A New Year of unknown unknowns

Every New Year I find my thoughts returning to a classic speech that sums up much of life in a few short words: Donald Rumsfeld’s infamous “unknown unknowns” speech.

It’s nearly 10 years since his utterances earned international scorn and derision – which demonstrates (a) how time flies and (b) how US defence secretaries come and go.

Personally, I think it was his finest moment.  He used his Rumsfeldian dumb delivery style to make it sound stupid, hence the international derision, but if someone smart had said it, it would have been hailed as wisdom beyond words.  Rumsfeld, on the other hand, could deliver the Gettysburg address and make it sound daft.

Rumsfeld was, of course, highlighting three basic categories of knowledge: the known knowns – the things we know we know;  the known unknowns – the things we know that we don’t know; and my favourite, the unknown unknowns – the things we don’t know we don’t know.

He was talking about Iraq, but it holds pretty good for the whole of life, which is why it always returns to my mind as we head into another New Year.

Here are some of the knowns about 2012:  London will host the Olympics (known known) and it will be chaos (known known).  The UK may well go back into recession (known unknown).  Some people will lose their jobs (known known) and others just fear they will (known unknown).  The Queen will celebrate her Diamond Jubilee (known known, barring illness), with the stented-up Prince Philip at her side (ditto).

But what of the unknown unknowns? Well that’s the point. If we knew what they were they wouldn’t be unknown unknowns.  But illness or death among previously healthy people, sudden changes in circumstances or fortune, and tragedy or bizarre good luck, would probably qualify.  The point is we don’t know what life will throw at us while we’re busy making other plans, to quote the late great John Lennon.

At the start of 2011 the whole concept of the Arab Spring was an unknown unknown.  Libya’s Gaddafi, Egypt’s Mubarak and Tunisia’s Ben Ali could have had no idea they were months from death, trial or exile; that the freedom written into the DNA of their citizens would finally explode into street protests.

At the start of 2012 the fate of Syria’s Assad has become a known unknown, but many other unknown unknowns must lie ahead on the global news agenda and in our individual lives.

So at the start of a New Year I try to make room in my head for the things I don’t know that I don’t know.  As part of that process there’s another classic set of words my thoughts always return to as well, a poem by Minnie Louise Harkins, used by King George VI in his New Year address in 1939, as Britain stood on the brink of full-scale war.

It starts: “I said to the man who stood at the gate of the year
‘Give me a light that I may tread safely into the unknown.'” …and it continues here:

Minnie was way ahead of Donald on the unknown unknowns. Happy New Year – whatever it brings!

6 thoughts on “A New Year of unknown unknowns

  1. Very interesting and very funny. Personally, when I start to think of the unknown unknowns I start to panic. I want to know exactly what’s going to happen and when. I’ve never really liked surprises. But then if I knew what was going to happen (known known) or what wasn’t going to happen (is that a known known or a known unknown like the recession?) I wouldn’t be able to work like a dog to make things happen. And for a workaholic like me, that would be a terrible state of affairs!🙂

    Happy New Year and long may this blog continue.

  2. Unknown unknowns can change your life in a heartbeat. My son was fit and healthy. We knew he had epilepsy, and had done so for 18 years, but he controlled it well with medication.

    at 11am on Sunday 25 September the police arrived to tell me that my son was dead. Our lives will never be the same – we will find a new ‘normal’ but it won’t be the same as it was. He would have been 33 years old on 21 December 2011.

    It is probably better that we don’t know these unknown unknowns. Remi had just moved from Canada to New Zealand and had been there for only 6 weeks. If we had known he was going to die we might well have tried to persuade him not to move there. Maybe we would have tried to persuade him to come back to the UK. These were not part of Remi’s plans for his life. He led a full life and didn’t allow the epilepsy to rule his life. It didnt stop him doing anything he wanted to do. He went to Japan to follow his beloved Liverpool FC, he went to Morocco, he moved to Canada to further his career in Games Programming and then moved to New Zealand to further his career. We have 33 years of wonderful memories.

    1. I’m so sorry to hear of your loss. I was very moved by your comment and by your description of your son’s life. I agree that if we knew the unknown unknowns we wouldn’t be able to bear it. I wish you well as you continue into the New Year, and hope that you will find the strength and grace to cope with such a terrible loss.

  3. ‘At the Gate of the Year’ is one of my favourite poems, pinned above up by my bed, so that I can remind myself in whom to put my trust when fears and doubts come my way.

  4. Am still enjoying playing with thoughts prompted by the (un)known (un)knowns of life and your blog. Here’s a thought that came to me as I cycled (virtuously) to church this morning – do you think there are unknown knowns? Something to the effect of… I didn’t know that I knew that, but it seems like I do?

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