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It's what you don't know that will kill you

Unknown Unknowns (UNK UNKs)

On this page:
Live Fire vs. Training | UNK UNKs | Expand your perspective

It may come as a surprise to many people, but I am the first to admit I don't know everything about crime, violence, self-defense, personal safety and martial arts.. In fact, I'm the fastest to admit how much I don't know and that I could be wrong about a lot of things.

With this in mind, you'll understand when I say every morning I get up being nearly overwhelmed by what I do NOT know.

Wow, what kind of expert am I?

What's wrong with me? Don't I know that so-called "self-defense experts" are supposed to state their views with the utter confidence of a god of war? A god of war is supposed to make proclamations about what you are supposed to do at all times -- not discuss complications that you, the operative, must consider in study and make decisions about in the field. As an expert, I'm supposed to identify ONE THING that is the secret to winning combat and preach that to my disciples? Don't I know that, as an expert, I am supposed to render down a mind boggling complex subject into simplistic fantasies to build the confidence of those who listen to my omniscience?

Unfortunately, too many instructors present themselves in this manner. And they will, with dogmatic assurance, tell you how they'd handle a violent encounter ... or how their system is the best ... or how their teacher has told them what they need in order to 'win' a violent confrontation. And they expect you to stake your life on whatever they tell you.

Well, there is a reason why I don't sell such lies. And that reason is unlike these self-proclaimed experts, not only I have been under fire, but I spent decades in violent lifestyles. After a lifetime of violence, I learned one unalterable fact: When it comes to violence, Murphy's Law is TRUE.

Anything that can go wrong will go wrong.

And if you don't plan for that, then you will die. And having the attitude that you have the ultimate fighting move, tactic, attitude or whatever, so that you don't have to worry about Murphy is the fastest way to get yourself or your students killed. I have personally seen any number of people, believing they had a guaranteed 'whatever' (strategy, edge, system, tool), walk into a blood bath -- a bath of their own blood.

Because of their blind faith in whatever they thought was a guaranteed to bring them victory, they could not adapt fast enough to overcome the unexpected. They lost because they had not prepared for Murphy.

For any responsible instructor, the knowledge that Murphy is out there has a meteoric impact on what he teaches. This is why is my first rule of teaching: NEVER teach anything that will get my students killed.

While that may sound like a simple standard, what you are going to learn about on this page is going to show you why it's not that simple. Moreover, you're going to discover exactly why anyone who presents himself as all-knowing about this subject is lying like a rug. A lie that can get you killed.

Because when it comes to violence, what you don't know will kill you.

Live Fire vs. Training
One of my favorite saying is: The difference between theory and practice is that, in theory, there is no difference

To put that in perspective, the first time I was ever shot at I was 15. As of this writing, it's been 12 years since my last firefight. Not only is that a new record for me (not having someone try to kill me for such a long time), but that time in between first and last shooting incident is 20 years of serious violence. Much of that was professionally telling nasty people "No."  In those 20 years I encountered all kinds of complexities, variables, unknowns and bloody chaos. When I say "there are all kinds of levels, complicating factors and unexpected issues involved when it comes to violence," you might say I'm speaking from a wee-bit of experience.

This is why I have such a negative reaction to individuals who insist that there is no difference between theory and practice ... or no difference between training and doing. Without the benefit of having actually been in the field, they will tell you, with absolute certainty, how effective what they know is. And often they will insist, that their 'system' will teach you everything you need to know.

My problem with this is that you don't know what you aren't being taught.

This is compounded by the fact that there is a big difference between training in preparation to go out into the field and continued training after you've been in the field.

Unfortunately, this important distinction has been lost by many people who believe that training for going out into the field is the same as having been there. This is a very popular misconception. In fact, it is the basis of a great deal of marketing and advertising. Many 'arts' and 'systems' are being presented as everything you need to know in order to survive violence. There is no way that this can be true ... no matter how 'diversified' or 'complete' a training program claims to be.

Field experience will teach you what aspects you need to focus on in training. You will find yourself facing problems your previous training didn't cover. But until you know the problem exists, you cannot effectively train for it. For example, I started my study in Wing Chun -- a system modified from the original to be very effective for fighting in cramped, narrow alleyways of Hong Kong -- after an unpleasant experience of trying to throw a roundhouse kick between two pool tables during a fight. I discovered the hard way that being able to fight in cramped, limited movement conditions was an important skill to have. This did not mean the fighting system I was using previously wasn't effective. It was effective under certain conditions. The fact that 'between two pool tables' wasn't one of those conditions came as a rude surprise.

