Post-COVID uncertainty and the Rumsfeld Paradox

Okay, before I go on, I’m not going to be able to solve all the uncertainty that we all have about the world that will emerge from COVID, like a young polar bear emerging for the first time from the only home it has known, born through a winter of hibernation and squinting at the sunlight reflecting from the pure, blinding nothingness of the frozen tundra tumbling off as far as the eye can see… and further than the mind can imagine.

If anything, I’m going to add in another level of uncertainty. Sorry.

Anyone who tells you they know how these things are going to play out is a charlatan or a confidence trickster. Or possibly a ‘futurist” [I wonder how many of them predicted this eh?]. We’ve never been in anything like this (obviously) and there has been too much change (obviously) and so even if you’re in the “we’ll probably go back to pretty much how things were with maybe a little more working from home” then sorry, but you’re making it up too.

Right now, I probably have about three or four conversations a week with someone about what we think might happen. I don’t mind having them because each one helps me a little to work out what I think I would like to happen, and perhaps give me another couple of questions which I need to ask or answer which would add to the information I’ve got.

But I’m also okay with the fact that I will never have enough information. I can read every article out there and listen to every bit of gossip about what so-and-so agency are doing (most of which turn out to be nothing more than gossip) and do another loads of employee surveys and fill in a thousand templates for the network [true story] and I’d have all the information and it still won’t be enough. Because it won’t be relevant to me, and my team, because we’re not anyone else. As the Smiths once said:

“This one is different because it’s us.”

The Smiths, Hand In Glove

I don’t know about you, but I think a good segue from a 1980s indie band from Manchester would be to immediately cut to a former two-time US Secretary of Defence, Donald Rumsfeld. Let’s do it!

I’m not going to comment here on the politics of old “Rummy” (as he was affectionately known by people who knew him affectionately) because I don’t know much about them and I’m too lazy to find out. I’m also not going to comment on the fact that between serving as the youngest ever Secretary of Defence under Gerald Ford he worked for various big US pharma companies (my particular niche area of advertising) before then becoming the second oldest Secretary of Defence under George Bush. Again, I know not enough, and care not to find out.

What I am going to pick out from such a busy boy is a comment he made to the US press about the existence of Weapons of Mass Destruction in Iraq.

[Bear with me we are getting somewhere I promise.]

Rummy said the following:

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.

Do me a favour and read that again. I grant you, it’s tough not to get dragged down by the context and by the fact that it’s another politician avoiding answering another question. But give it another read for me.

There’s actually an incredibly astute, and almost philosophical point. And it’s something I’ve been coming back to quite a lot in the conversations about the future world [you remember, the baby polar bear thing].

Because yes, there’s stuff we know.

We know we can work remotely, and do bloody good work. Arguably we’re more efficient, and if we could all have got rid of the real estate sitting dormant in every major city, we’d have been a shitload more profitable.
We know that we can build, nurture and maintain authentic relationships, with each other and with our clients, despite not being (sometimes never having been) in the same room.
We know that this has taken a toll on people’s mental health and wellbeing and boundaries and the flow from home to work (I don’t like “balance”, but that’s another blog).

And there’s some stuff we know that we don’t know

We know that we don’t know how we’ll feel on inevitably crowded public transport.
We know that we don’t know who’s going to want to work where, and how that’s going to affect how we work as teams together.
We know that we don’t know how we’re going to react to the polar bear situation

But hell, if there isn’t also a load of stuff we don’t know we don’t know.

There are problems that haven’t happened yet.
There are opportunities that we can’t imagine yet.
There might even be new kinds of feelings which come about precisely because of this meta-uncertainty.

We’re not good with uncertainty. It causes stress and as animals we’re not good at dealing with that because the society we’ve built up around us is bigger and more complex than, as animals, we have evolved to deal with.

But I think the existence of the “unknown unknowns” can actually be a source of calm. Forget about the things I don’t know about, there are things that I don’t even know I don’t know yet! Yes it demands that we “adjust the sails” and deal with ambiguity, but is there anything more ambiguous than the year we’ve just done?

Yes it was hard, and remains hard, but we did do it. We made it this far, battered and tired but still we made it. And that tells me that we’ll make it again.

It won’t be how we think it’ll be. But there’s a bit of me that’s interested in finding out what I don’t know.

2 thoughts on “Post-COVID uncertainty and the Rumsfeld Paradox

  1. Brilliantly thoughtful as ever, Phil. Reminds me of Aristotle’s, “The more I know, the more I know I don’t know.” Love the polar bear analogy and the tie-in to Rumsfeld’s quote. Where do you dig these things up from?

    Liked by 1 person

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