Don’t Let Known Get Blown to Unknown

By Balaji Prasad

“Every correct answer is necessarily a secret: something important and unknown, something hard to do but doable." - Peter Thiel

The nice thing about the unknown is that it can be whatever you want it to be. It can be molded into different shapes, sizes and colors because it is whatever you want it to be: a thin, wispy fabric that you can caress and play with, letting your fingers run through it, as you twist and turn it to suit your taste.

You may get frightened by the unknown, or you may fall hopelessly in love, and get inextricably entangled with it. However, it is not the unknown itself that is the cause of all these feelings. It is you. And it is the creative images that you paint into the undefined part of life's canvas.

The hopeless romantic

You've got a new job, or you've met the girl of your dreams. You're excited! They were really really nice. They seemed to really value you for who they think you are. This is where you are going to come into your own, be all that you can be, get all the rewards and reverence that you have always deserved, and that you've been searching for, for all this time. Because your circumstances were such, and the people you had so far were such. But this new thing – this new thing is going to be fabulous. It is going to be awesome! There are so many good things about it.

But could there be trouble brewing in your paradise?

Error: divide by zero encountered

Computer programmers understand the “divide by zero" phenomenon well. When the denominator in a fraction somehow gets set to zero, the computer balks. The machine is smart and it knows that it cannot handle a calculation of such magnitude; it is acutely aware of the limits of its capacity because some smart human has taken the time to inform the computer about itself.

Human beings are not as easy to teach though. Divide-by-zero errors are common, causing human computers to go into endless tailspins, trying to crank out calculations well beyond their capacity.

When does a divide-by-zero problem occur for human beings? When the unknown (the numerator) is very large, and the known (the denominator) is zero. But how can what you know be zero!? Surely, you know something about the thing, whatever the thing is. So, in our example, wouldn't the excited young man know something about “the one and only one", and about the field of what's out there, and life in general including some of the gotchas and the gold? Sure, but the thing is it doesn't matter what he knows, if his imagination gives him wings and takes him on a fantasy-filled magic-carpet ride, leaving behind what he knows on the ground.

So in our divide-by-zero problem, the denominator (the known) goes to zero, since there are no knowns to speak of. And the numerator (the unknown) is very large, because that is the very definition of the “unknown": it can be anything at all.

But all is well, for now, for our little human computer. At least, it seems that way.

A computer can't program itself!

All is well, because the human sitting inside the computer is not aware of what has happened to the denominator (it's gone), and what, to the numerator – it has been replaced by the product of imagination. So the numerator seems smaller than it really is, while the denominator seems larger than it is at the moment.

Only someone outside you can see your imagination running riot, and the knowledge inside you that lays untapped. It needs an outside voice to yell out to warn you when you're about to do an unwitting divide by zero.

The trouble with someone outside you is that you don't trust most of the people who live outside your little human computer to be truthful, and to know enough about you. And so you plug your ears, ignore these noisy “miscreants", and go on your merry way doing a dangerous divide by zero. Actually, it is not really “merry", because divides by zero are not fun when they happen. They burn up your circuits, producing lots of heat and discomfort. You begin to realize a bit too late that the calculation that seemed so simple is now producing “unforeseen" effects that are detrimental to your well-being, and that there is no easy way to back away from the whole thing. Because, in many of the really important things in life, there is no undo-button!

Because there is no undo-button, you need a yeller – or two – on the outside. If you have someone that you can trust, listen to that yeller feller, before your wild imagination and your hopeless romanticism causes you to do a divide by zero! Trust me, the pain can be bad. Really bad!

The unknown can be beautiful, if you respect it and are willing to see its mysteriousness, even if you have to be led by the nose by that yeller feller so that you see it. Maybe you can reclaim the denominator that you lost, and strip out your imagination from the numerator. Then you can begin the hard work of figuring out whatever you can of the numerator – you can at least work on the known unknowns, research them and get a sense for them.

It could still be a large fraction, but at least it won't be a divide-by-zero. Happy computing!


Balaji Prasad is an IIT/IIM graduate, a published author, SAT/ACT Online and Offline Coach, interview, resume, and career coach at NewCranium. Contact: 704.746.9779 or