Awareness in the Land of Unknown Unknowns

I recently shared a few ideas on knowns knowns and known unknowns for public K12 education heading into 2021. This week, we wade into the anxious and murky world of unknown unknowns. We usually don’t know what lies around the corner, but if we are paying attention then we know something is there. It’s going to present itself whether we like it or not. All we can control and plan for is our ability to respond.

One of my favorite quotes comes from the poet Jane Hirshfield:

By keeping those three maxims in mind we can practice making peace with the unknown and find opportunities to practice our own skills of awareness. Recently, I have been reminding my team that we need to “keep our heads on a swivl.” That idea of maintaining situational awareness was imprinted on me during high school by a football coach and was cultivated professionally by many years as a bartender and middle school assistant principal.

Likewise when I’ve wondered into trouble or made mistakes both at work and at home, it could be attributed to three things: not paying attention, failing to notice connections, and not the maintaining readiness. Or to put it Hirshfield’s way, not paying attention, forgetting that everything is connected, and not being ready when inevitable change happens.

Today, living in a world full of unknown unknowns is not a symptom of the pandemic. We may be more aware of change since COVID-19 entered our lives, but just because we were less aware before does not mean the regular state of existence is not constant change.

We all have different ways of responding to life and changes. Different ways of embracing the nuances we encounter every day. My methods have varied wildly over the last 42 years and even those methods that did not appear to serve me well at the time have been valuable teachers.

These days I have three practices I try to hold true to in order to maintain awareness and respond to change with intention. They seem simple, but my experience is that they are force multipliers.

1. Prioritize sleep. I go to bed so early my kids make fun of me.

2. Strenuous exercise. It keeps the demons at bay and softens the edges in a healthy way.

3. Limit or eliminate alcohol. This has been a new practice for me over roughly the last 18 months. I can’t point to any behavior change that has had a more wide-ranging positive impact.

I’m sure these practices will change over time, but all I know right now is that when I’m following them with fidelity, everything else is just a little bit easier. I respond just a little bit better to the inevitable unknown unknowns. And when I’m not as intentional about these three practices, the unknown unknowns can hit me hard. I simply don’t respond as well.

So my challenge to you is to identify 2-3 personal practices you can control and you recognize have knock-on positive effects. Focus on being intentional about those few behaviors, build simple habits, and you will grow your ability to maintain awareness in a world of unknown unknowns.

It’s all you can do.

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