Live-fire experience teaches us to ask critical questions of our training. Where doesn't this work? What are the limitations of this? What are the common problems that we will encounter in the field? How does this training prepare us for handling these problems? What are the precursors to violence that will give us time to prepare? Knowing this can we avoid it? How do you tell the difference between a situation that cannot be avoided vs. one that can be dealt with sans  violence. What will be the aftermath of violence? What can go wrong? What can I do to fix it? What can I do to prepare for it going wrong?

And, if you intend to survive, perhaps the most important question of all: What aren't you telling me about this subject?

This last question is a life saver. It is especially important for people who are training in preparation for going out into the field. The reason I say this is that all too often training is influence by either institutional concerns or marketing/advertising. That means it has been tailored by someone else -- according to their needs, not necessarily yours. This often results in critical information not being passed on. Information that you need to know in order to survive in the field.

Recognize that this may not be intentional or malicious on the part of the instructor. It is important to realize that instructors cannot teach what they themselves do not know. In fact, often instructors will pass on bad information in the belief that it is good information. If the instructor has never been out in the field, how will he know? All he 'knows' is the program. A program he has been told is 'complete.' He himself has never tested it out, nor does he know what is missing.

For anyone learning from such an individual, this is what is known as an UNK UNK -- an unknown unknown. Your challenge is to try to discover UNK UNKs turn them into known unknowns and turn them into known knowns.

Although these terms might initially sound silly, in the field, UNK UNKs and Murphy's Law are closely related. Below is a general introduction to the subject. Although it is not self-defense oriented, UNK UNKs are not limited to this field. Only, in this field, awareness of the existence of UNK UNKs can help you prepare for surviving Murphy's Law.

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Originally posted MySpace/marcmacyoung  April 15th, 2007

Donald Rumsfeld earned all kinds of scorn from media pundits, Democratic spinmeisters and countless bloggers when he said the following:

"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."

How stupid can someone be to talk that way? Unknown unknowns… what a yokel! What a maroon! Whatta  ignoramous! What a retard!

But is it really that stupid?

More specifically, in these days of blogging, media commentary, editorializing being passed off as news, spindoctoring, Internet outrage and political polarization has this important understanding been lost?

Or, worse yet, has a critical tool of rational thought, logic and weighty consideration become contemptible in the face of emotional knee jerk pontification?

I have a friend who did military intelligence in (this space left intentionally blank) during the recent unpleasantness. It was a very complex and fluid situation where lives could be lost and millions of dollars wasted if intel turned out to be wrong. This is NOT hyperbole, bad intel equaled people dying. Internally there was a lot of bickering and arguing among the brass as to the best course of action. Inside the intel branch and based on what different groups knew (or considered important) there was also conflict. Each group had course of action they thought was best and all were trying to convince the brass theirs was the right direction to take. These camps were getting pretty entrenched and hostile to each other and things bogged down.

General (this space left intentionally blank) called a meeting of the intelligence staff. There he stated the standards he wanted them to use when they delivered intel information to him.

First tell me what you know.

Then tell me what you don't know

Then, and only then, tell me what you think.

This simple statement set every thinking person rocking back because it revealed a major blind spot in all the different camps. They'd begun to mistake what they thought for what they knew.

Because they failed to articulate what they didn't know, they were trying to replace hard facts with what they thought. Using this new perspective, what they thought had been seemingly solid, obvious and logical conclusions often were revealed to have gaping holes. When they had to factor in what they didn't know it became a whole lot less black and white.

In other words, when they were only looking at a situation based on what they knew it had seemed to be a simple:


However, when they had to admit what they didn't know that clear-cut answer of 3 disappeared. The equation turned out to be:

(1 x X) +(1 / Y fraction) + (1 +m2) = ?

While it might seem like it would bog things down even further, what in fact happened was the intel branch was revitalized and made more effective. By forcing them to look at what they didn't know, it opened the floor to discussion and consideration. No longer did it become a matter of "we're right, you're wrong."  Everyone, no matter what camp they were in, had to do it. The different groups started working together and seeing what the other groups had seen that they hadn't. Collectively the groups started coming up with more effective intel that created far more effective strategies on the ground.

