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Known and Unknown

Anika Hedstrom  |  July 17, 2020

ON FEB. 12, 2002, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld took the stage at a press briefing to address escalating tensions between the U.S. and Iraq. A reporter asked him a question regarding evidence of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction.

Rumsfeld famously replied, “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.” As ridiculed as these remarks were, they provide a roadmap to action in the face of uncertainty.

Like deciding whether or not to have children.

For my husband and me, identifying and evaluating the known knowns was the easy part—things like the medical costs to give birth, maternity leave benefits, changes to savings rates, childcare and so on. Needed upgrades—larger car, bigger house and such—were also factors to consider, but fairly straightforward.

Peeling back the onion another layer was a bit more uncomfortable. The known unknowns sent my head spinning. What if something went wrong during the pregnancy? What if we had a child who needed way more than we were capable of? I asked myself—and my husband—every question imaginable, and then probably three times over. For some reason, running on this hamster wheel felt oddly productive. I was making progress and checking boxes that needed to be checked prior to such a life-altering decision.

The unknown unknowns weren’t as intimidating to me, because I couldn’t come up with the right questions to ask or even research, as they didn’t yet exist. I didn’t know what I didn’t know.

Ironically, there was a fourth category that elevated my ruminations and factored into our decision. In his book Think Like a Rocket Scientist, Ozan Varol describes the concept of unknown knowns—we think we know what we know, but we don’t. Varol states, “The illusion of knowledge, rather than ignorance, is the obstacle to discovery.”

When we’re willing to admit we don’t know, our egos deflate and our minds open up. Ultimately, what I was looking for didn’t exist. I wanted certainty, control, the right answers despite ambiguity and clarity despite complexity.

As Varol eloquently states, unknown knowns “requires a conscious type of uncertainty where you become fully aware of what you don’t know in order to learn and grow.” Ultimately, my husband and I decided to live an interesting, uncomfortably uncertain life and have a child.

Which turned out to be twins.

Anika Hedstrom’s previous articles include Trek to RetirementSimple but Not Easy and Betting on Me. An assiduous researcher, Anika Hedstrom is a Certified Financial Planner who writes on the motivational and behavioral aspects of financial planning. Follow Anika on Twitter @AnikaHedstrom.

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