The danger of not knowing what you don't know

By Mike Cook
Management Developer

Kimberly Davis is a good friend. She is also one of the most creative people I know working in leadership development.

Her work allows leaders to find their authentic voices, something we all yearn for, especially at work.

She sent me the following story about her son and I wanted to share it with you. It is a welcome reminder of a bit of wisdom we frequently lose sight of, told in her unique voice.

Go Kimberly…

“For Easter, when our son was three, we gave him a viewfinder. Ever since his grandma bought him a broken robot at a garage sale when he was two, our kiddo was totally obsessed with robots. So naturally, when the Easter Bunny left a viewfinder in Jeremy’s Easter basket, he immediately started calling it his ‘Robot Eyes.'”

“For a solid week he wouldn’t go anywhere without his Robot Eyes. He’d be sitting in the backseat of the car, on the way to preschool with a kid’s snack bar in one hand (hey, we were running late) and the other holding up his Robot Eyes, through which he claimed to see a whole new world.”

I think in a sense that’s what we all do. We all have our invisible Robot Eyes plastered to our faces. We’ve held them up for so long that we don’t even know that they’re there.

And it turns out that we only have one disc, the one that came with the thing.

We flash through the pictures on that disc only seeing the same old pictures flash in front of us again and again. We forgot that we can take them off, maybe we never knew!

We forget that we can go to the hobby store and buy a new disc, or ten new discs or borrow someone else’s disc. We only see what we see.

That’s what the world has become to us. We don’t know how to look at the new people we meet, and the new things that happen to us as they really are: new! We only look through our Robot Eyes.

Professionally, I’ve found this to be a tremendous barrier. I’ve decided, erroneously, who would benefit from working with me and who wouldn’t. I’ve not had important conversations that need to be had, because I didn’t think it was possible to be understood. I’ve not brought ideas to the table, because I didn’t think they’d be valued.

And, after working with hundreds of leaders, I find I’m not alone.

For leaders, this is a particularly tough challenge. With the intention of communicating authority, confidence and credibility, we stop asking ourselves these questions: What is it I don’t know? Is there another way of doing this I haven’t thought of? Is there another perspective that might be useful?

Personally, I have to work daily to remind myself to pry my Robot Eyes from my face. It’s not something that comes naturally.

When I do, I feel a bit vulnerable and exposed, without the familiarity of my own worldview.

Yet when I do, I’m able to more fully connect with people around me, with opportunities I didn’t know were there, with solutions to problems I couldn’t solve on my own.

The mind is such a funny thing.

We think we’re seeing things clearly; that we’ve processed all the evidence and have come up with the most logical conclusion, and yet we come to find out that our own perceptions might be terrorizing our life.

Consider that many of our biggest challenges exist simply because of the way we’re looking at things. Maybe we need a new disc, or two or ten for our viewfinders.

Perhaps playing the same old disc over and over is what keeps us from the very things we most long to have—connection, opportunity and solutions.

This month I challenge you to focus more on what you don’t know, on looking for a different way to see. With an open mind, ask your direct reports and colleagues, particularly those who don’t typically agree with you, about their ideas and perceptions (be sure to make it safe for them to share honestly, and be mindful of appreciating what they have to say).

Removing your personal viewfinder isn’t easy. But don’t worry. It’s not like getting a bad sunburn wearing strange glasses.

Nobody can actually see the big white rings on your face where your “Robot Eyes” used to be. Only you know that they were there.

And I won’t tell if you don’t.

Mike Cook lives in Anacortes, Wash. His columns appear on every other Tuesday. He also publishes a weekly blog at

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