Navigating Oceans of Information, Pt. 1: The Set-up

“Understanding how to act under conditions of incomplete information is the highest and most urgent human pursuit.” – Nassim Taleb, The Black Swan

Recently my little brother asked me for some TEDxTalk and book recommendations, and, despite years of education (including a degree from a prestigious college), I was at something of a loss. Indeed, I was quickly overwhelmed by a profound feeling of inadequacy. Of the roughly 2,000 TEDxTalks and 130+ million books in the world, I had only seen or read a mere fraction of a fraction of that immense body of work. Suddenly, The Circle of Life, featured in Disney’s The Lion King, began running through my mind:

From the day we arrive on the planet

And blinking, step into the sun

There’s more to see than can ever be seen

More to do than can ever be done

There’s far too much to take in here

More to find than can ever be found…

What are us mere mortals to do? Are we, like Goethe’s Faust, to give up our souls in pursuit of knowledge? Regardless, we mustn’t forget Christ’s admonition, “For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his soul?”  Are we doomed to an existence wherein the words of Daisy Buchanan ring truest of all? “I hope she’ll be a fool – that’s the best thing a girl can be in this world, a beautiful little fool.”

I find Daisy’s sentiment, immortalized by F. Scott Fitzgerald in The Great Gatsby, heartbreaking. Ignorance may be bliss, but I cannot recommend it. Life is not meant to be lived in Plato’s Cave.

As far as we know, life is merely a spark of light between eternities of darkness. And, although we have been afforded the opportunity to rise from our eternal slumber, we are destined to return to the darkness from whence we came.

This contemplation of our (less than enviable) human condition brings to mind a conversation between Frodo Baggins and Gandalf in J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Fellowship of the Ring. Here Frodo is beginning to realize the dreadful implications of his role as the ring-bearer:

‘I wish it need not have happened in my time,’ said Frodo.

‘So do I,’ said Gandalf, ‘and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.’

Time. What are we to do with the time that is given us? I believe that we must choose to learn, to venture into the ocean of information in pursuit of knowledge, wisdom and meaning. There, if we are lucky, we might just discover who we are meant to be.

“90% of Everything is Crap”

Theodore Sturgeon (1918-1985) was an American science fiction author and critic who said, “90% of everything is crap.” In an effort to provide some context, and a greater understanding of this quote, here is a passage (written by Sturgeon) found in the March 1958 issue of the Venture Science Fiction publication:

I repeat Sturgeon’s Revelation, which was wrung out of me after twenty years of wearying defense of science fiction against attacks of people who used the worst examples of the field for ammunition, and whose conclusion was that ninety percent of SF is crud.

Using the same standards that categorize 90% of science fiction as trash, crud, or crap, it can be argued that 90% of film, literature, consumer goods, etc. is crap. In other words, the claim (or fact) that 90% of science fiction is crap is ultimately uninformative, because science fiction conforms to the same trends of quality as all other artforms.

The fate we must strive to avoid is that of the fool rushing madly into the ocean of information. For this ocean is relentless, infinite, and unforgiving. Without proper guidance and exceptional navigational skill, even the cleverest among us will find themselves drowning in the unbearable 90%.

“Material Beats Method”

One of the most important passages in The 4-Hour Chef: The Simple Path to Cooking Like a Pro, Learning Anything, and Living the Good Life by Timothy Ferriss is:

What you study is more important than how you study. Students are subordinate to materials, much like novice cooks are subordinate to recipes. If you select the wrong material, the wrong textbook, the wrong group of words, it doesn’t matter how much (or how well) you study. It doesn’t matter how good your teacher is. One must find the highest-frequency material. Material beats method.

Keep in mind, Ferriss was specifically referring to language-learning in this passage. That ought to clarify the “highest-frequency” bit. Nevertheless, I believe that the emphasis on carefully selecting the proper material is vital.

Prescriptions for Guaranteed Misery

Listeners were offered prescriptions for guaranteed misery in life by Charlie Munger, Vice-Chairman of the Berkshire Hathaway Corporation, in a commencement speech at the Harvard-Westlake prep school in 1986. Munger was inspired by Johnny Carson, the 30-year host of The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson, who had previously given a speech offering his own prescriptions for guaranteed misery in life.

The following section of Munger’s speech provides insight into the role of information in our lives:

My second prescription for misery is to learn everything you possibly can from your own personal experience, minimizing what you learn vicariously from the good and bad experience of others, living and dead. This prescription is a sure-shot producer of misery and second-rate achievement…

The other aspect of avoiding vicarious wisdom is the rule for not learning from the best work done before yours. The prescription is to become as non-educated as you reasonably can.

Munger’s emphasis on “learning from the best work done before yours” is especially relevant today because, in our present age of information, the best work in any given field is more accessible than ever.

The Grand Finale

Thus far I hope that I have taken you rather into the darkness; exploring the overwhelming mass of information at our fingertips, the tragic human condition, and pointing out that, “90% of everything is crap.” More importantly, I hope that I have taken steps towards the light; emphasizing the importance of choosing your material wisely and learning from the best work of others. This is not only about our proverbial mandate to “stand upon the shoulders of giants.” It is about choosing your giants. For “giants” come in all shapes and sizes.

Moving forward, I would like you to consider the following letter written by a 20-year-old Hunter S. Thompson (who, among other things, is the author of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: A Savage Journey to the Heart of the American Dream). The full text of the letter may be found in Shaun Usher’s Letters of Note: Correspondence Deserving of a Wider Audience, but for our momentary purposes you can simply follow this link: 20-Year-Old Hunter S. Thompson’s Superb Advice on How to Find Your Purpose and Live a Meaningful Life (by Maria Popova). At any rate, the passage upon which I would like to place special emphasis is the following:

To give advice to a man who asks what to do with his life implies something very close to egomania. To presume to point a man to the right and ultimate goal – to point with a trembling finger in the RIGHT direction is something only a fool would take upon himself.

The thing is, when my brother asked me for TEDxTalk and book recommendations, I became an adviser. Now, surely, you might say, my advice is not so important. I am, after all, not explicitly answering grand questions about what someone ought to do with their life. Furthermore, my advice might be ignored or not taken seriously. Nevertheless, regardless of all the scenarios in which I don’t need to give my recommendations a second thought, there is always the possibility that my advice will be taken. The off-chance that I will recommend a book to someone that will change their life forever. And it is just that possibility, that off-chance, that drives me.

So, without further ado, here is an eclectic collection of quality work. I hope that you find it inspiring, educational, and entertaining.

Postscript

The brilliant Maria Popova, of Brain Pickings, on information, knowledge, and wisdom, for the Future of Storytelling (2014).

This is not the end…

“They say it’s the last song. They don’t know us, you see. It’s only the last song if we let it be.” – Dancer in the Dark (2000)