A Book of Not-Knowing

I’m working on a new book about types of not-knowing and what we can do about them. The way I see it, understanding not-knowing is motivated both by desire and need.

The carrot: Anything that is fully knowable and fully known becomes routine and doable by machines, so it is in situations of not-knowing that we become distinctively human. Thinking clearly about not-knowing is a way of understanding being human, which is essential in the context of the current landscape of machine learning and artificial intelligence.

The stick: Every day, either personally or professionally, we confront big and small situations where we must act with partial information. This means that we keep encountering situations of not-knowing in which we must still do something. The most important human work is navigating significant not-knowing. This is why we reward leaders who (in theory) lead their companies and countries through unpredictable situations, why we respect startup founders who work with not-yet-understood technology and markets to create new companies, and why we esteem researchers who work at the edge of the known to create new knowledge.

The last few years of a global pandemic, extreme weather, geopolitical insecurity, and economic disruption (among so many other things!) show that there are actually many different types of situations of not-knowing. And they are growing in number, scope, and impact. Every one of us will have to learn how to adapt to this.

Our experience of the last few years also shows that even those who are charged professionally with navigating these diverse situations of not-knowing often fuck it up. Most recently, the rapid ascent and even faster implosion of Effective Altruism, FTX, and Alameda Research is an object lesson in how poorly not-knowing is understood even by those nominally in the business of managing it — philosophers, venture capitalists, finance industry professionals, and financial journalists. To say nothing of politicians and policymakers.

Learning how to live on and live well in spite of not-knowing is a path to surviving and flourishing in an increasingly uncertain world. The problem is that we’re poorly prepared to even understand not-knowing, let alone know how to respond to it. We urgently need better tools for thinking and action in situations of not-knowing. This is what the book will explore.

One of my underlying assumptions in the book is that the same framework for thinking clearly about not-knowing applies in both personal and professional life. What changes is the context to which that framework is applied, not the framework itself. My own experience over the last 15 years suggests that some personal and professional questions to which the same framework for clear thinking about not-knowing may be relevant include:

Each bullet below is a topic that may become a component of the book. I publish a topic writeup draft when it seems baked enough even if not perfect.

I would love comments on pre-publication drafts. You can find all drafts open for public comment here and linked below.

Warning: The ideas here are likely to still be half-baked.

💬 Drafts open for comments

🖨 Published

🤞 Coming soon

🤔 Possible future topics

My first book was about uncertainty and how organizations can design themselves better around it. You can find out more about The Uncertainty Mindset here.