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The Mind Collection Model: How to Explore the Known Unknowns

What we know is a drop, what we don’t know is an ocean.

Isaac Newton

Navigating the ocean of our ignorance seems like the proverbial Sisyphean task. Sisyphus, the mythological Greek king, managed to cheat death — twice. The gods didn’t appreciate the man’s resourcefulness, though. As punishment, they forced him to roll a giant boulder up a hill. Whenever Sisyphus was almost at the top, the boulder would roll down again, and again, for eternity. When exploring the unknown feels equally endless and futile, a mental navigation device might help.

The Mind Collection Model is my own interpretation of such a mental model. It’s based on a fourfold categorisation of knowing and not knowing: Known knowns, unknown knowns, known unknowns and unknown unknowns. Let’s begin our climb up the hill of knowledge along with metaphorical Owls, Dark Horses, Elephants in the Room and Black Swans.

The Mind Collection Model

Known Unknowns
The Mind Collection Model

You’ve probably heard about the original mental model around the known unknowns. It rose to prominence (and ridicule) through former U.S. defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld in 2002. However, Rumsfeld is far from being its inventor. In one form or another, the mental model has been used in business, psychology and the intelligence community long before Rumsfeld.

All versions of the mental model revolve around a conceptualisation of knowing and not knowing. On its own, the term knowledge extends to knowing about information and facts but also to acquiring skills and personal experiences. Further, it can describe knowledge we possess ourselves, or that of a group, culture or civilisation.

Given that there’s plenty to know and our resources are limited, it seems like a good idea to explore it with a purpose and a plan. Suppose we have an interest in learning Brazilian jiu-jitsu (BJJ), which gives us our goal. What’s left is to figure out what we already know about BJJ and how we get to learn it. That’s where the Mind Collection Model comes in. It starts with the known knowns.

1. Known Knowns

We know that we know.

Known knowns are any information, skill or experience we have acquired and are aware of. It’s explored territory, both physically and metaphorically. We might know that BJJ is a pretty popular ground-fighting martial art. Perhaps we also know how to do a basic armbar submission, another key aspect of the sport. We know that we know because when we act on the knowledge, we get the expected results — such as finding a school that teaches the sport we want to learn.

While known knowns are the Newtonian drop in the ocean of ignorance, wisdom is even rarer. Anciently symbolised by an Owl, we can think of wisdom as the highest form of knowledge. Wisdom is also often associated with good judgement in the face of life‘s contradictions and paradoxes. Or, to go with entrepreneur and philosopher Naval Ravikant’s definition, “wisdom is knowing the long-term consequences of your actions”; having foresight if you will. Is it wise to rock up at the school claiming to know BJJ?

Probably not. Even though it makes sense that known knowns are usually our starting point. Unless we were to be thrown into an entirely new environment, we have a basis of knowledge from which we can act and explore further. Granted, compared to what we don’t know, known knowns are pretty scarce. Regardless, fully comprehending, solidifying and appreciating our existing knowledge gives us solid ground to stand on, no matter how small.

How to Navigate the Known Knowns

  1. Understand the Circle of Competence, a mental model that describes how we can turn our existing knowledge and skills into rocket fuel.
  2. Manage and expand your known knowns by learning the Mind Palace Technique, applying the Feynman learning method and considering the things you should avoid.
  3. For the more spiritually inclined, read about Alan Watts’ wisdom on how to become a master of life.

2. Unknown Knowns

We don’t know that we know.

Unknown knowns are information we already have but are unaware of; even though it’s a bit of a paradoxical term. It’s the territory that’s already been explored. But seeing is unlike observing. We may not recall the knowledge or fail to realise its relevance in a new situation. There may be many basic BJJ moves that we already know. Perhaps from the time when we did Judo as a kid. We just don’t know it yet.

I think of Dark Horses as a special case of unknown knowns. Dark Horses are known players who rise to unexpected prominence. It’s not that they were deliberately avoided. They weren’t even ignored. The person in question was right in front of us but escaped our perception or was wrongly deemed irrelevant. I mean, we could’ve known that the lady in the black belt was our instructor.

Awkward. Sitting somewhere in-between knowledge and awareness, unknown knowns are a constant reminder of how fleeting known knowns can be. They seem to be best uncovered by paying attention to what we pay attention to. On the upside that makes them the low-hanging fruit of knowledge (re)discovery.

