When you don’t know what you don’t know

Sir Nicholas Hytner, has directed ‘The History Boys’, ‘Warhorse’, ‘One Man Two Guv’nors’ and more at the National Theatre . He understands how people think and act. In a recent TV profile, he said this about acting: 

‘The ones who make it are the ones who know how little they know.’

Past and present colleagues will read this and smile for, in business and in life, the following has been a recurring mantra of mine:

‘You know what you know. You know what you don’t know. But what if you don’t know what you don’t know?’

Famously, this time to bewildered laughter, the former United States Secretary of Defence Donald Rumsfeld tried to explain this mantra in simple terms – but only made it more complicated for his audience (and won himself a ‘Foot In Mouth‘ Award):

‘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. ‘

So what did Sir Nicholas Hytner mean by ‘the ones who make it are the ones who know how little they know’? As so often, flip the argument and you find the answer. Clearly, Hytner was saying that the actors who think they know it all (when they don’t) will not succeed – whereas actors who are willing to learn, will.

On a business level, companies that fail to continually ask questions about every aspect of their business model run the risk of attack from innovative new competitors. A topical example is the book market where a number of established publishing houses have failed to see the potential in downloadable ebooks such as ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’.

On a wider level, a more worrying social characteristic has emerged.

Take the media. It seems a greater than average proportion of television presenters and journalists have parents in the same sector.

Why is this? It is not necessarily the case, as some might think, that the parents have pulled strings to secure glamourous jobs for their children. No, these parents have had the advantage of knowing what their children do not know and been able to set them on a path of learning that children with parents from outside the media have not able to identify.

Because they do not know what they do not know, ‘outsiders’ find it difficult to break in, thus giving the children of those already in the sector an unfair advantage.

Nepotism is alive and well in society today.

Don’t you just know it.

About Hugh Salmon

Business leader. Adman. Writer.
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