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Sep 1

Written by: Greg Runyon
9/1/2009 3:39 PM 

I wrote a while back about that guy who shot up the gym in the Pittsburgh area. One of the things I touched on a little in that entry was that you never really know what kind of baggage other people are toting around. When I’m at my best, I’m cognizant of that idea, and adjust my interactions with others accordingly.


Former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, in regard to the war on terror, once talked about known knowns and unknown unknowns. Known knowns are things you know, and you know that you know. (That was a fun sentence to write.) Known unknowns are things you don’t know yet, but can grasp the idea of. A nation that sets out to build a nuclear weapon, but has not figured out exactly how to make it work yet is working with figuring out known unknowns.


An unknown unknown would be something that exists, but you don't know anything about it, to the degree that you really can't even conceptualize it. The idea that terrorists could time-coordinate multiple hijackings and drive those planes into buildings was once an unknown unknown. Who would have believed it possible? Now, we all do. It is, unfortunately, a known known now.


Similarly, in your every day life, there are countless things that you not only don’t know, but you have no idea they are even possible. Take any random grouchy person you’d meet at the grocery store. Does she look angry today, when inside she’s struggling with a death in the family? Did she just get laid off? Maybe her boyfriend or girlfriend just gave her the boot. The possibilities are endless, and therefore are unknown unknowns. Until you’re given at least some information, you don’t have the slightest idea what she’s dealing with.


Also possible is the person who is, despite whatever deep turmoil they may be in, is perfectly kind, polite, seemingly placid and content. Like a duck’s feet churning beneath a smooth-gliding body as it moves across the water, there may be an awful lot you don’t know going on just below the surface. People such as those do their grieving or fight their battles in private. Because they don’t let you in on the struggle doesn’t mean that it’s not going on. It’s for these people (and in times of difficulty, I'm one of them) that I really dislike the phrase “perception is reality.” No, so often it really, really isn’t. Just because you think someone is content doesn’t mean that they’re not struggling mightily to keep it all together while inside they’re on the brink of a meltdown. Your perception is a load of crap. Not to mince words.


So many things are happening to the people around us every day, and we have no idea. These are their secrets; the things that, in all likelihood, you’ll never know. Honestly, most of it is none of your business anyway. You’re not entitled to another’s private thoughts. If they choose to share them with you, it can be a tremendously powerful experience. It is, in essence, turning an unknown unknown into a known unknown. I don’t believe that most of the time it would become a known known, because no matter how much information someone gives you about what they’re going through, you’re still not experiencing it as they are. People are too unique. There is a buffer there, regardless of how empathetic you may be able to be about the whole thing.


Simply accepting the fact that others may be burdened in ways you can’t even imagine can in many ways lighten your own load. I’m a lot more happy in traffic when I think that they guy who just cut me off is rushing to a loved-one’s side in a time of crisis than when I assume he’s just a jackass. It changes nothing about the world other than my experience of it. The best part is that it costs me nothing. I will not likely ever know the answer anyway. So why be pissed when I could just let it go? We’d all serve one-another better in this world if we accepted those unknown unknowns.


The fact that I titled this blog “Secrets, Volume One” might give one the impression that a Volume Two is forthcoming. One would be correct. It'll be a different angle on the business of secrets, specifically, keeping them. Look for it coming soon.



2 comment(s) so far...

Re: Secrets, Volume One

good blog - this idea is something we talk about frequently in leadership development - google the Johari Window and you will see a lot of similarities to what you wrote!

By Megan on   9/2/2009 8:14 AM

Re: Secrets, Volume One

Thank you, Greg. This is a cogent, coherent, and compassionate description of the concept. I love that Megan mentioned the Johari Window. I'm very pleased that you endorse the recognition that we make up stories about people without any idea whether those stories are accurate, and that we act on those (often false) assumptions. How cool to decide to act on the assumption that people are inherently good. This has all sorts of positive effects -- for you and for those around you.

Thanks for contributing to the intelligence and compassion in the world.

By Janet Shepherd on   9/9/2009 7:11 AM

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