How to Navigate a Situation You Don't Fully Understand

Ask this important question.

Welcome to One Thing Better. Each week, the editor in chief of Entrepreneur magazine (that's me) shares one way to level up — and build a career or company you love.

Today’s one thing: Acting on what you know.

That one thing, better: Pausing on what you don’t know.

You think you have a good sense of perspective…

But then life gets in the way. How often do you find yourself making assumptions or judgments? Or assuming the worst? Or thinking someone hates you, when they don’t?

We all do it. It’s human. It’s also exhausting and distracting.

Today, I’ll give you a way to help break that cycle. It begins with a question:

What don’t I know here?

To appreciate it, I’ll tell you about a recent, scary moment for my family — and how asking that question could have saved everyone a lot of trouble.

The fire in my neighborhood

A few weeks ago, a house caught fire near me.

My wife called 911, and I ran around the block to find the house’s exact address. When I got there, the scene was awful. A woman was screaming. Neighbors were frantic. The fire was spreading to a second house. And fortunately, the first fire truck was just pulling up.

I watched these firefighters get immediately to work. Some hooked up a hose and attacked the fire. Others went inside the house. I took some video to show my wife and kids. Here’s a still from it:

Then I ran to my backyard, which is only a few hundred feet away, and waited with a hose in case the fire spread toward us.

While there, I posted my video on Twitter/X. I wrote simply: “Fire near my home in Brooklyn — pretty scary.”

Many people replied with appropriate concern. Then this anonymous user (using the name of an obscure Seinfeld character) chimed in:

I shouldn’t have been surprised. Stupidity is a central feature of Twitter. 

But as more than 100 firefighters and emergency responders swarmed my neighborhood, I kept thinking about “Ned’s” tweet. Part of me was upset by it. But another part of me wanted to understand it, like a puzzle to be solved.

Because here’s the thing: Ned and I wanted the same thing — for the fire to be stopped. But where I saw heroics, Ned saw incompetence. Where does a divide like this come from?

Then I had a realization.

It’s about the stories we tell

You and I are not trolls. But we have leapt to conclusions at times, just as Ned did.

Why? I’m sure there are scientific studies on this — but as a professional storyteller, here’s how I’ve made sense of it:

We understand our world through linear action, the same way we tell a story. A leads to B leads to C. And if part of a story is missing, our brains just fill in the gaps.

For example, consider this very short story: 

Jack was working, then a goat appeared. 

That’s it! That’s the whole story.

Now play it out in your head. I bet that, for the 50,000 people reading this newsletter, there are 50,000 versions of this story. We all took two disconnected pieces of information — Jack was working, a goat appeared — and found some way to connect them. Maybe, for some of you, the goat magically appeared inside Jack’s office. Maybe, for others, Jack works on a farm and the goat wandered in.

The point is: Our understanding of the world isn’t just based on what we know. It’s based on the assumptions we fill in.

You can see how, depending on how we feel, our understanding of the world can look very different — and our interpretation of real events can drift away from reality.

And again: I’m not just talking about internet trolls here. I’m talking about you, too.

Are you telling the wrong story?

You send a project to your client. They do not respond. You assume they’re unhappy.

You talk with an important business partner. They seem less enthusiastic than last time. You assume the partnership is doomed.

But... are those facts related? Maybe. But maybe not! You filled in gaps, like Jack and the goat. Then you freaked yourself out.

So how can we fix this problem? Well, I’ll start by sharing what I sent Ned on Twitter, after he criticized the firefighters:

You cannot take a small amount of information, and assume you know all the other relevant information. That’s what I told Ned, and it’s what I’m now telling you too.

Instead, whenever you look at a situation that concerns you, you should ask the question that I shared at the beginning:

“What don’t I know here?”

If it’s helpful, make a list! Identify all the things you do not know about any concerning situation.

Ned, for example, did not know when I took that video, or what the fire scene looked like. (He presumably also knows nothing about firefighting.) Imagine if he’d considered those gaps in knowledge before tweeting. He probably wouldn’t have tweeted at all.

