Miners Mills


Musings on Logic, Analysis, Decision-Making, and Other Elements of Natural and Artificial Intelligence

The Unknown Unknowns

This year, I embarked upon one of the riskiest activities in which one can engage without a helicopter or firearm — that is, I commenced a remodel of my house.  Now, anyone who’s ever done this knows that, going in, there are a lot potential costly pitfalls at every stage — conceptualizing, permitting, construction, systems, finishes — making it extremely challenging to accurately budget upfront.

But what makes the process even more confounding, particularly for the first-time renovator, is that, even with the guidance of experts, it is impossible to predict what will go wrong.  It is certainly possible to predict that things will go wrong... but not what... It’s as if one were to go into a restaurant, unsure how much the meal is going to cost, but expecting it to be in a certain range... only to discover when the bill comes that the bottle of wine you thought was $17 was actually $1,700.  Then, as you’re leaving the restaurant in shock, you see a tow truck dragging off your car.

How could you have planned for this beforehand?!  You had never thought before a meal: “Wow, I really hope I don’t misread the menu.”  Or “Let me make sure I don’t spend too much time arguing with the waiter after the meal so that I move my car before my parking spot becomes a tow-away zone...”

Of course, home remodels and casual dining are certainly not the only circumstances in which plans can go awry due to unforeseen circumstances.  Whether plugging in the wrong address when heading to an important interview, getting food poisoning while on a long-awaited vacation, or having a trade war jack up your manufacturing costs by 25%, all sorts of things can go wrong in unanticipated ways.

Wow, so that’s depressing.  You don’t want to go through life always expecting an anvil to fall on your head, or an earthquake to open up the ground under your feet.  Is there anything you can do to plan for these unknown unknowns?

Well, by definition... no... or rather, “not exactly”.  But what you can do is anticipate that things can go wrong — and buffer into any planning the chance that something will...

Can you pre-plan not to mis-read the menu... possibly not, but knowing that the damage of mis-reading the wine list is greater than mis-reading the appetizers, maybe take an extra moment on the former.  Perhaps set a timer on your phone to warn you 10 minutes before the tow away zone commences.  Leave early to get to your important interview, don’t eat the seafood in a strange land, make sure you have alternate sourcing for your materials, and don’t get the disco ball for the living room until you’re sure everything else is coming in on budget.

Note, I’m not talking here about intentional ignorance.  Unfortunately, most of us do have times in which we know there are things we don’t know, and know we know people who can fill in that knowledge gap, but decide not to solicit help, for whatever reason.  That’s an easy problem to solve - ask for help.  The asking may be anxiety-provoking, but if the risks are great enough, they should outweigh the anxiety.

However, when you really don’t know what you don’t know you don’t know... well, just remember to keep looking up, because that way, you might see the falling anvil, and get out of the way before it flattens you.

David Chariton