Why do we protect ourselves from unknown unknowns?

By Bem Le Hunte

Bem Le Hunte (biography)

Why do very few people enjoy sitting comfortably with their unknown unknowns? Why is there an uncomfortable liminality ‘betwixt and between’ the known and unknown worlds?

How can we explore unknowns in a more speculative, playful, creative capacity, through our imaginations? How can we use lack of knowledge to learn about ourselves and let it teach us how to be comfortable and curious in the midst of unknowing?

The power and allure of unknown unknowns have long been recognised by creative practitioners as a holy grail for inspiration. Borges wrote in The Library of Babel about a fictitious library where all books ever written existed together, but this library turns to a dystopia as the reader discovers that “the certainty that everything has already been written annuls us, or renders us phantasmal.” And in those endless corridors lined with books the suicides begin…

For creative practitioners, the art of not knowing (and simultaneously expressing what you do know with confidence) is a careful balancing act. It is exemplified by Shakespeare when he gives Hamlet the statement that: “There are more things in Heaven and Earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” Here there is an admission that we have to hold knowledge and the lack of it simultaneously, in our being.

Similarly, St John of God wrote these words about unknowing from a prison cell in Toledo:

This knowledge in unknowing
is so overwhelming
that wise men disputing
can never overthrow it,
for their knowledge does not reach
to the understanding of not
transcending all knowledge.

Ann Kerwin, when creating her taxonomy of unknowns wrote: “in creativity we bring life to unknown unknowns. We demonstrate that we ourselves are unknown unknowns: endowed with astounding capacities to reveal ourselves in unexpected ways.” Similarly, in my view, creative practice serves to construct a theory of the world (outside of us), but any revelation about that world is mirrored through a better understanding of ourselves – our own unknowns.

Unlike other research, which is often practiced in one direction in helping to solve problems ‘out there,’ creative practice is like a two-way telescope, revealing insights and connectedness between the researcher and that which is researched. This integrative capacity of creative thinking might well be one of the most powerful reasons for us to keep creative intelligence alive in our education systems, across all disciplines. Bringing the personal dimension into education, after all, does make it seem much more relevant!

It’s also important for leaders, civil and military, to understand how they are implicated in the knowledge they have at their disposal – and to develop the creative capacity to know and not know simultaneously.

But what do we do with our fear of not knowing? Creativity researcher, Vlad Glăveanu, in his new book Wonder, talks about the power of wondering and its capacity to stimulate a range of experiences from contemplation to pondering, curiosity and awe – all encounters with the unknown. Perfecting the art of wondering is a powerful way to encourage a sense of adventure around unknowns, rather than fear.

Glăveanu writes about a phrase that early sixteenth century cartographers from East Asia wrote on their maps – HIC SUNT DRACONES – or ‘here are dragons’ to signify unknown and potentially dangerous territories. He claims that these “might be interpreted as invitations to wonder about but not to wander off, to respect the unknown and yet make it somehow familiar.” The phrase ‘here be dragons’ is still used by hackers when they don’t understand how their code works but know that it does. They leave this message encrypted as an artefact, telling other hackers not to mess with it!

This brings another question – whether our ‘arrival’ at knowledge is always a good thing and whether the knowledge that exists should always be ‘un-encrypted.’ For traditional problem-solving it might be so, but often with creative practice one needs to remain in a state of mystery (and thereby, receptiveness). Poet Lewis Hyde and author of The Gift offers the insight that: “If, when we work, we can look once a day upon the face of mystery, then our labour satisfies. We are lightened when our gifts rise from pools we cannot fathom.” As a writer myself, this phrase resonates deeply. Certainly, I wouldn’t be inspired to write my novels if I knew exactly what I was going to write and which ways my story would travel. This is also discussed by Lelia Green in her blog post on Creative writing as a journey into the unknown unknown.

As we will always be faced at some point in our lives with a world we cannot fathom, it would be useful to teach our students and leaders how to think of these unknowns as gifts – and not to always privilege certainty as our scientific paradigm insists that we should.

Borges, J. L. (1970). Labyrinths. (Eds.). Donald A. Yates and James E. Irby, (Trans.). James E. Irby and Anthony Kerrigan. Penguin: London, United Kingdom.

Glăveanu, V. P. (2020, in press). Wonder: The extraordinary power of an ordinary experience. Bloomsbury: London, United Kingdom.

Hyde, L. (2007). The gift: How the creative spirit transforms the world. Canongate: Edinburgh, United Kingdom.

Kerwin, A. (1993). None too solid: medical ignorance. Science Communication, 15, 2: 166-85.

