“There are some things that can beat smartness and foresight? Awkwardness and stupidity can. The best swordsman in the world doesn’t need to fear the second best swordsman in the world; no, the person for him to be afraid of is some ignorant antagonist who has never had a sword in his hand before; he doesn’t do the thing he ought to do, and so the expert isn’t prepared for him; he does the thing he ought not to do; and often it catches the expert out and ends him on the spot.”
~ Mark Twain
Twain mentioned awkwardness, stupidity, and ignorance, which are things with which I’ve had some experience over the years, both as antagonist and protagonist. Took a fencing class as a theater student. Once on the mat, I was able to score well in competition. I was feeling pretty good about it when my professor, John Rudy, pulled me to the side. After staring at the ground for what seemed like several minutes (though probably only seconds) as if he was struggling with the words, he finally spoke:
“Don’t get a swelled head about beating the competition today. There are two primary reasons you looked good out there:
- You’re left handed, and most of the others were used to seeing a different approach, in fact, an opposite one;
- But the main thing is, you didn’t seem to have any idea what you were going to do from one moment to the other, and neither did your opponents.”
After awhile I realized I was the only student in the class that could get a technical advantage from practicing in front of a mirror. The image I saw in it would have an accurate juxtaposition, while all the others just saw everything backwards. Never became great at fencing. Sometimes I’d just paint the fence, and at other times, just sit on it.
In time, I took classes in modern dance, acting, and directing. I look back on my successes with the realization that most of the prosperity of favorable outcomes may have been due to the outrageous courage felt, because and in spite of, not being aware of what I didn’t know.
In 2002, Donald Rumsfeld is credited for saying:
“…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.”
However, the term “unknown unknowns” had been around in NASA for a while, and also used by other engineers.
“Known unknowns result from phenomena which are recognized, but poorly understood. On the other hand, unknown unknowns are phenomena which cannot be expected because there has been no prior experience or theoretical basis for expecting the phenomena.”
~ Statement of Evidence of E. D’Appolonia, D’Appolonia Consulting Engineers, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Proceedings of the British Columbia Royal Commission of Inquiry into Uranium Mining, Phase V: Waste Disposal, ISBN 0-7718-8198-3
In recent years, there have been a number of unpleasant results from hydraulic fracturing, such as earthquakes and polluted ground water, that was not the expected or hoped for outcome. At the same time, you’d think by now most adults have some experience with placing a spoon in the sink face up, and turning on the water. Even when some people know it’s likely to splash water all over the place, they turn the water on anyway. So it brings up the question of there being a difference between unknown unknowns, and just making stupid decisions.
My mind goes back to the first grade. It was a regular practice to wash our hands before lining up to go to the Lunchroom. I distinctly remember the teacher telling me and some of the other boys:
“When you wash up, use soap. And wash both hands. You have no idea where they’ve been.”
I’ve struggled with those instructions now for six decades, and from time to time I think the teacher was correct.