours before you can see properly.
3. I did not know.
Then there are things that we find out about the hard way. When we are surprised by bad things then we are often caught flat footed...shocked by a recognition that the set of things we did not know about is perhaps much bigger. It is not so bad when we know what we don't know. But it can get ugly when we don't know what we don't know.
The lost girl might not know that there are dangerous animals in the woods nearby. She may not even think to consider the possibility. What would happen if she ventured into the woods hoping that her house lies on the other side! It is much better for her if she is aware of the possibility...even if she recognizes that she does not know. We are better off when we recognize that which we do not know then when we are caught by surprise.
4. I thought I knew.
Finally there is the unfortunate recognition that what we thought we knew turned out to be wrong. As Mark Twain put it...
"It ain't what you don't know that gets you into trouble. It's what you know for sure that just ain't so".
When we recognize what we don't know (#2) then we can ask better questions. When we fail to consider what we don't know (#3) we can be unpleasantly surprised. But when we charge ahead thinking we know something that turns out to be wrong (#4) .... well ... that can often be a recipe for disaster.
The lost girl may not know where her house is, but might trick herself into believing that she does. Everyone does this sometimes. Not knowing is uncomfortable. Pretending we know can feel good in the moment...even if it leads to big mistakes. If the girl wanders off in the wrong direction she might fall down a cliff, wander into the dangerous woods, and almost certainly make it harder for her parents to find her in the dark.
First lessons of a Peaceful Warrior
We all crave the comfort of knowing...the feeling of certainty...the safety of security. These desires are the fundamental force behind ignorance, because ignorance is bliss we are shocked into reality by that which we failed to see.
There is a scene in the movie "Peaceful Warrior" in which Dan Millman is talking to Socrates (Soc) after realizing that he did not know what to do with his life. Soc explains that that's the first realization of a warrior..."not knowing".
We crave the safety of security, but the only way we can find peace is through acceptance of not knowing.
Only then can we focus on our circle of influence and expand the range of what we know. Once we accept that we are ignorant we can be driven to ask the right questions and consider unknown possibilities.
Thank you for your interest.