Shakespeare, W. (2008). Hamlet (The Oxford Shakespeare). (Ed.). G. R. Hibbard. Oxford: Oxford, United Kingdom.

St John of the Cross. (2007). A Spiritual Canticle of the Soul and the Bridegroom Christ. (Trans.). David Lewis. Cosimo: New York, United States of America.

Biography: Associate Professor Bem Le Hunte PhD is the founding Course Director of the Bachelor of Creative Intelligence and Innovation in the Faculty of Transdisciplinary Innovation at the University of Technology Sydney, Australia. This degree is transdisciplinary and future-facing, combining with 25 different disciplines to explore unknowns and investigate the challenges of our times. Over the past three decades she has worked across a broad range of creative industries, from advertising and journalism, to publishing and new media. She is also a globally published novelist and has written scripts for documentaries and film. She researches creativity in education and ways to deliver a ‘Curriculum for Being’ across communities of learning and practice.

This blog post is part of a series on unknown unknowns as part of a collaboration between the Australian National University and Defence Science and Technology.

For the ten other blog posts already published in this series, see: https://i2insights.org/tag/partner-defence-science-and-technology/

Scheduled blog posts in this series:
February 25, 2020: Theory U: a promising journey to embracing unknown unknowns by Vanesa Weyrauch

How can resilience benefit from planning?

By Pedro Ferreira

author - pedro-ferreira
Pedro Ferreira (biography)

Improved resilience can contribute to the ability to deal with unknown unknowns. Dealing with uncertainty is also at the core of every planning activity. The argument put forward here is that planning processes should be considered a cornerstone for any given resilience approach. An outline of planning and resilience is given, before presenting fundamental aspects of planning that should be strengthened within a resilience strategy.


From attempting to do as much as possible within a day’s work, to launching rockets into space or managing a nation, everything requires planning. Continue reading

Detecting non-linear change ‘inside-the-system’ and ‘out-of-the-blue’

Susan van ‘t Klooster and Marjolijn Haasnoot

Author - Susan van ‘t Klooster
Susan van ‘t Klooster (biography)

Change can be expected, envisioned and known, and even created, accelerated or stopped. But change does not always follow a linear and predictable path, nor is it always controllable. Novelty and surprise are inescapable features of life. Non-linear change can involve threats or opportunities.

Although it defines the world we live in, who we are, the outlooks we have and what we do, we often do not relate to non-linear change in a meaningful way. What is holding us back from engaging with it? How do we deal with non-linear change? And what are promising ways forward? Continue reading

Yin-yang thinking – A solution to dealing with unknown unknowns?

By Christiane Prange and Alicia Hennig

author - christiane prange
Christiane Prange (biography)

Sometimes, we wonder why decisions in Asia are being made at gargantuan speed. How do Asians deal with uncertainty arising from unknown unknowns? Can yin-yang thinking that is typical for several Asian cultures provide a useful answer?

Let’s look at differences between Asian and Western thinking first. Western people tend to prefer strategic planning with linear extrapolation of things past. The underlying mantra is risk management to buffer the organization and to protect it from harmful consequences for the business. But juxtaposing risk and uncertainty is critical. Under conditions of uncertainty, linearity is at stake and risk management limited. Continue reading

Blackboxing unknown unknowns through vulnerability analysis

By Joseph Guillaume

Author - Joseph Guillaume
Joseph Guillaume (biography)

What’s a productive way to think about undesirable outcomes and how to avoid them, especially in an unpredictable future full of unknown unknowns? Here I describe the technique of vulnerability analysis, which essentially has three steps:

  • Step 1: Identify undesirable outcomes, to be avoided
  • Step 2: Look for conditions that can lead to such outcomes, ie. vulnerabilities
  • Step 3: Manage the system to mitigate or adapt to vulnerable conditions.

The power of vulnerability analysis is that, by starting from outcomes, it avoids making assumptions about what led to the vulnerabilities. Continue reading

Looking in the right places to identify “unknown unknowns” in projects

Author - Tyson R. Browning
Tyson R. Browning (biography)

By Tyson R. Browning

Unknown unknowns pose a tremendous challenge as they are essentially to blame for many of the unwelcome surprises that pop up to derail projects. However, many, perhaps even most, of these so-called unknown unknowns were actually knowable in advance, if project managers had merely looked in the right places.

For example, investigations following major catastrophes (such as space shuttle disasters, train derailments, and terrorist attacks), and project cost and schedule overruns, commonly identify instances where a key bit of knowledge was in fact known by someone working on that project—but failed to be communicated to the project’s top decision makers. In other cases, unknown unknowns emerge from unforeseen interactions among known elements of complex systems, such as product components, process activities, or software systems. Continue reading