How to Navigate Your Own Ignorance

Real knowledge — according to the great Chinese philosopher, Confucius — is knowing the extent of your own ignorance. The more aware and accepting you are of that which you don’t know, the wiser you become.

Expanding upon this school of thought, our friends at Activ8, an organization focused on creating resilient and thriving teams, enlightened us to the three main territories within which knowledge can be separated:

  1. That which you know you know
  2. That which you know you don’t know
  3. That which you don’t know you don’t know

We all know a lot of different things, and many of us can recognize some of the things we don’t know, but have you ever thought about everything you don’t even know you don’t know? Many of us haven’t, which makes us ignorant of our own ignorance. Don’t let that get you down — it isn’t possible to know everything! Nor is it possible to know everything you don’t know. What is possible, however, is to become aware. And as Confucius says, that is real knowledge.

Here is a closer look at each of the three territories knowledge, according to Activ8, can fall into:

That which you know you know

Everything we know to be true falls into this category of knowledge. For example, we know 2+2=4 and we know red, blue, and yellow are primary colors. This information is indisputable and therefore, to us, it is known. This is, unfortunately, the smallest part of the knowledge pie.

That which you know you don’t know

We know we don’t know quantum physics, how to fly an airplane, or how to speak Cantonese. These are known unknowns — all of the things we recognize we don’t know. This territory tends to be marginally bigger than the known slice of the pie.

That which you don’t know you don’t know

This so-called knowledge territory consists of everything we don’t even know we don’t know. We would provide examples here, but we can’t because we are ignorant of them. This territory is the unknown unknown, and it is big. There is an unquantifiable amount of unknown unknowns, but the more aware of it you are, the more real knowledge, according to Confucius, you possess. To be clear, it is impossible to be aware of what you don’t know you don’t know. The awareness we refer to here is simply its existence, part of which is understanding just how vast it is. This pie graph gives you an idea:

Because the unknown unknown is an inevitability, a truth of life, it’s important to know how to navigate it. Here are some things we do personally to navigate this territory of knowledge, or that which we don’t know:

SIX ways to navigate your own ignorance
  1. Become aware of your ignorance. If you’ve read this far, you’re on your way down this path. Simply understanding just how much there is to be known relative to what you actually know is a form of knowledge itself.
  2. Embrace the discomfort. Navigating ambiguity, according to the Stanford, “involves recognizing and stewing in the discomfort of not knowing, leveraging and embracing parallel possibilities, and resolving or emerging from ambiguity as needed.” The discomfort associated with the unknown is actually not a bad thing; it means you’re in a place in which you can learn, and learning is a lifeboat when in unknown terrain.
  3. Find stillness. In his brand new, wonderful book, Stillness is the Keybestselling author Ryan Holiday says finding moments of stillness is the key to basically everything. Even masters and geniuses, he says, will experience a period of inadequacy when attempting to learn new skills or explore new domains. Finding time for stillness helps everyone clear their mind and make sound decisions.
  4. Expand your network. Chances are you can think of several things you know we don’t know. If we were to spend time together, you could impart that knowledge upon us, and then we would expand our knowledge base. Bringing diverse people into your life’s pursuits greatly expands the known section of the knowledge territories pictured above. And as the known territory increases, the unknown unknown must make room for it by decreasing in size.
  5. Be generous with your knowledge. Sharing what you know with others also deepens your own knowledge reservoir. According to many studies, teaching is one of the best ways to learn.
  6. Be an Exploratory LeaderThink of uncertainty as possibility, not fear. Strive to put yourself into learning situations. Explore that which you don’t know, be open to changing your mind.
It’s your turn

In Stillness is the Key, Holiday says of seeking wisdom: “Remember, Socrates looked honestly at what he didn’t know. That’s hard. It’s painful to have our illusions punctured. It’s humbling to learn that we are not as smart as we thought we were.”

Even great thinkers like Socrates admitted ignorance. What set him apart from others of his time is that he was aware of what he lacked, and he sought more wisdom because of it. The only way around the unknown is through it. To borrow a phrase from one of our favorite Exploratory Leaders, Seth Godin, it’s your turn. It’s your turn to recognize there is a universe of knowledge you aren’t aware of. Only once you understand this can you begin to navigate your own unknowns.

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