A monthly newsletter on mastery and creativity Subscribe


How to Extract Usefulness In Information

In the pursuit of self-directed learning, how do we discern what is useful, truthful, or immediately practical? One article may tell you to stop buying coffee to save money, and another may say that buying a $5 cup of coffee was never the problem.

As a voracious reader and consumer of knowledge, at times I find it overwhelming and difficult to draw a line between what I read and what I put into practice. I tell myself to save it to my commonplace book, but the habit sometimes forgets to click into place.

In This Will Make You Smarter, contributor Gerald Smallberg shares this nugget of wisdom on the realities of the accessibility and free flow of information, something that is easy to overlook:

“The exponential explosion of information and its accessibility make our ability to gauge its truthfulness not only more important but also more difficult. Information has importance in proportion to its relevance and meaning. Its ultimate value is how we use it to make decisions and put it in a framework of knowledge. Our perceptions are crucial in appreciating truth. However, we do not apprehend objective reality. Perception is based on recognition and interpretation of sensory stimuli derived from patterns of electrical impulses. From this data, the brain creates analogs and models that stimulate tangible, concrete objects in the real world. Experience, though, colors and influences all of our perceptions by anticipating and predicting everything we encounter. It is the reason Goethe advised that ‘one must ask children and birds how cherries and strawberries taste.’ This preferential set of intuitions, feelings, and ideas — less poetically characterized by the term ‘bias’ — poses a challenge to our ability to weigh evidence accurately to arrive at truth. Bias is the thumb that experience puts on the scale.”

There are two key thoughts here that repeat in my mind:

  • “Information has importance in proportion to its relevance and meaning. Its ultimate value is how we use it to make decisions and put it in a framework of knowledge.”
  • “This preferential set of intuitions, feelings, and ideas — less poetically characterized by the term ‘bias’ — poses a challenge to our ability to weigh evidence accurately to arrive at truth.”

In the words of Epictetus, “Books are the training weights of the mind. They are very helpful, but it would be a bad mistake to suppose that one has made progress simply by having internalized their contents.” I disagree with half of that statement. Internalizing the contents of a book or article primes us to make better decisions; that is progress because most people don’t read. It prepares us to break out of old habits, even if that means preparing before taking action. But of course, implementing the knowledge is the lifeblood of change and growth. If we read about time management because it’s an issue, we should implement the tactics that alleviate wasted time. If we read about philosophy and principles, we should exercise these principles in our daily lives to see how they change us.

In regards to bullet point #2, confirmation bias is a powerful factor—we read things that confirm our beliefs. A question worth asking ourselves is, if we were faced with evidence that went against our beliefs, and this evidence was meticulously tested, would we change our minds? If you believe that horoscopes predict your day, week, year, or life, as well as your personality, and you were presented with evidence that strongly suggests those gimmicks can’t possibly be true, would you change your mind?

I read a fantastic piece by Scott Samuelson in The Atlantic called Why I Teach Plato To Plumbers (HT to Maria Popova). Samuelson says something that I state in my book, Connect The Dots, about studying subjects that are outside of our comfort zone. He says:

“Why shouldn’t educational institutions predominately offer classes like Business Calculus and Algebra for Nurses? Why should anyone but hobbyists and the occasional specialist take courses in astronomy, human evolution, or economic history? So, what good, if any, is the study of the liberal arts, particularly subjects like philosophy?  Why, in short, should plumbers study Plato?

My answer is that we should strive to be a society of free people, not simply one of well-compensated managers and employees. Henry David Thoreau is as relevant as ever when he writes, “We seem to have forgotten that the expression ‘a liberal education’ originally meant among the Romans one worthy of free men; while the learning of trades and professions by which to get your livelihood merely, was considered worthy of slaves only.”

This kind of realization is difficult to embrace because society fetishizes and champions immediate gratification, security, and money over meaning. If I were in that teaching position and a plumber or bank clerk or a waitress asked me, what’s the purpose of studying philosophy? I would answer: Do you deal with adversity, rude customers, random hassles that “ruin” your day? Then philosophy is exactly what you need— not a drink after work, not a rant on Facebook.

So back to the main question, how do we extract useful in information that we obtain throughout our lives?

1. Ask yourself many questions: This is a practice, and a difficult one at that. Let’s say you’re the plumber. Now you’re learning about Taoism, Stoicism, Buddhism, and a whole variety of philosophies, each with their own sets of principles that facilitates mindfulness, inner peace, or a way of life. If you do or think like X, you will achieve Y. Perhaps this is where teachers are more important than ever; we need someone to guide our thinking, to help us attain an understanding and connect the dots. Without the teacher, and without peers or a group to exchange ideas, I can understand how it can be difficult to learn on your own. What the plumber can do is ask a series of questions that are related to his or her life. How does this school of philosophy help me deal with rude customers? How does this way of thinking help me deal with someone who doesn’t want to pay me right away? How does this school of thought help me deal with a pipe exploding after I just got done fixing it?

2. Make it interesting: We view subjects through the lens of hierarchy. Some prefer math over writing, and vice versa. But to truly become a “society of free people” the basic foundation to this aspiration is the ability to think for ourselves, to take subjects that are seemingly lackluster and making them interesting because they are useful in some strange way. As a waitress, how can you make science interesting? Well, let’s be specific. Are we talking about science like planets and gravity, or can we focus on something relevant to our endeavors, like the science of body language, smiling, clear communication, and in turn, effective customer service? These little bits of knowledge can profoundly change our behaviors and attitude if we implement them daily, to see how they work and if they improve our quality of life and work. There is a clear reason why I tip someone 20% versus a few bucks. It has everything to do with their understanding of their role and how they do it. What stands in the way of being remarkable is ego, which stems, I think, from fear—the belief that one is too good for that position, and that they’ll be paid regardless of their efforts. And yet, people wonder why they’re sad, miserable, or don’t get the rewards they think they’re entitled to.

3. Every subject is useful: And that’s because whatever you study will help you think. The goal isn’t always about mastering the subject, it’s about training yourself to think. Thinking is a muscle—the ability to break apart, dissect, or examine a subject, its individual parts, how it makes up the whole, how it all functions, and more. As a child, Jack Dorsey, creator of Twitter, was deeply inspired by trains and emergency dispatches on police scanners. Their ability to send quick bits of information regarding location and time became the inspiration behind Twitter. Strange, isn it, that a childhood fascination for something seemingly irrelevant can turn into an idea that changes communication, culture, connection, and the spread of information? It does help to study subjects that resonate with you because the interest in the subject may motivate you to dig deeper, but always remember that every subject is useful in some way. The connections may not be made now, but the potential for worthy ideas and realizations is worth pursuing.

I love Scott Samuelson’s take on education and striving to be a society of free people. All too often, we carry delusions and untrained beliefs that obstruct us from living greatly. The fear of change and adapting keeps up close-minded and stagnate. This diminishes our ability to appreciate life and to understand the kind of potential that each and every one of us possess. Information will ceaselessly bombard our lives, influencing us to think or behave in a certain way, for good or ill. Our ability to discern what’s useful, truthful, and practical is an ability worthy of mastery and care. We must always question the information we obtain, while engaging in a kind of thinking that allows us challenge subjects, stay open-minded, but above all, be willing to adapt our beliefs and change our minds so that we may free ourselves from the kind of poisonous beliefs that keep us stuck.