How to Navigate the Unknown Knowns

  1. Our minds tend to process a lot more information than we realise. Understand how mental shortcuts work, which can help distinguish the relevant from the irrelevant. Avert failure by leveraging the hidden wisdom of your team with a Premortem Analysis.
  2. On a more introspective note, consider the Stream of Consciousness analogy as a way to make sense of your messy thoughts.
  3. Paying attention is key to spotting the unknown knowns. Apply the OODA Loop as a mental model to make fast decisions in chaotic situations. Or use DODAR to iterate your decision-making during emergencies.

3. Known Unknowns

We know that we don’t know.

The known unknowns are the knowledge we don’t possess and are aware of. They’re the unexplored territory at the frontier between the known and the unknown. They’re arguably the largest source of new information or skills; waiting to be acquired. In our BJJ example, it could be our knowledge about defensive and escape moves we need to learn in order to build a solid foundation. In a best-case scenario, we’re right in our zone of proximal development, consciously facing challenges that are neither too easy nor too hard.

Elephant in the Room

I’d like to think of the proverbial Elephant in the Room as an extreme case of known unknowns; an unpleasant challenge, question or risk that is wilfully ignored or avoided: Should we wear a groin guard when doing BJJ? As Swiss psychologist Carl Jung pointed out, “that which we need the most will be found where we least want to look”. In other words, owls tend to hide behind elephants. To progress in BJJ, we have to learn how to do those take-downs we’ve been avoiding.

The more we go down the rabbit hole of any knowledge discovery, the more we realise how little we actually know about something. It would be unrealistic if we expected to explore all the vast territory at once. Instead, we gradually expand our known knowns as the frontier moves further and further. Prioritisation, patience and consistency are crucial to handling the ever-expanding depth of known unknowns. This way we’re not stumbling blindly through the dark and have our work cut out for us.

How to Navigate the Known Unknowns

  1. Use mental models such as the Intelligence Cycle or the Four Stages of Competence to systematically explore a new issue and transform known unknowns into known knowns.
  2. Consider the Steelmanning method to radically change your perspective and explore the known unknowns of someone you disagree with.
  3. Apply the Tenth Man Rule, a form of institutionalised devil’s advocacy, to preempt willful blindness in the face of uncomfortable truths.

4. Unknown Unknowns

We don’t know that we don’t know.

Unknown unknowns are the information we don’t even know exists. It’s the knowledge that lurks deep in unexplored territory. We may speculate about its existence, but we have no way of finding it — yet. Initially, we may have thought BJJ was a mere game of rolling and grappling on the floor using nothing but brute force. We had no idea of the strategy, skill and training that goes into mastering the discipline.

Black Swans are extreme examples of such unknown unknowns. These are very rare events initially deemed impossible or never even considered. When a true Black Swan occurs, the consequences are usually severe in that they change the world as we know it. 9/11 and the 2008 financial crisis are typical examples. Once Black Swans turn into known knowns, people tend to develop severe cases of hindsight bias. Because what’s often left is a sudden realisation of how long the path to knowing what we’re doing is. Looking back, it was pretty obvious that BJJ is far from being a simple sport.

By its very definition, we cannot know the unknowable. What we can do, though, is make their discovery more likely by diligently navigating the previous quadrants of knowledge so as to turn previously unknown unknowns into known unknowns before they impact us. There’s wisdom in being aware of those potential unknown unknowns, which brings the Mind Collection Model full circle.

How to Navigate the Unknown Unknowns

  1. Make yourself aware of potential intuitive traps and biases such as motivated reasoning that can give us a false sense of knowledge.
  2. Use analytical techniques such as Deception Detection to avoid both, being fooled and turning paranoid in the face of unknown unknowns.
  3. Understand the nature of Black Swan events and to what extent they can be predicted or averted.

Closing Thoughts

We work in classrooms to lose our ignorance or become as aware as possible of what’s left.

Heather Heying

It’s tempting to wish for knowledge discovery not to be such a Sisyphean task. However, the curse of knowledge is the other side of the same coin. Once we’ve been doing BJJ for a few years, it can be hard to remember what it was like not knowing anything about it. Meaning, the more we know the more we tend to become unconsciously competent at something. This makes it hard to explain or teach to others and opens up a whole new field of known unknowns. Just when we thought we knew everything.

We might say that true wisdom lies in having a realistic understanding of the known knowns, unknown knowns, known unknowns and unknown unknowns. All we have to do is step back and extrapolate from our example to any areas of expertise. The way we navigate them without getting lost in the ocean of ignorance doesn’t change. But since we know what the map looks like, we can at least have some peace of mind.