You Don’t Know What You Don’t Know

You don’t know if your printer will crash when you only allotted five minutes to pump out a handful of pages.

You don’t know if when you grab the backup computer, its operating system will crank into update mode, and stay that way for twenty minutes.

You don’t know if it will storm when you thought you could cycle to your destination, if the ignition will refuse to turn over, if you’ll be stalled behind a fender bender, or slowed by a dump truck chugging along below the speed limit. You don’t know what you don’t know.

Do our kids understand the necessity of contingency planning? Do we?

Just life? Perspective.

Some call it Murphy’s Law. Others say “it’s just life.” As adults, in business or family scheduling, we learn to plan for the unexpected. At the very least, we allow extra time.

But it’s not just about adding an hour of slack. It’s a matter of understanding the ripple effects of not planning. The impacts on yourself. And on those who depend on your word, your punctuality, your presence, your presence of mind.

In organizations, dependencies are a critical aspect of managing projects. Tasks are interrelated, and when one person doesn’t do their part – or runs late – the downside is clear. Everyone scrambles to pick up the slack. You may get the job done, but it’s messier, and more stressful.

The family system is no different. When a kid runs late and the only other computer belongs to a parent, then using that computer cuts into the parent’s time.  At least, in a household where the parent lives on a laptop 14 hours a day! Perhaps it’s only 15 minutes and there is no impact. Perhaps it’s two hours, and there is.

Are adults more able to adjust? Well, we get used to stealing from sleep, we work faster, we re-prioritize on the spot, and push less important activities to the next day. But the consequences – one way or another – are absorbed by someone.

Step into my shoes. See what I see.

Yesterday morning I was making a routine drive home from the supermarket. There are several dangerous left turns, across three lanes of traffic, where the possibility of being T-boned is high if you aren’t careful.

I drive a small car that is low to the ground. My ability to see traffic coming up a hill and around a turn is limited. It’s certainly different from the viewpoint of a driver seated behind the wheel of an SUV.

Waiting to make my turn, two SUVs behind me were nudging impatiently. One driver cut out of line, crossed the highway, and shot me a dirty look. The next driver pulled up behind me, and hit her horn. I had no visibility whatsoever around yet another SUV facing me in the intersection.

One idiot? I dealt with it. Two? I unrolled my window, leaned out, flailed my arms, and yelled “I’m not in an SUV! I can’t see what you see!”

Believe it or not, the woman heard, sheepishly gestured “okay,” and leaned back to wait. I turned when I could. She followed. In this case, I knew what I didn’t know and acted accordingly.

You don’t know what you don’t know.

We try to teach our kids time management, though they’ll more likely learn the hard way as we did – in college and first jobs. We also try to teach our kids to see things from the other guy’s viewpoint. To understand that you don’t know what you don’t know.

If your friend at school is uncharacteristically quiet, something may be wrong. Show a little thoughtfulness. The snarling customer service rep? She may have been up all night with her baby, or had a fight with her husband. That person in front of you? He may not see what you see, or know what you know.

You cut people slack, because you don’t know what they’re going through, what motivates them, or why they may behave in ways that strike us as odd or inappropriate. But you can bet they have their reasons.

The upside to everything.

I like a little mystery in life. While I don’t believe there’s a silver lining to everything, there is a positive twist to many things.

You don’t know if today will be the day you hear from an old friend, the day you get a new job, the day you meet someone spectacular. You don’t know if 33 miners who have been trapped underground for two months will be rescued. Every single one of them. Lives saved. Another sort of perspective altogether.

You don’t know what you don’t know. And some days, that’s just fine.