In the past 20 years we went from a world where information was difficult to come by to a world where we can’t get away from the stuff.
Data is now like sand at the beach. Or maybe quicksand is a better metaphor. The phrase “TMI” is now more true than ever.
Just as we always love options — even when they aren’t good for us — we seem to love more information.
And that may not be so good for us either.
We think that more info will paint a more accurate portrait but that’s a poor way to frame the problem.
We need the answer that is relevant to the question at hand. All the other info is just noise.
Jorge Luis Borges described the problem best with fiction.
A city tries to build the “perfect” map but with a scale of 1:1 it is a perfect replica of the city and fails to provide what map-users really want: insight.
In his short story “Del rigor en la ciencia,” which consists of just a single paragraph, Jorge Luis Borges describes a special country. In this country, the science of cartography is so sophisticated that only the most detailed of maps will do— that is, a map with a scale of 1: 1, as large as the country itself. Their citizens soon realize that such a map does not provide any insight, since it merely duplicates what they already know. Borges’s map is the extreme case of the information bias, the delusion that more information guarantees better decisions.
As Malcolm Gladwell points out, when doctors are diagnosing heart attacks the glut of information isn’t just a nuisance, it can be deadly.
What Goldman’s algorithm indicates, though, is that the role of those other factors is so small in determining what is happening to the man right now that an accurate diagnosis can be made without them… that extra information is more than useless. It’s harmful. It confuses the issues. What screws up doctors when they are trying to predict heart attacks is that they take too much information into account.
Researchers asked American students and German students, “Which city has more inhabitants, San Diego or San Antonio?” The German students all got it right.
But only two-thirds of the Americans did. Why?
The Germans have less information, but it’s relevant information — they’ve never heard of San Antonio.
Which city has more inhabitants, San Diego or San Antonio? Gerd Gigerenzer of the Max Planck Institute in Germany put this question to students in the University of Chicago and the University of Munich. Sixty-two percent of Chicago students guessed right: San Diego has more. But, astonishingly, every single German student answered correctly. The reason: All of them had heard of San Diego but not necessarily of San Antonio, so they opted for the more familiar city. For the Chicagoans, however, both cities were household names. They had more information, and it misled them.
Spend less time trying to amass all the information and more time better defining the problem so you can get the right information.
Focusing on finding good problems vs just finding solutions produces better end results.
“The quality of the problem that is found is a forerunner of the quality of the solution that is attained…” Getzels concluded. “It is in fact the discovery and creation of problems rather than any superior knowledge, technical skill or craftsmanship that often sets the creative person apart from others in the field.”
And people who focus on the problem instead of the answer end up more successful in their careers.
In 1970, Csikszentmihalyi and Getzels tracked down these same artists, now out of school and working for a living to see how they were faring. About half the students had left the art world altogether. The other half was working, and often succeeding, as professional artists. The composition of that second group? Nearly all were problem finders back in their school days.
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