Evaluating Information

There are different kinds of information. Some information requires our immediate attention — although, contrary to what we may think, this sort of information is rare in most people’s lives. Some information requires us to take a step back and re-evaluate our decisions. Some information is useful for a few days or a few weeks, but after that point has no impact on our life. Overall, we work with a lot of different types of information each day. However, we often fail to consider whether or not the information we consume is adding any value to our lives. We can scroll through Twitter endlessly — there are billions of Tweets we can read. We can find an article on almost any topic online, and read as much about that topic as we want. Although the information is available, that doesn’t mean that it is adding any value to our life.

Our decisions are heavily influenced by the information we consume. Our behavior and human nature dictates how we react in many circumstances, but the types of information we read are also a key piece of the puzzle. Because more information is now available to us — we can read the news at any minute during the day, rather than in the morning and evening when news shows previously aired — then it is more important than ever for us to refine our content consumption channels. We should always be aware of the content we are consuming, and the value each type of content will provide in our lives. Over the last few months, I have been working on changing the types of content I consume and have a few thoughts on how we should regulate our information intake.

The first thing I have learned is that there is a difference between truly useless, and seemingly useless but incredibly useful information. Sure, some information has no impact on our lives whatsoever — X article on walking may not matter to us at all. But most information can tell us something — no matter how small. For example, learning about history may seem irrelevant if you are a writer. But learning some history can allow you to adopt better anecdotes in your writing, and learn more about how other people have communicated in the past. Indeed, it may seem irrelevant, but history can add a lot of value to your writing. A lot of this information by itself has no clear purpose in your life — one article on the history of X may not change the way you think — but the information you read accumulates over time and may one day become useful.

We often discard articles and books because they are outside of our field of competence. However, these articles often yield some of the most insightful knowledge we can read. Many famous investors recommend that you do not read a lot of books about investing. Instead, you should read books on human psychology, how businesses are built, and human decision-making — these are all important things that allow investors to better understand the capital markets. These investors understand that although psychology may not help them make one decision, understanding the underlying principles of psychology may help them learn more about market sentiment — why people think the way they do, and what causes people to change their minds about the value of products. Reading books and articles outside of our field of expertise is incredibly useful because it allows us to build up a broader knowledge base. And the best ideas are those which combine a variety of other concepts into one.

I have also learned that some information is temporary, whereas other knowledge is permanent. The weather forecast for the next week is useful. Reading it will give us an indication about what clothes we should wear and what days are best for us to go out and do something. However, in a year that weather forecast does not matter. Will you be thinking about what the weather was like today in a year? Most likely not. This type of information is still very useful — it helps guide our immediate decisions — but it is by no means permanent. Therefore, when we read this information, we should try to keep it in our short-term memory, rather than commit it to long-term memory. We don’t really need to know the stock price of a company at the end of a month in 10 years. But in the present moment that information may be useful. It’s also important to note that temporary knowledge can be useful over the long-term. If we read the quarterly earnings of a company each quarter, over time we can start to identify patterns. This is why I don’t completely ignore temporary information — it helps me get a better sense of the environment in a specific subject or discipline.

Other knowledge is permanent. This is the type of knowledge that you should be focusing on. I have spent a lot of time this year moving my knowledge intake from temporary to permanent because permanent knowledge provides us with long-term value. Instead of reading the news — although I do read education news for my work — I read articles about self-improvement, business, history, and other topics. These articles provide me with long-term knowledge which I can refer back to in the future. Knowing about Seneca’s take on the shortness of time will still be relevant in 10 years — it will still provide the same amount of value as it does now. Permanent information can provide you with continuous value and compounds over time. Reading more about human psychology each day can have a great impact over the space of a year.

Information is most useful when we combine it with other information; taking time to synthesize information is important. Reading one article about the history of student debt may give me a rudimentary insight into the topic. But reading three more articles about the history of student debt, the history of state budget cuts in higher education, and college sentiment toward tuition increases will give me a deeper insight into the history of student debt. This is similar to combining information from different disciplines, as aforementioned, but is slightly broader. A lot of information we consume becomes more valuable as we synthesize it with new information and compare it as more relevant information becomes available. As we combine information, our brain starts to develop deeper connections with the knowledge we have consumed — we become more proficient in the subject.

After I read an article, I take some time to think about what I have read and combine the information I have learned with other things I have read in the past. Doing this allows me to grasp a better understanding of what I have read, and develop a more complete picture of a certain concept. A lot of people skip over this part — synthesizing information — because it is difficult, but doing so is a key part of embracing the full power of knowledge.

We should not just focus on reading content that reinforces our opinions, but also content that challenges our opinions. It can be very easy for us to only read content that reinforces the opinions we hold. This is a type of confirmation bias where we only want to hear about something that makes us sound right. Humans naturally don’t like our ideas to be challenged because admitting that we were wrong makes us look vulnerable. But reading content that challenges our opinions is very important. Doing so allows us to learn more about the other side of the argument, and therefore make more informed arguments when we are debating the merits of a particular idea or decisions. Reading content that goes against our opinions also forces us to confront our ego and question whether or not we are on the right side of the argument. If we are not, then the content will help steer us in the right direction and provide us with the basic information we need to change our stance. Before we form an opinion, we should first know the fundamentals of the other side of the argument — this ensures that we are indeed confident in our opinion, and that it is based on facts and reason.

Everyone will have their own set of lessons around consuming information — some people may prefer short-term information if they are a day-trader, for example — but these are the four which I have internalized over the last few months. By using these rules to evaluate the information I consume, I am able to develop deeper insights about what I have read. I am also more likely to take a step back to think about whether information is useful to me, and how I should categorize that information: not useful, or apparently not useful but actually useful over the long-term. The way we act in any given situation is the result of the information we know, and so spending some time to consider the information we consume is prudent.