Mastering the Four Fundamental Ideas

Mastering the Four Fundamental Ideas


There are many ways to slice and dice an idea space. One way to do so is with its elementary ideas of thoughts, emotions, sensations, and perceptions. In this blog post, we'll explore another way through the four fundamental ideas: Known Knowns, Unknown Knowns, Known Unknowns, and Unknown Unknowns.

At a high level, fundamental ideas dictate what information you know relative to the world; and, information the world knows relative to you. The first word is what you know; the second word is what the world knows.

Known Unknown Matrix Clement Decrop

Figure 1. The Known-Unknown Matrix.

Of course, these four fundamental ideas are unique to the individual. What one person knows or doesn’t know is going to vary from person to person.

Known Known

These are ideas you know to be true relative to the world. A few examples:

  • apples are red (sorry if you’re colorblind);
  • the Earth is a close approximation to a sphere (yes, I know there’s a bulge at the equator);
  • no number from 1 to 999 includes the letter "a" in its word form.
  • You have seven days left to live after reading this—just kidding.

You get the point.

Unknown Known

This is information people have discovered, but you have yet to discover for yourself. In other words, something you don’t fully know, but you know exists. Sometimes, these are represented by variables, like \(x\).  

For example, what is the gravitational acceleration, \(g\), of an object on Earth’s surface? Unless you’re a physicist, engineer, or interested in the particular topic, then you probably have no idea.

Well, someone smart figured it out and deduced that the gravitational constant on Earth is approximately \(9.81 {m \over s^2}\). This means when you jump out of a plane, you’ll accelerate towards Earth at \(9.81 {m \over s^2}\). In your mind, you may think of this as gravity.

Each planet has its own gravitational constant. For instance, Mars has a gravitational constant of \(3.71 {m \over s^2}\). Jupiter: \(24.8 {m \over s^2}\). The sun: \(274 {m \over s^2}\). To clarify, if someone were to leap out of a plane on the surface of the sun, their descent would accelerate towards the sun at a rate 28 times faster than it would on Earth!

Let’s look at another example. Proteins are one of the main building blocks of the human body and are made up of amino acids. But, what are amino acids?

They’re chemical compounds that are grouped together into various families. A good example of an amino acid that is prevalent in our everyday life is tryptophan, \(C_{11}H_{12}N_2O_2\).

Tryptophan is an amino acid that is a precursor to a chemical family called tryptamines (figure xx-a). This family provides the basis for essential bodily-chemicals, such as serotonin and melatonin (figure xx-b), and more entertaining chemicals, such as DMT, LSD, and psilocybin (figure xx-c). The tryptamine foundation is highlighted in green for serotonin and DMT in the below figure.

tryptamines clement decrop

Figure 2. Various family members of tryptamines.

You get the point: we had a variable \(g=gravitational acceleration\) in the first example and \(x=proteins\) in the second example. These variables were ideas  you “kinda” knew existed, but may not have been able to precisely define.

If you knew both these things already, then good for you—you get a cookie, gold star, a serotonin boost, or whatever gives you validation. Hopefully you still get the point.

Known Unknown

A Known Unknown is something that exists, but only you know. Think: there are a lot of different “you” reading this right now. I bet each of you knows something everybody else reading this doesn’t know.

For instance, what color is your underwear? I hope you, and only you, know this!

Unknown Unknown

This one is my favorite. Things you don’t even know you don’t know. The interesting part about these is they play a vital role in dictating the way we live our lives.

Let’s look at one of our first examples: gravity. Before the introduction of the idea of gravity, it would have been unthinkable to comprehend such a radical and preposterous idea. And yet, today, this concept is crucial in solving some of the world’s most mechanical problems, from launching spacecrafts to making our cars run.

This leads to an ominous question: Did gravity exist before Isaac Newton presented it? It was an unknown unknown.

Another way to exemplify Unknown Unknowns is with the idea of an idea space. Before the idea space, the term “idea space” never really existed before and meant nothing.

So, before introducing this term, did an idea space exist? It, too, was an unknown unknown.

Expanding Your Idea Space

Understanding the Known Knowns, Unknown Knowns, Known Unknowns, and Unknown Unknowns can help you navigate life more effectively. Here are some practical applications of these concepts:

  1. Continuous Learning: The more you learn, the more you expand your Known Knowns and decrease your Unknown Knowns. Strive to learn something new every day, be it reading books, attending seminars, or following online courses.

  2. Asking Questions: To identify your Known Unknowns, don't be afraid to ask questions. Seek the help of peers or mentors to clarify any uncertainties and gain new insights.

  3. Embracing Uncertainty: Accept that there will always be Unknown Unknowns in life. Embrace the uncertainty and use it as a motivation to stay curious and open-minded.

  4. Collaboration: Engage in discussions, brainstorming sessions, or group projects to explore a wider range of ideas. Collaborating with others helps uncover Unknown Unknowns, as each individual brings a unique perspective to the table.

  5. Reflection and Self-awareness: Regularly assess your knowledge and skills to identify areas where you can improve. By being self-aware, you can work on turning your Known Unknowns into Known Knowns.

Remember, the more you expand your idea space, the better equipped you will be to make informed decisions, solve problems, and navigate through life's challenges. Luckily, your idea space is uncountable, so the depth at which you can pursue each of these fundamental ideas is infinite.

By embracing the Known Knowns, Unknown Knowns, Known Unknowns, and Unknown Unknowns, you will unlock limitless opportunities for growth, innovation, and success in both your personal and professional life.

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