Information is Overrated

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“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

Techniques like spaced review, association, mind-mapping and summarizing are all effective at helping you retain information longer.

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?

Absolutely not.

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?

If you enjoyed this article, you can derive value from it by retweeting it, liking it, or leaving me a comment.

Photo cred: macsurak

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Alanna Parke Kvale March 10, 2011, 5:22 pm

    I love all your articles! They make me think & they make me laugh, both necessary to my daily life & work. Keep ’em coming!

  • Anonymous March 10, 2011, 5:25 pm

    Thanks Alanna, I’m glad you enjoy them.

  • Shanna Mann March 10, 2011, 8:01 pm

    I liked this article! I’m not a skimmer, as I have heard “everyone” is. And while I long ago learned a technique for absorbing the information, integrating it with the things I already know, and shelving it appropriately, I now have the problem of not remembering WHERE I read the information. And the web is a big haystack.

    fwiw, the best way I know to learn is to teach. And if that isn’t possible, talk your husband’s ear of with “What I learned today”

  • JALINEBERRY March 11, 2011, 2:37 am

    The part of this article that most resonated with me was the bit about knowing everything, but doing nothing with it. I feel like I’m constantly learning new, but useless, things. The useful stuff gets lost and forgotten amidst all of the useless, but interesting things (to me, at least) that I know. I like the idea of writing down important things. Lately, I’ve found that my fact/name/term recall has really suffered in this era of google/wikipedia, where so much of the world’s knowledge is quite literally at your fingertips. So, I’ve taken to listing things I think are important for me to know and remember.

  • Eimantas March 11, 2011, 5:54 am

    I do agree with you about the “knowing, but doing nothing” thing. Although there are certain areas where you have to read really a lot just to start from tiniest bits and pieces. In these situations (which happens for me from time to time) I tend to believe that “reading even more” is actually doing something with the knowledge I gained before.

    Also – the best way for me to learn something, that has proven through the years – is to imitate/replicate what I’ve read (in other words – teach myself from the book again). So it happened that I didn’t have all the time someone to teach about what I’ve learned so only person that was left was me. Most of these times – such self-tutorings were the beginnings of knowledge integration into my own projects and/or personal life.

  • Anonymous March 11, 2011, 6:52 pm

    You make a great point about sifting for details and adding that to what you already know. This is a definitely a way to put information into practice and I totally overlooked it. And as for replication, that’s a great way to really lock down new information.

  • Anonymous March 11, 2011, 7:02 pm

    I think that knowledge is meant to be shared. Think of packing a suitcase. You leave the suitcase open for weeks before your trip and keep adding in. You have a certain amount of useful stuff you need to take, but it’s soon overflowing with lots of extra stuff that might be fun but is only marginally useful and has the potential to weight you down.

    What’s the solution? Get a bigger suitcase? Give some of it away? I don’t know.

    I reckon it depends on how you like to travel. Personally, I think that sharing knowledge is like getting a bigger, gravity-defying suitcase. Sometimes that ‘useless’ stuff can come in handy on a trip.

  • Anonymous March 11, 2011, 7:07 pm

    Shanna, thanks for your comment. I agree about teaching; part of the reason I keep this little blog going (though my wife is an infinitely patient listener 🙂

    For remembering where I read stuff on the web, I have a button to ‘bookmark on delicious’ in my browser. Throw in a couple easily-remembered tags and I’m set. The trick is remembering to bookmark the important stuff.

  • Emilie Wapnick March 12, 2011, 7:17 pm

    Hey Seth!

    I love that you’re experimenting with audio. Very cool idea, great audio quality too. Are you going to expand this idea into full-on podcasts? I think you’d be great at it. Haha did you kiss goodbye at the end there or was it just the audio turning off/a fluke? I think you should kiss goodbye.. that could be your thing. lol..

    I agree big time with this post. I’ve become very selective with what I read. I try to only do “just in time learning”, so that if something comes to my attention that looks interesting but isn’t applicable for what I’m doing now, I’ll put it aside. That way most of what I read has an actual application and I can stay focused and not get distracted by the lure of information… which can be a great procrastination tool to avoid getting ANYTHING done. Bad news.

    Thanks for the awesome post!

  • Angela Geise March 13, 2011, 7:21 pm

    Truly excellent post, Seth! Knowledge really should be shared and made useful by others. If knowledge is going to be unused, then of course there’s a chance it’ll eventually be forgotten. Read, experiment, learn, share, and knowledge sticks around and is put to great use.

  • JALINEBERRY March 13, 2011, 10:23 pm

    I second the kissing goodbye idea. You could be like the 21st century blogger version of Johnny B. Badd, that 1980s-90s wrestler who would leave a pair of sticky lips on each of his vanquished foes. Way to separate yourself from the pack!

  • Anonymous March 14, 2011, 3:15 am

    Glad you liked the post & the audio. I actually use an interface for music production along with a Shure SM57. Debating on the full podcasts, might do an interview now and again.

    But no, there was no goodbye kiss. This house makes funny noises. I’ll place the blame there.

  • Anonymous March 14, 2011, 3:18 am

    Thanks Angela. For me, I’ve found that sharing and application are really what make new knowledge stick. A little secret here at Happenchance: if I really need to learn something and if it’s even marginally useful for my readers (systems & documentation, for example), I’ll blog about it. That really helps me nail down new knowledge.

  • Tom March 14, 2011, 4:37 pm

    Great post Seth! I totally agree with you that it’s so easy to passively soak up information on the net and not act on it, my blog is attempting to change that. Before I started my blog, I would have read your stuff (for example) on systems, nodded my head, then moved on. As it stands, I’ve started to create a few systems for myself and as a result have found a lot of value in what you have written and by taking action.

  • Anonymous March 15, 2011, 1:54 am

    Thanks Tom! I’m glad you were able to apply the systems/documentation information to your site. As well as giving you a reason to actively apply the stuff you read, a blog is cool because it gives you a little lab in which to test ideas.

    Keep me posted on how your systems help you. I hope to do a follow-up post in a couple months.