What You Don’t Know

Dave Kinnear1-On Leadership

What we know

Old Saying:

A saying I grew up with was, “What you don’t know can’t hurt you.” I wasn’t far into a college education when I figured out that that was a lousy saying. I knew what it meant—if you didn’t know about a tragedy or pending trauma, then you can’t worry about it. However, these days, some folks appear to take that saying literally. They stay willfully ignorant.


We can only know a vanishingly small portion of all that there is to know about ourselves and our universe. The image to the left is an attempt to depict what I’m suggesting. We continue to add to our knowledge every day. We continue to correct the things we

thought we knew when discoveries show we didn’t know it after all.

Known Unknowns

And it seems that the more we learn, the more we realize we have so much more to learn. We know, for example, that we really can’t explain gravity. We don’t know if there is or isn’t black matter in the universe. And if there is black matter, what is it?

In my personal life, I know I do not know how to fly an airplane (the fabulous Microsoft Flight Simulator notwithstanding). I know I do not know how to play the piano even though I understand how a piano works.

Unknown Unknown

And then there is the vast amount of information, knowledge, and understanding that I can’t possibly measure. How immense is the amount of knowledge about and in the universe? It’s fun to think about, and it is humbling. There is so much to learn.

Ignorance Does Hurt

Not so long ago, we didn’t’ understand bacteria and infections, so women died in childbirth due to doctors’ dirty hands. Children were (and still are) damaged by lead and other heavy metals in water and food. Confusing correlation with causation often creates harmful conclusions and, therefore, incorrect action.

We are learning about the effects of low or zero gravity on the human body. We may not know about undiscovered radiation or other effects from being in space for an extended period, and some humans may be adversely affected. I am sure those agreeing to be in space for an extended time understand they are taking risks with the unknown so that we can all add more to that which is known. And it is highly likely will also add to the things we know we don’t know.


As leaders, we are responsible for determining when we have minimized the unknown risk as much as possible before moving forward with a project. Rarely can we wait until all the data is in place before taking action. Yet, sometimes, we will need to slow a project down to ensure we have enough reliable, independent data indicating that we are doing the right thing.

Knowing when to accept the level of information we have and when to seek more info is a crucial talent for a leader. Curiosity (a desire to learn more) and a sense of how to balance the risk/reward equation will serve a leader well.