Tag Archives: philosophy

Rumsfeld’s Known Unknowns

Rumsfeld’s Known Unknowns is a concept made popular by former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld.

It is part of a broader theory about the influence knowledge has on strategic thinking.

It first came to the public’s attention when Donald Rumsfeld used it during a Department of Defense news briefing on February 12, 2002, to answer a reporter’s question about the administration’s failure to uncover weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.

Here is the answer how it was given by Donald Rumsfeld himself:

There are known knowns. There are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns. That is to say, we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns, the ones we don’t know we don’t know.

Years later, in Errol Morris’ documentary The Unknown Known, and on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, Rumsfeld went on to explain that the third category, the unknown unknowns…

…are the ones that get you.

For the sake of simplicity, I am renaming what Wikipedia calls “There are known knowns” into Rumsfeld’s Known Unknowns Theory.

The aim of this article is to expand the theory and to present a different conclusion.

Let’s first revisit the elements of Rumsfeld’s Known Unknowns theory.

The elements are as follows:

Known Knowns

Known knowns are things we know that we know.

A person familiar with basic arithmetic knows that 2 + 2 equals 4.

The second element is:

Known Unknowns

Known unknowns are things we know that we do not know.

When asked for the square root of infinity, a person can reasonably assume this is something they don’t know.

The third element is:

Unknown Unknowns

Unknown unknowns are things we don’t know that we don’t know.

This third category is where things get tricky.

Unknown unknowns can only be categorized as such for as long as the person is unaware what it is he or she is supposed to know but does not know. The moment the what is revealed to the person, it would inevitably fall under one of the two categories above.

This category is better described simply as Unknowns.

Unknowns are relevant only if they impact the outcome of a decision adversely. Taking our first example, if someone hands you a piece of paper with 2 + 2 written on it and asks you for the answer you would answer 4. But what if they tell you your answer is incorrect and that they forgot to hand you the rest of the piece of paper which completes the operation to read 2 + 2 x 3 = ?

You did not know x 3 was part of the problem. You gave the wrong answer only because you were asked the wrong question.

But what if you were asked the right question and still gave the wrong answer? More on that later.

Strictly from a logic stand point, this category does not reflect adversely on the person giving the answer.

This is where I find it necessary to expand the theory unto a fourth and most critical category.

The fourth new category is:

Unknown Knowns

Unknown knowns are those things we think we know but we actually don’t know.

This is the most dangerous category!

The information is still unknown but the person thinks he or she knows it.

This one is a bit harder to handle because the responsibility for an erroneous outcome falls on the person who made the decision.

When you are certain 2 + 2 is 5 and base your calculations on that you will get an erroneous outcome.

Conclusion

In strategic thinking:

Known Knowns yield correct outcomes.

Known Unknowns should not yield any outcome.

Unknown Unknowns cannot yield any outcome.

Unknown Knowns always yield incorrect outcome.

In Appreciation of Simplicity

“You have to be confident to dare to be simple” was the first line that got my attention in this very well-thought-out video from The School of Life.

The first example they use to support the claim is the pressure one may feel in a fancy restaurant to order something out of the ordinary or well… fancy. It has happened to me and probably to most of you out there. All you want is a greasy burger but the occasion calls for something “sophisticated”.

Why is that we may ask?

Being simple can make you vulnerable.

This is true for most of the choices we make, from our wardrobe to our favorite movies and books. We often choose what is popular or acceptable or “sophisticated” in favor of what we genuinely like.

But simplicity is really an achievement.

It certainly is. Simplicity stems in part from a state of “not having to impress others“.

This is especially important when a creative individual creates something not to impress but rather to facilitate evolution or further creation.

It follows from a hard-won clarity about what matters.

The art lies in concealing the art.

Dieter Rams, the subject of the video, chose to design products that improved people’s lives rather then design spectacular things to promote his own glory.

Such modesty stems from a lack on anxiety about being ignored.

We have almost a primordiale instinct to distinguish ourselves from others. In the animal kingdom, when it comes to procreation, standing out is often equated with survival. This isn’t always true in the world of design and function.

We complicate things because we want them to appear “interesting” and…

We don’t readily tell other people that we are a bit stupid.

We often conceal our confusion even to ourselves by complicating what is not complicated. The answer however lies in understanding our own confusion and designing things so they are simple and intuitive.

All the intensity, focus, high standards and the pursuit of integrity that is found in art can be brought into the realm of everyday design. And this is where it stands more of a chance of effecting people.

Here is the video:

Quotes From Zen in the Art of Archery

Selected quotes from Zen in the Art of Archery by Eugen Herrigel.

The story goes something like this: Eugen Herrigel, a German teaching and living in Japan, set out to understand the meaning of Zen. Realizing it cannot be studied but only experienced, he decided to learn about it through the practice of one of the arts “touched” by Zen, Kyudo (Japanese archery). Out of his experiences came the book Zen in the Art of Archery.

