Life Lessons from the Library: Step Back from the Data!

“Everybody gets so much information all day long that they lose their common sense.” –Gertrude Stein

Gertrude Stein died in 1946, so imagine what she would think today when we get up-to-minute feeds on the very important (protests in Egypt) to the mundane (another couple stayed married 50 years) to the disgusting (anything that has to do with Charlie Sheen). She might very well think that we’ve not only lost our common sense, we’ve lost our minds. 

Being bombarded with information has just as many dangers as not having enough. For one thing, the media, in order to fill up the 24/7 news cycle we all live in now, repeat stories incessantly, interview people who are only peripherally connected to the event, and make stories out of almost nothing at all. 

If we’re not careful this can lead us to believe the world is a very dangerous place. Think of all the medical research studies that warn us of various evils with only a minor or no mention that the study has not been replicated or that it was conducted with only a small group of people, etc. This seems to especially affect women who are left with advice such as have a drink and save your heart and increase your risk of breast cancer. It can make you despair of ever doing anything right.

And having too much information can keep you from ever making a decision at all or being happy with that decision.  If you are an “optimizer” (a person who must find the perfect solution), then you spend a vast amount of time doing research on any decision. Let’s say you’re buying a car. Most would agree that this is a major purchase and time should be spent on getting a good, reliable car at a good price. But for the optimizer, there is always another website to consult, another dealer to visit, another article on cars to read. And even after the purchase is made, the optimizer dreads that he/she didn’t get the very best thing out there.

So whether you’re writing a research paper, buying a car, or deciding on that perfect job, at some point, you have to step away from the data. You have to say firmly to yourself that you have enough information to do what needs to be done. Give the information time to simmer. And information in and of itself is not useful. You must take it, analyze it, and evaluate it. And then come to a decision.

It’s true that you will never find all the information there is on any one subject. But remember that’s not what you’re looking for. If you use good skills, you don’t need all the information, just the right kind.


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