Jiu-Jitsu Letter


The more you learn, the less you know.

A while ago, when the US was going into the Iraq War, Donald Rumsfeld said:

Reports that say that something hasn’t happened are always interesting to me, because as we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns—the ones we don’t know we don’t know. And if one looks throughout the history of our country and other free countries, it is the latter category that tend to be the difficult ones.

It was the first time I’d heard of the concept and has stuck with me a long time. A few years later, I binge watched The Boondocks, and there was this scene:

Recently, I was thinking about the quote again, and only then did I learn about the Johari window, which is where the concept of unknown unknowns was created.

My son has been playing with puzzles lately. These are very simple – just sixteen pieces, but of course, it’s still a challenge for him, as he’s just under two years old. In watching, I’m tempted to help when he struggles. I’ll sometimes give a hint, but I let him get frustrated. He eventually figures it out.

One of my current reads is The Optimistic Child1, and it stresses that frustration is a major part of mastery. Now, I don’t care about him “mastering” puzzles, but I care that he grows up to be self-sufficient and to understand that failing and frustration are helpful in the long run.

I think about how I am when I’m in teacher mode and student mode. As a student, I mostly keep quiet and just do what my instructor says. “Just do as you’re told.” I have questions during privates, but in group class I try to figure things out with my partner as much as possible.

As a teacher, I have some students that have questions on every technique. We encourage it, since answering them usually helps more than just the asker. Lately though, I’ve been wondering if I’m actually less helpful when I’m quick to answer.

An old Zen rule of thumb is not to answer until one has been asked three times. If people really want your opinion, they’ll insist on having it. But we are quick to give our opinion when nobody wants it. I know; I’ve done it. Nothing Special2

But, they asked, so I should answer. What’s the alternative, anyway?

And if I see a student practicing incorrectly, I have to offer advice. It’s the job. I can’t let them get good at doing something wrong.3 But I want them to figure it out too.

So we’re back to known knowns, known unknowns, and unknown unknowns. If they don’t know, then let them know.

  1. The Optimistic Child, by Martin Seligman ↩︎

  2. Nothing Special, by Charlotte Beck ↩︎

  3. “You have to monitor your fundamentals constantly because the only thing that changes will be your attention to them. The fundamentals will never change. It comes down to a very simple saying: There is a right way and a wrong way to do things. You can practice shooting eight hours a day, but if your technique is wrong, then all you become is very good at shooting the wrong way.” I Can’t Accept Not Trying, by Michael Jordan ↩︎

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