We’re all drowning in a sea of information. The average processing speed of a human brain is 60 bits per second, but collectively we generate 1.7 megabytes of data in the same amount of time. That’s about 30,000 times more data than a single person can ever be aware of, much less make sense of, and the asymmetry is only growing as the age of information takes full swing. Add to this increasing flow of data all of the information that has already been existing, and a shocking fact becomes clear: trying to orient yourself in the modern age is like trying to bail a sinking ship with a teaspoon, and we’re already underwater. If we want to survive and thrive as individuals and as a species, we’re going to need tools and techniques that help us swim to the surface and stay afloat within the flood.
Understanding our current informational environment, including having a plan for making sense of and navigating it, is going to be the most important skill in the 21st century. Just as with any other environmental pressure, the information flood is kickstarting a process of natural selection: those who have the skills to navigate the new ecosystem will come out on top, and those who are unable to cope will settle into the bottom of our socio-economic hierarchy. Not everyone will be able to orient themselves and stay afloat; many will get swept up in a sea of distractions, until they are adrift without useful skills or a clear grasp on their current reality, prey for the behavioral scientists at the large tech companies, addictive products, or the latest political fads. Those who are able to develop the skills to cope with the informational asymmetry will enjoy the spoils the latest technological and biological revolution, poised to thrive in the cyber-economy and able to direct the world and bring about their visions for the world, whether positive or negative.
To be happy, healthy, successful, or hell, to even be a good person, will come down to how you deal with the information overload. So how can we equip ourselves to adapt to our new environment?
We gotta sort
Okay, so we’ve established that we need tools to help us sort information so it can serve as a tool for us rather than a tide that carries us out to sea. The question is how can you tell what is valuable or useless among the waves of information?
The first thing to take solace in is that we can sort. Not ALL of those incoming 1.7MB are going to be equally important to us; in fact, most of it will be completely useless and irrelevant to our goals. If we can somehow figure out what information is worth paying attention to, we can cherry-pick those bits that are truly impactful and avoid getting fire-hosed by irrelevancy. If you think of this filter as a question, it would be: is this relevant to me and my goals?
Secondly, even with a goal in mind, and a cherry-picked & sorted pile to search through, there is still too much stuff to wade through. The key will then be to hone your understanding of the world by identifying core principles for life and for how the world works. As quickly as possible, you should build your own internal framework of principles for understanding and making decisions in the world so you rely less and less on the random sea of information for determining what’s important and how you should make your choices. It’s like building yourself a SCUBA device for the flood. You will look for and compare patterns in the information you receive so you can build transferrable knowledge base and mental-models which will serve you in most situations. This filter as a question is: what’s the pattern here? does it fit with my internal model for how I should think and behave to achieve my goals?
To sum up, the two action items are to:
- Have a Goal
- Focus on Value-Dense, Widely Applicable Principles
Have a goal
Let’s say a tree fell down in the Redwood forrest. This is a data point. So the first question is: do I care? Well, it depends. Pretend you were a shark in the ocean: there’s a reason sharks have an acute sense for blood in the water and not a highly-developed sense for sniffing out fallen trees, that data has a nothing to do with finding food to survive, so it’s useless. But, if I’m an ecologist studying levels of deforestation with the purpose of cataloguing tree-deaths in the California national parks, this fallen tree becomes very important. Value is in the eye of the beholder. Every bit of information is value-less until you introduce an application for that knowledge. That application, is a goal or set of goals.
We need goals to differentiate what’s a distraction, and what’s highly significant. To paraphrase Nir Eyal, a professor at Stanford Graduate School of business and specialist in habit formation and manipulating user behavior, the definition of a distraction goes like this:
“Traction is the process of moving towards your goals. Distraction is anything that is not leading you directly to your goals, or pulls your attention and actions away from your goals.”
This makes intuitive sense. When your goal is to have fun, TV is not a distraction. But when you’re trying to write a term paper, TV is a distraction. The usefulness of the exact same information input changes as your goals change.