There's a lot of value to knowing what you don't know.

Here's the problem, we haven't been trained to think this way anymore. In fact, a great number of people have skipped the whole middle part of asking themselves "what don't I know about this situation?" Based on sketchy information they start drawing conclusions. When this happens what they "think" tends fossilize. Or to be more specific, they mistake what they think for what they know.

And why bother thinking any more when you know something? And that is how entrenched myopia is born... on both sides.

Editorialists, pundits, bloggers, op/ed writers and media "experts" can get away with promoting what they think as what they know. In fact, editorializing has become a major part of what passes as "news" these days. These people no longer report the news, they decide what is and isn't news. And then they ad their own commentary or bring in "experts" to pontificate on the subject before all the facts are known.

My personal favorite is when the pundits  – using some kind of psychic ability -- tell you what the public thinks and wants. How many times have you seen a media pundit tell you how this or that community thinks? "This community is outraged!" "That community wants this" What always amazes me is when someone tells me what Americans thinks. I don't remember seeing his narrow ass on my doorstep asking me what I thought. Did he knock on your door and ask?

And yet, such "experts" have absolutely no shame about telling you what you think. Or what the motives are of others. This is what I find most amusing about commentators who are on the air within hours of a breaking story. Like psychics and weathermen, however, it doesn't seem to matter that pundits and bloggers are repeatedly proven wrong in their predictions. Next time you're in the doctor's office pick up an old magazine and read a story about something that you know how it turned out. See how much of the editorializing turned out to be accurate.

You literally cannot get straight news anymore without someone editorializing about it.

What I want you to realize is that someone editorializing isn't telling you what is known. You can deliver that in just a few minutes. They are telling you what they think. This is a great way to cover up what they don't know about the subject and yet still fill air time or column space.

What's more is that it is distracting you from what you should be asking. If they yammer loud enough and long enough about how it is, you'll forget to ask what they aren't telling you. And that keeps them from having to admit it.

The problem is that if you see this done enough, if you're barraged with it enough, you'll start buying into and not even realize it. It's called indoctrination. Worse, is that you'll find yourself doing the same thing.

Just so we don't fall into that trap, let's go back and take a look at our beliefs in the light of what we know, what we don't know and what we think.

First we look at what we know (known knowns). And that means that we go back and recheck to make sure it is still the case. There are a lot of things that I knew once upon a time that have become obsolete. Since I am no longer in that field, I haven't kept up on these changes so "what I knew" is no longer valid. I'm sure if you think about it, you'll find something that fits this description in your life.

Then look at what don't we know . And then just to really mess things up, realize that there are 'known unknowns' and 'unknown unknowns' (Unk Unks).

An easy way to explain this would be to use a hypothetical cops and robbers situation. The police know that a certain crime family is smuggling drugs into the country. That is a known known. But they don't know how it's all coming in. That would be a known unknown. Much of their efforts are oriented in changing a known unknown into a known.

An Unk Unk would be that there is a dirty cop on the force who is feeding the crime family information about police attempts to find the drugs. That unknown unknown is going to put a serious cramp in the police's plans to change a known unknown into a known. Unk Unks are ugly and they tend to be troublesome until you find out about them. Unfortunately, in real life, they tend to cause a lot of damage until you can identify them.

See how something that we thought we knew can suddenly get a whole lot more complicated? And that is before we even move onto what we think.

After all of this, then we get to reexamine what we think -- in light of the new information we've gathered in the first two stages. I'll bet you dollars to doughnuts you're going to be really surprised because what you thought is probably going to be radically altered when you take this approach.

What's more is you're going to start looking at the media pundits and bloggers in a whole different light because you're going to realize how much they AREN'T telling you.

Let me give you an example: What DON'T you know about the situation in the Middle East? World economics? The uses and applications of oil? Oils importance to our infrastructure and way of life? The percentage of gas used for personal transportation vs. commercial distribution? The competing demand for oil by China? The need for economic stability in the Middle East and why the tribal system and/or divisions along ethnic lines is an unsustainable system in the modern world economy? The religious divide between the Sunnis and Shiites?  The history, rise and economic roots of Islamo- totalitarianism? Until you've looked into these things you can't really understand what is going on in the Middle East.

