“I read and I forget. I see and I remember. I do and I understand.” – Confucius
The Value of Information
Information is cheap and overrated, like gasoline used to be. We’re drowning in it. Want to know about Napoleon’s exile? That’s easy. Untangling a crappy wiring job on a server rack? Okay. Freaky torture devices used during the Inquisition? Sure, no problem, you can learn that as well (see also ‘untangling crappy wiring’)
You can learn all the obscure stuff you ever needed to know, and while it might be interesting, it’s not necessarily valuable for you as a reader.
Value is created both by the creator/purveyor of the information, as well as the reader, and information is only as valuable as what you do with it. Simply knowing something has little value. Value is created when you actually apply what you’ve learned. Information is just trivia unless it
- helps you make a better decision
- improves your skills (useful or otherwise)
- entertains or enlightens
- can be shared with or made useful for someone else
- promotes social change (see also the current middle east crises)
- can be synthesized and applied to previous knowledge
Here’s the problem: simply knowing something isn’t enough. Learning and knowing is easier than ever, but most people don’t take the time to derive value from what they learn.
You can know everything and still do nothing.
Read and Forget
Up to a point, passive knowledge is useful as well; you can learn a lot by simply soaking up what you read. Eventually, though, you’ll be become oversaturated and the returns you receive from studying a topic diminish. And you’ll forget a good part of what you read.
How many times do I need to read variations on the same thing in order to derive value from that information? How much information do I need to soak up in order to make the best decision? Apply the 80/20 rule to information absorption and it’s safe to assume we can soak up 80% of what we need in 20% of the time we spend reading.
You can spend weeks reading about a subject. This has its place. Reading is fun and builds your understanding.
But without using any basic memorization strategies the average person forgets a vast majority of what they read after 30 days. Does this seem like a good use of your time?
For fiction, I think that’s a damn fine use of my time. Why? Because the experience of reading is where I find value.
For everything else, for information meant to be actionable, however, we have to do more than just read.
See and Remember
My question: who actually does this? Come on, be honest. This is one of those things that you might hear, nod your head and say ‘oh, okay, that sounds good,’ then do nothing.
I write about this stuff and still only do this about 30% of the time. But, when I take the time to do it, I know I’ve got it. And if I do forget something later, it’s easy to refer back to my notes to remind myself.
To repeat: You can know everything and still do nothing.
Do and Understand
On their own, facts and information only have so much value. You have to create value by doing something with them.
For example, if a student wants to ensure she knows her facts about the Hussite Wars (first European wars to use gunpowder pistols), she can
- teach what she knows to her fellow students.
- draw parallels with other conflicts, associating relevant facts (gunpowder/church reform/etc)
- write a summary of what she learned.
- create a mind map for a visual representation of the factors surrounding the conflict.
But what if I want to learn skill specific-information about, say, effective music rehearsals? Is it just enough to read the strategies, nod my head, and go on?
Of course not.
Assuming I want to have more effective rehearsals, I’ll need to devise a plan to put this into action….then actually follow through with that plan.
One more example: Learning obscure, random, and/or strange facts is fun, but how can you apply this information?
Am I saying that useless information is entirely without value?
Besides its inherent entertainment/interest value, you can create more value by sharing this information with people. Use your ‘useless’ information to make somebody laugh, think, or cringe (see Inquisition torture devices) and you’ve suddenly created value from that information.
Action: Next time you read something potentially useful, make a note of it and look for ways to derive value from what you just read.
tl;dr You can know everything and do nothing. On its own, information has little value. However, you can make good use of your time and create value from information by doing something with it.
In a few days, I’ll publish Why Is Behavior Change So Damn Hard? This post will give you a few things to try out, including tactics for deriving more value from information. Join the Happenchance email list to get it when its fresh.
Talk to me
How much of what you read do you apply? Do you take notes on what you read? If so, how do you keep track of them?
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Photo cred: macsurak