So the first half of the information-era success equation is to have clear and compelling goals.
Find the golden-nuggets of information
Okay so let’s say that your goal is to launch a rocket to the moon… that’s good and all, but where do you start? We have to find the pieces of information that matter the MOST. The ones that are value-dense. Value-dense information is often widely-applicable (universal), it’s a lot of utility packed into a simple principle, like a Swiss-Army knife. So how do we identify these Swiss-Army knives?
The answer is to start paying attention to reality and look for clues and patterns. We are lucky to be living in a reality with reliable and consistent behavior. Throwing things off a buildings causes those thing to fall to the ground at an accelerating rate, things don’t fall up as long as you are close enough to a body of large mass. You can run experiments to see what sorts of things you can build your rocket out of.
But running simple trial and error experiments to test every single case would take too long. You don’t have time to build a rocket out of Swiss cheese and try to launch it. The only option is to develop meta-understanding that will help you to know that the cheese rocket won’t work without going through the trouble of building it and watching it melt into a pile of oxidized lactose. We can sidestep the melted cheese by paying attention to patterns and identifying theories, and honing our principles.
Luckily, humans are pretty good at pattern matching…
We know this pattern quite well: 1 + 1 = 2. The law of addition. Mathematics is the perfect example of an abstraction layer that allows us to have a universal meta-understanding about how our reality works. It’s universal in the sense that we don’t need to check every possible pair of things that could be added to see if this pattern holds true, we can extrapolate the data we have so we can go into new situations armed with extra-information. The law of addition is highly useful and applicable in almost every field. It’s a simple piece of information that underlies our financial system, modern chemistry, and modern medicine. So by looking to universal patterns across situations and experiments, we can derive extremely simple and value dense principles from the insurmountable quintillions of bytes of data available to us. Our job is to find the “laws of addition” that relate to our goals.
Let’s return to the rocket, is there a formula or set of formulas that we can identify in the patterns of the world that will help us? Turns out there are: if you can know a few simple formulas and rules: the law of conservation of energy, Newton’s laws, and a few others… you can easily figure this out with a single formula:
This ultimate simplicity is all around us. Ph.D Astrophysicist Ethan Siegel writes about how it takes 26 fundamental constants, that combined with formulas, recreate all of our modern understanding of the physical universe.
So not only does our universe follow a consistent behavior pattern and cause and effect, but it also abides by another law: you can accurately describe the majority of behavior of reality in any field with an extremely small amount of information, through key, universal principles.
Some one line formula can suddenly be used to describe millions of phenomena that transpire around us each and every day. And what if you collected all of these formulas in one place? You’d have a cheat sheet. So what if we compiled cheat sheets for our goals? Success in the most important areas of our lives?
If you were to read the top ten of the most often recommended self-help books you would find that particular patterns emerge and themes across all of these books…
- Have clear goals
- Review your goals every day
- Hang out with people who are successful and positive
- Think long-term
- Build positive habits
- Live with gratitude
- Model someone who has succeeded where you want to succeed
Boom. Just a few sentences for all the self-help in the world. By focusing on the underlying patterns, you’ve boiled down the universe’s insurmountable quantity of information to a few, easy to remember sentences.
Have principles for life
Curating and compiling a set of life and success principles is one of the most underrated practices you can undertake.
It’s not hard to conjure examples of traditionally successful people who tout this approach: Elon Musk’s “first principles thinking”, Ray Dalio’s book Principles, Warren Buffet’s strict adherence to a set of key investment principles, all the way back to the 10 commandments. The most successful and influential humans have followed principles. But would you be able to procure a list of the top ten principles you follow in your life if someone asked?
The fact that the average individual can regurgitate knowledge on things as obscure as the names of every single member of Jersey Shore TV show, but not produce a list of the most important principles that rule the areas of life they care about is the perfect symptom of how disconnected all of us are in our newly information-rich environment.
