Exploring why are we so tired using the framework of the unknown:unknown

6 min readApr 22, 2020

Sensemaking of our response to the fear of systemic risk and what is next?

COVID19 is not a Black Swan event and it was predicted as far back as 2015 if not earlier. This article ponders why we are so mentally exhausted and how we should react next. It argues that we need leadership and structure at this time to ensure that this crisis does not become destructive to ourselves individually or collectively as a society.

As leaders we need to hear, listen and accept a wider range of views, as we all search for a new “normal life”. As individuals, we need to take care of ourselves and keep a check on our level of exhaustion, which in this case is processing, learning and thinking exhaustion. It is mental and emotional exhaustion and not a physiological one. There is nothing we can do to process and make sense quicker, it will take time and we have to accept it and find the learnings and value in it.

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The matrix of known:unknown has been around since 1955 and is a super tool that helps map our understanding of risk for scenario planning and game theories. It has been updated numerous times and remains a current and useful tool. Whilst it definitely can help us think about current issues such as digital and data, helping us to focus and allocate limited resources, but does it help with our response to COVID19?

Applying the “unknown:unknown” framework to our personal and collective responses may help us understand where we are up to, in terms of our own understanding of the effects of COVID19 on us individually and as a society. The axes are, “it is known:unknown to ME and “it is known:unknown to YOU.” The extreme of unknown to you or me embraces unknown to anyone.

Sometime in Dec 2019, the majority of the world started to become aware of a new virus. Starting from the bottom left, a deep fear of the unknown. For you and me this was firmly in the quadrant of unknown:unknown. Neither of us had any data on the virus, its effects on humans, the ramifications for the economy or how we should / could respond. A human characteristic, that we cannot evade, is that we try to avoid, ignore, dismiss or bypass unknown situations, as we cannot process or make sense of it. In psychology, this is seen as a core animal fear and part of the fight or flight mechanism.

We can now look back and observe the array of fear expressions in our initial response to covid19 from the emergence of conspiracy theories, #fakenews, blame, dismissal — “it will blow over by Easter” or “it is just the flu, get over it!”. There was limited factual data available but we could not make sense of it, and perhaps we simply did not want to accept the reality of this sci-fi film scenario playing out in our real life.

Right now we can see that we are on the journey from fear (bottom left) to uncertainty (the centre) at which point different scenarios will play out. As we exit our response from fear we are starting to see our people and the public enter into emotional responses based on their own personal experiences and makeup. Some are bulk buying, others are rejecting the lockdown, others are too afraid to go out and most are overwhelmed needing leadership and direction. We are heading towards a peak emotional response, although this response is framed within the context of ignoring the data that does not support our fear or what’s believed as socially acceptable.

Post uncertainty our paths will divide into our individual framings and understandings, which are shaped by our relationship, sources, information, analysis, insights, and wisdom within reach and within the context of our personal beliefs. There is a dynamic set of facts that an individual will accept as truth. This will enable each of us to normalise. By the same means, these personal variances of truth will cause confusion and create division as we all hunker down holding on to our own personal beliefs, biases, and preferences. There will not be two camps, but as many as there are people, +1.

In previous global events such as with HIV (1980), SARS (2012), or even acts of terrorism, we generally passed the initial emotional response, but we still never exited the unknown:unknown state and now live with a given level of fear and have rationalised the risk. We accept and live with uncertainty choosing to live with what would have been unacceptable in the first instance.

Today, we can still feel the ramifications of the 2008 GFC (global financial crisis) so we should not expect a rapid return from this unprecedented crisis. Nonetheless, we are adapting and eventually, we will make sense of this systemic change. Many of us are already off creating viewpoints and frameworks of what a new acceptable model for “business as usual” as we need a new north star and something to aim for.

Along with new economic and business models, we will have to create new rules and heuristics to make our life easier again. This means that all our rules of thumb, shortcuts, and heuristics are gone and new ones need to be created and adopted. Fundamentally we can achieve so much as individuals and society as we have found ways to avoid thinking and processing everything we have to do. When we have learned to do something, we don’t have to relearn each time, we just follow a rule, as learning, has high energy requirements, which the body tries to avoid. This is especially true when we are talking about such deep foundational “norms”.

It is no wonder most of us are feeling tired and utterly exhausted as we are having to learn everything all over again. It is as if we are playing a game mid-game the rules were changed without us being informed leaving us having to learn new rules as we play each move to survive the game.

What does this mean?

As we begin to exit our initial response of fear in the lower left quadrant of unknown: unknown, we can expect people to be searching for guidance and emotional assurance. This is the time to provide compassionate leadership and structure to ensure that this does not become destructive to our families, businesses, society, but rather move us to a care economy guided by a higher purpose then profits at any cost.

This is a new type of support that we have never had to find nor offer that is however critical to being able to find a route to a new meaningful normal. We need to hear, listen, and accept a wide range of views as we all search for new acceptable concessions.

We also need to take care of ourselves and keep a check on our level of new exhaustion. This is mental and emotional exhaustion and not a physical one. There is nothing we can do to process and make sense quicker, it will take time and we have to accept it. The answer does not lie just in more data, more conversations, or more reading; it is also in acceptance of all scenarios and that the possibility of all outcomes, most of which we don’t like, is equal and the only way to change that is to acknowledge our fear and uncertainty and recognize the opportunities to create the so needed changed.

It is therefore critical that we maintain our sense of humour, compassion, forgiveness, and gratitude. We need to hold on to these traits whilst facing the ugly truth that the socioeconomic model that was our old normal, had not priced in poverty, systemic risk, nor the essential shift from growth at any cost models to regenerative models with an eye on sustainability. Onwards.

This was crafted based on thinking, sharing, and discussions between the authors Lubna and Tony.




enabler, catalyst, passionate about designing meaningful and authentic cyber-organic experiences & super proud mom. http://allternet.org