So let me ask you: How many of those issues had you heard of, but know that you don't really know anything about them?  That's a known unknown.

How many of them were things you never thought about or didn't realize that they were important ? That's an unknown unknown.

 Do a little research into these subjects and you'll be amazed effect it has on what you think is going on in the Middle East. In the end, you'll discover that there is no shame in saying "Look, I don't fully understand the situation." What's more, you'll soon start to distrust anyone who claims to be able to tell you what is going on, but can't talk knowledgably about these factors.

While this is a whole lot of work to do at first, I think you'll find that it has all kinds of applications in life. I know I've personally found it very valuable and useful in all kinds of situations, not the least of which is recalibrating my bullshit detectors. And in these days of marketing, spin doctoring and high speed media is a very useful skill to have.

There were a lot of reasons to despise Rumsfeld, but not because he admitted to Unk Unks.

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Expand your perspective
Do you begin to see why "What aren't you telling me about this subject" is such an important question?

What isn't your instructor telling you about?  And why?

A good instructor will tell you that there are all kinds of things that a particular training regime doesn't cover. Hopefully, he'll be able to refer you to people who can cover these subjects. But for the record, that has become a known unknown. Now you'll be able to research it.

However, when an instructor tells you that a particular system is all that you need, he's lying. And he's betting your life on you never finding out about that lie.

The sad truth is that the responsibility for finding UNK UNKs and turning them into known knowns is on you. Out in the field, it is your life that is on the line when Mr. Murphy shows up. There is a direct correlation between Murphy's Law cropping up and UNK UNKs.

The sad fact is however, is that most of these UNK UNKs could have been turned into known knowns had you just expanded your approach to training.   Although you'll never get them all, many UNK UNKs are, in fact, known knowns -- in other fields. Therefore, my advice to you is this, don't do all your shopping in one place.

An oft quoted saying of mine is: Truth doesn't exist in isolation, nor is it proprietary. If something is true, then you will find it in many different places and in many different versions.

While that saying is general, let's look at it in the context of "self-defense." Many martial artists, so-called street fighting/reality based self-defense 'experts' will tell you that they can teach you everything about self-defense.


Remember how I started this page? That 20 years between shooting incidents doesn't cover the many years before and after that I studied the subject of violence. I started studying the martial arts when I was 10. That means I have 37 plus years trying to figure out violence -- and I still haven't even come close. One of the biggest reasons I know I don't know everything about this subject is because I've gone to other fields to discover what they know about it.

For example, in MA/SD/WSD/RBSD/DT/streetfighting/knife fight circles there is no word that is tossed around more than 'self-defense.' However, when it comes down to it, there is NO clear idea as to what that term means. I've seen everything from a neck break (from behind and against a helpless opponent), to slashing an unarmed puncher with a knife, to slashing an armed opponent's arm causing him to drop the knife, then the slasher closing in and disemboweling the now unarmed opponent to kicking a downed opponent after you've beaten to the ground -- and all of them were being called 'self-defense.' In essence, most people's definition of self-defense is whatever they want it to be. And unfortunately many instructors add to the confusion by calling dangerous and aggressive techniques 'self-defense.'

But did you know self-defense is a legally defined term? Not only a definition, but a standard that supersedes anything else you might have been told it was? A standard that you will be held accountable to and your actions judged by?

Unfortunately, for you, it doesn't matter what your teacher told you was 'self-defense.' You're the one who is going to be facing prison time if your actions didn't meet the criteria of self-defense. But you'll never hear this from most MA/SD/WSD/RBSD/streetfighting/knife fighting instructors. They're too busy teaching you how to fold, spindle, mutilate and maul someone to mention this huge UNK UNK.

On the other hand, leaving the narrow field MA/SD/WSD/RBSD/streetfighting/ knife fighting training and taking a class on judicious use of lethal force will turn this UNK UNK into a known issue. One that will forever alter your views on what you are being told.

Just remember, it won't be the instructor who is laying in the street bleeding out or facing the prison showers, it will be you. Therefore, if you ever might have to use this training in the field, you might want to start looking at what you're not being told in any particular training system.

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