This was one of the first book I read on the subject. Given the choices made by Herrigel later in life, it is unclear what he took away from these experiences.

As I understand it, talking about Zen has a tendency to confuse things. What makes this a worthwhile read is not the author’s interpretation of what Zen actually is (or is not) but rather the fact that it is one of the earliest books to expose the Western public to Zen. It spawned a century of speculation and countless books on the subject.

Continue reading Quotes From Zen in the Art of Archery

Nietzsche’s Super-Human Explained

After reading Friedrich Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra years ago,  I felt that Nietzsche had been greatly misunderstood by some . In a few cases, the concept of the Übermensch or Super-human (Overhuman, Superman etc.) has been misappropriated to justify wickedness.

Recently I stumbled upon a video that provides a very simple interpretation of this idea.

Continue reading Nietzsche’s Super-Human Explained

The Zen ‘everyday mind’

The Zen ‘everyday mind’ described as ‘sleeping when tired, eating when hungry’, or, in other words, knowing what one’s real needs are. Like a bamboo leaf, it bends lower and lower under the weight of the snow. Suddenly the snow slips to the ground without the leaf having stirred. The distinction between action and result disappears. The hands and feet are the brushes and the whole universe is the canvas on which the Zen mind depicts his life. The constant present moment.

(Extrapolated and rearranged from the works of Eugen Herrigel, Michael J. Gelb and Ryōkan Taigu.)

Purchase the book Zen in the Art of Archery by clicking here.

Purchase the book Body Learning by clicking here.

The Great Society

In May of 1964, President Johnson delivered a speech to the University of Michigan graduating class. I came across it while watching the PBS series American Experience.

Undoubtedly the Vietnam War casts a long shadow over President Johnson’s tenure in the White House. Political opinions aside, he cannot be faulted for lacking vision.

Hearing the speech, I was reminded that pragmatism can sometime give way to the idealist that dwells within.

I will share some excerpts with you.

The Great Society rests on abundance and liberty for all. It demands an end to poverty and racial injustice, to which we are totally committed in our time. But that is just the beginning.

The Great Society is a place where every child can find knowledge to enrich his mind and to enlarge his talents. It is a place where leisure is a welcome chance to build and reflect, not a feared cause of boredom and restlessness. It is a place where the city of man serves not only the needs of the body and the demands of commerce but the desire for beauty and the hunger for community.

It is a place where man can renew contact with nature. It is a place which honors creation for its own sake and for what it adds to the understanding of the race. It is a place where men are more concerned with the quality of their goals than the quantity of their goods.

But most of all, the Great Society is not a safe harbor, a resting place, a final objective, a finished work. It is a challenge constantly renewed, beckoning us toward a destiny where the meaning of our lives matches the marvelous products of our labor.

…expansion is eroding the precious and time honored values of community with neighbors and communion with nature. The loss of these values breeds loneliness and boredom and indifference.

…once man can no longer walk with beauty or wonder at nature his spirit will wither and his sustenance be wasted.

Our society will not be great until every young mind is set free to scan the farthest reaches of thought and imagination.

…we must give every child a place to sit and a teacher to learn from. Poverty must not be a bar to learning, and learning must offer an escape from poverty.

We must seek an educational system which grows in excellence as it grows in size. And this means better training for our teachers. It means preparing youth to enjoy their hours of leisure, as well as their hours of labor. It means exploring new techniques of teaching, to find new ways to stimulate the love of learning and the capacity for creation.

You have the chance never before afforded to any people in any age. You can help build a society where the demands of morality, and the needs of the spirit, can be realized in the life of the Nation.

…our material progress is only the foundation on which we will build a richer life of mind and spirit…

We have the power to shape the civilization that we want.

So let us from this moment begin our work so that in the future men will look back and say, “It was then, after a long and weary way, that man turned the exploits of his genius to the full enrichment of his life.”

It is as true today as it was when it was first spoken in 1964. Reading The Great Society speech, afforded me a chance to reflect on the current state of affairs. I hope it creates a similar effect on other readers.

What I Believe in by E. M. Forster

I believe in aristocracy, though — if that is the right word, and if a democrat may use it. Not an aristocracy of power, based upon rank and influence, but an aristocracy of the sensitive, the considerate and the plucky. Its members are to be found in all nations and classes, and all through the ages, and there is a secret understanding between them when they meet. They represent the true human tradition, the one permanent victory of our queer race over cruelty and chaos. Thousands of them perish in obscurity, a few are great names. They are sensitive for others as well as themselves, they are considerate without being fussy, their pluck is not swankiness but power to endure, and they can take a joke.

by E. M. Forster

I often read this quote to friends. Somehow it captures an important quality in all people of goodwill. It seemed only appropriate I would share it right here.