What You DON’T Know May Be More Important Than What You DO Know

What’s your favorite fruit? Now, you might THINK your favorite fruit is an apple, but if you’ve never tasted a guava… how do you know your favorite fruit isn’t a guava? And while our personal knowledge of fruit may not be crucial to business success, it does illustrate the fact that you don’t know what you don’t know. And that can inhibit us from achieving our best.

For example, until recently, working from home was generally considered a poor idea except under special circumstances. In recent months, however, the paradigm has shifted entirely. Zoom, commute time, safety, and other changes have made it a viable alternative. I know one company that has thousands of employees working from home and it has experienced less attrition and greater productivity. In general, companies are now studying and developing ways to determine the best combination of home and office work. No one realized it was such a feasible and, in some cases, more practical and efficient solution until a pandemic forced us into the decision. We didn’t know what we didn’t know.

Our goals, expectations, and processes also have dramatic impacts on success. Short-term versus long-term plans, uncertainty, risk, probability, and creativity all affect our decision-making process. For instance, the certainty required for life and death safety decisions is far different than the certainty necessary for out-of-the box thinking.

Much of the discussion surrounding measurement and data consists of things like accuracy, relevance, belief, and information. However, I argue that many of the issues really revolve around our understanding (or lack thereof) and our reluctance to admit we don’t know things.

A typical example is correlation or relationships among variables—like the impact of cause and effect. We all know that rainy weather correlates with less beach attendance or that basketball participation correlates with height. However, when you examine further, cause and effect gets complicated. In particular, random relationships and true cause and effect can vary. One study conducted several years ago, argued that shorter skirts correlated with a higher stock market, but did absolutely nothing further to explain. Using data that doesn’t have clear, grounded support is detrimental for obvious reasons.

A lot of complex research exists regarding how sampling, data gathering, and analysis can bias results mathematically. However, human bias is probably much more of an issue than the mathematics we may not understand. For example, we tend to seek information that supports our favored hypothesis while avoiding knowledge that would contradict it. We gravitate toward data that supports our goals rather than ideas that are contradictory. Even if we somehow collect completely unbiased information, we still tend to focus on the data that supports our favored view.

Many arguments, including my own, forget to consider whether the audience understands what is being discussed (and, often, if they don’t, they may feel too intimated to ask for clarification). Some common areas that should not be ignored simply because you don’t fully understand them are:

  • Accounting
  • Statistical terms
  • Probability, risk, and uncertainty.
  • Algorithms, rules, and guidelines.

So how do we attempt to do better, to understand more, and learn to use what we don’t know?

  • On one hand, we do need some knowledge of the basics of what we don’t know. Some elementary understanding of income statements and a balance sheet can be extremely useful in evaluating and forecasting a business.
  • You can utilize experts and get some basic info without getting caught up in details. In particular, FOCUS on the things that count rather than every single aspect of an analysis.
  • Keep it simple. Prioritizing, focusing on solutions rather than problems, and remembering that people may have short attention spans can all help with simplification.

Additionally, we need to relax more. The pace of change, uncertainty, technology, and other factors are simply causing increased stress. In reality: we are pretty good at finding solutions, things frequently aren’t as bad as they seem, and some problems are less relevant than our stress-level.

Lastly, we all need to remember to seek new perspectives (try reading new material, visiting a museum, or exploring different cultures). This is one of the best ways to learn more and discover some of those things we don’t know.

In our quest to learn more and explore the unknown, we must still be cautious. Everything changes constantly and we should acknowledge that there are times when we just need to go with our gut. Although innovation and instinct usually involve more risk, they also have the potential for more rewards. People like Gates, Zuckerberg, Jobs, and Bezos all relied on intuition and confidence for their successes. There’s neither a single route nor a “right way” to figure out what you don’t know, but in the pursuit to learn more we must constantly strive for a more comprehensive mindset which will equip us for greater success.

Related: Excellence: An Unfortunate Casualty to Other Priorities