Now let’s talk about you. Did you reach out to someone important, didn’t heard back yet, and now you assume they hate or are ignoring you? Well, what don’t you know here? It’s a lot! You don’t know what else is going on in their lives. Or how busy they are. Or if their dog just died. Or anything.

You don’t know, and you can’t know.

But once you know what you don’t know, you can start to dismantle the terrible story you’ve told yourself. The pieces no longer hold together.

The great irony of all this

Everything I’ve said so far might sound obvious. You might read Ned’s tweet and think, “I’d never be that foolish!”

But Ned wasn’t the only one making assumptions during the fire.

Let me take you back to that day. The fire had been been raging for about an hour, and was now heavily concentrated in the back, top portions of those three-story houses. This was a problem. Brooklyn is dense, and the firefighters on the ground couldn’t find a good angle to reach that high.

Then the firefighters did something brilliant: They parked a truck on my block, which is just behind the fire. Then they extended a ladder above my neighbor’s house. It’s kind of hard to imagine, so here’s a diagram:

Now they had a direct shot at the fire. But they did nothing for maybe 30 minutes.

My family and I watched from our bedroom window, and my wife was freaking out. “They need to turn the water on!” she kept saying, as if the firefighters did not know this.

And there it was — the assumptions! The filling in of gaps! My wife saw way more of this situation than Ned on Twitter saw, but she still made the same fundamental mistake.

As I wrote this newsletter weeks later, my wife and I reflected on this moment. Now, of course, she sees it clearly.

“Maybe they didn’t have the right water pressure. Maybe there was something structural that would have been dangerous. We’re not firefighters! We didn’t know!” she told me. “All we knew is that we couldn’t see past our own immediate panic — so even when we had a front-row seat for the fire, we were making assumptions. It’s hard, when you’re in the moment and things seem to be veering out of control, for you to reign yourself in and not let the assumptions consume you.”

Eventually, the firefighters did turn the water on. I took this photo:

That changed everything. The fire was in retreat.

So in the end, what did Ned accomplish with his tweet? What did my wife accomplish with her freak-out? The answer is nothing. Assumptions and judgments and catastrophizing generally accomplish nothing — except to distract ourselves from more important work.

So I am asking you to do something simple but extremely difficult: I am asking you to live with uncertainty. I am asking you to know that you do not know — and then to not fill in the blanks. I am asking you to wait.

You will know the story eventually. Time will reveal it.

And in the meantime, consider the stories you do know with confidence. Something else requires your attention right now. Something or someone else can benefit from your energy. Shift it there. Act on what you know.

Imagine how much kinder and more generous the world would be, if only everyone asked this same question — what don’t I know here? Imagine they asked it before they judged someone, before they yelled at someone, before they posted something online, before they assumed the worst, before they beat themselves up, before they retreated into themselves, before they stopped being as helpful as they could be.

There is so much we don’t know, but I do know this: We’d all be better off.

That’s how to do one thing better.

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One Thing Better is read by 50,000 entrepreneurs, professionals, and curious people. There’s still space available this spring! Contact me through this form for rates, etc.

P.S. Did you miss last week’s newsletter? It was about the first thing you should do when facing change. Read!

P.P.S. Are you watching 3 Body Problem? I’ve been geeking out on it, and really enjoyed this backstory from the casting:

When they auditioned Zine Tseng for the role of the younger Ye Wenjie, the producing team was in London, Zine was in LA, and they had a terrible Zoom connection. So she’d do an emotional scene, get cut off, patiently wait until everyone was back on, and resume. “The fact that she kept her cool, but not only that, got better and better each take, it was one of the more extraordinary auditions I’d seen,” one of the showrunners said on the show’s official podcast.

Just goes to show you: Bad situations can work to your benefit — because they give you the opportunity to be the hero. You just have to see them that way.

P.P.S. Have you tried an AI notetaker yet? It’s pretty awesome — I now use one in almost every meeting. Its summaries (and bullet-point notes) are crazy impressive. I even treat it like a service: When I start a meeting, I’ll offer to send someone a link to my notes afterward. That saves us both from taking notes, which they’re really appreciative of. Try it! I use Fathom.

(I signed on to be a Fathom affiliate, but only because I genuinely use and like the product.)

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