The Known Unknowns

…there are known knowns; there are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns; that is to say, there are things that we now know we don’t know. But there are also unknown unknowns – there are things we do not know we don’t know. – Donald Rumsfeld

Last week I held a day of training for the managers and folks interested in becoming managers in my organization. I did this with a couple of the folks from Spotify’s awesome People Operations team, Paolo and Mats.

As part of the exercises we identified which management skills, values and responsibilities were the most critical for our organization. We then did something like a spider map to help us evaluate our own competencies in these areas, but also to set goals on how we’d like to improve over the next few months. The exercises themselves were awesome, and they identified some truly great qualities of managers and leaders that I hadn’t thought about. I’ll try and write about them in the future.

One thing that struck me as I did this self-assessment was how low I was rating myself on some areas. Areas that my managers had told me that I was strong in. I rated myself low in areas that I would even call my own strengths. The reason was that I had come to realize how much better I could be than I am right now. I knew how much more I had to learn, my known unknowns.

I had noticed this before, in other areas. For years, when I interviewed C++ developers, one of my favorite questions was “how do you rate your C++ skill on a scale from 1 to 10?” Sometimes, I’d add the context of “1 is your dog, and 10 is Bjarne Stroustroup.” What I was looking for was not an assessment of what they knew, but an understanding of what they didn’t know: the known unknowns. I wrote C++ code professionally every day for over 15 years and I would have rated myself a 7 (and that was before C++11 came out). Anyone who rated himself or herself higher than that either was just not being honest (it was an interview situation after all) or they knew so little of the language that they didn’t have a clue how inexperienced they were.

I now realize that this just part of mastery. You reach a plateau in your growth and it seems like you are getting pretty good, but then you grow a bit more and you realize that there is so much more to learn. Ad infinitum.

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