We Don’t Know What We Don’t Know

I was listening to comedian Pete Holmes perform a bit about how Google on a smartphone is like a having a “drunk know-it-all in your pocket.” Between laughs, it got me thinking about how communications have changed our society. Our collective knowledge deficit has made us become the dumbest smart people in the world.


Pete touched on how we’ve lost that sense of wonder we had in the disconnected world, that mystery that drove us forward when we didn’t have an answer at our fingertips. It made me think of things I enjoyed that have faded away, like:

  • Getting lost while taking a drive, and finding places I never planned on seeing
  • Reading liner notes in an album, because I didn’t have Wikipedia to tell me everything about it
  • Going to a game room, which required intention and planning and dedicating time
  • Talking to strangers, and finding you had something in common with them
  • Lighters held in the air at live concerts instead of cellphones
  • Pressing 0 and talking to the Operator
  • Helping someone solve a problem, or asking for help, and that thrill of sharing knowledge
  • Not knowing all the horrible ways life could kill me
  • Having a set of World Book Encyclopedias
  • Only getting “the news” at a predetermined time
  • Reading newspapers


Today we seem to equate access to information as being the same as having knowledge and experience. These are not equivalent. Ask any young adult fresh out of High School what it was like to change a tire, write a resume, get an apartment, or pay taxes the first time and you’ll see good examples of not knowing what we don’t know.

There is a lot that we don’t know, and knowledge deficits are blind spots we rarely notice unless they are exposed under pressure.

That knowledge deficit takes its toll in other places as well. As we become content with merely having access to information instead of gaining personal knowledge, it makes us dependent on the quality of that information.

We feel informed because we can quip a reply to almost anything, but that’s not the same as knowing something. It’s not the same as experience. All it means is that we’ve become parrots that can effectively mimic what we’ve consumed.


It’s no wonder we lived in a polarized world today: very few of us bother to do more than repeat what we’ve heard online.

We’ve lost critical thinking and analysis skills, we are increasingly unable to sort facts from fiction, we can only tolerate easily digestible soundbites when seeking answers, and we assume anything we’ve heard repeated at least 3 times is quality information.


So, how do we break from the cycle of information dependency and knowledge deficit? It’s uncomfortably like going on a diet, fighting addiction, or going to therapy.

  1. Recognize knowledge deficits in your own life
  2. Locate sources of factual original information
  3. Engage in the real world with others who have different experiences, opinions, and backgrounds
  4. Eliminate reliance on second-hand information sources
  5. Learn to become excited when you find something you don’t know instead of fearful
  6. Share what you’ve learned

Item 5 is a major milestone. It’s second nature to not want to admit that we don’t know how to do something, that we don’t have the answer. It’s that fear of being singled out in the classroom and being forced to say “I don’t know” while your peers stare.

That is a socially learned behavior that we need to overcome. Think about any pre-schooler… Before kids are taught to be ashamed for not having the correct answer, what do they do?

They ask: “Why?” About everything!

Kids will say “but why” when they get a reply because they don’t know what the answer means. Kids innately recognize there is a gap, a knowledge deficit, and spend those early years running around in the world trying to fill those gaps with knowledge. They don’t want to just be told the answer, they want to experience the answer.

Ultimately, the solution is simple: embrace that inner kid. Find joy in those moments where you don’t know something or haven’t experienced it yet, go out in the world and fill those knowledge deficits with first-hand personal experience.