The key to having a list is to start building one and not worry about being perfect or original, you just have to have one. You can start with someone else’s as a template and go from there. You can get them from analyzing the lives of your role models, reading books or articles or podcasts, even advice from your parents. The point is just to start a list and work on refining it.
I’ll give you the ROUGH state of two of my working lists as an example. One list for general success, another list for being a good person.
Principles for Success
- Have a definite aim
- know what you want to do… for the day, for the week, for the month, for the year, for your life. have a clear picture of where you want to go and why. Write it DOWN.
- Play to your strengths, don’t compete
- take the things you are good at and work to get better at them, be best in class
- what can you talk about for hours on end that no one else on the planet could?
- Go to where the puck is going
- do you know where the world might be in 10, 15, 20, 30 years?
- are you poised to benefit or lose from these trends?
- have no more than 3 MAJOR goals at a time
- chasing two rabbits might lead to catching none
- you can have anything you wish for, but not everything, you have to choose
- You are who you spend time with
- we all experience social osmosis
- would you “trade places” with the people you spend time with?
- What you do today is what you do everyday
- every action you take is a vote for the person you will become
- every action is strengthening neural connections and habits for you to act that way again
- build positive habits that serve you
- Good enough is good enough, EXECUTE and COMMIT
- don’t get stuck in paralysis by analysis
- make the best decision you can, but don’t worry about making a perfect one, it’s more important to commit to a good enough plan
- Stand on shoulders of giants, don’t re-invent the wheel
- find places where you don’t have to reinvent the wheel
- regularly read from experts in what I want to get good at
- no one got to somewhere on their own, they almost always have mentors
- meetings with the right people can save you years of time
- Control your attention and inputs
- meditate, review your goals regularly, morning and night
- the biggest threat to your goals is a lack of control over your attention
- everything in the modern economy is trying to pull you off track
- Increase optionality
- do what will give you more options in the future
- Work smart
- know the few things that make the biggest difference
- find the few things that will make everything else on your to-do list irrelevant or easier to do
Principles for Being a “Good person”
- Follow the golden rule
- How would you live if you believed you were literally everybody else, but you just didn’t know it, or couldn’t experience it
- Treat others as you would have them treat you
- Get good at something, or multiple things
- The world has problems that are hard to solve, get skills that can move the needle on those problems
- Become successful
- The man who doesn’t care about power is the person who doesn’t care about their fellow men
- With power and success you can actually make a difference
- The human default is to be lazy, live with discipline
- You either live with pain of discipline or pain of regret
- Work for the long term
- Humans naturally have a short-term mindset, counteract by being one of the few who think long term
- Live to create value for others
- Self explanatory why this is a good thing
- Work to decrease existential risk
- Most of the “good things” have yet to come, no one will experience them if we are all dead, so work to prevent the destruction of the whole species
- Live with gratitude
- Gratitude helps you be happy while you do the work that needs to be done for others
- Expand your paradigm
- seek information that goes against your intuitions, seek a more inclusive and broader perspective of the world to avoid getting trapped in narrow or dogmatic thinking or perspectives
- Know yourself
- Understand your own strengths and weaknesses
- Accept your weaknesses, build on your strengths
- Always be growing and improving
- You are a part of the living breathing ecosystem, if you improve yourself, you are improving the world
Each of these principles deserve an essay of their own that describes how the conclusions were drawn, their evidence, their application, and how they can improve your life, but for now I can be content with their introduction. But you could theoretically come up with principles for any question. Here are a few categories that might be particularly valuable to start collecting principles for…
- how to do the most good for the world
- how to become wealthy
- how to have a thriving romantic relationship
- how to be healthy
- how to be happy
Theoretically, if you had 10 principles summed up for each of these five categories, you’d be able to have the secret to a life well-lived in 50 sentences. The disclaimer is that none of these lists or principles are perfect or comprehensive, and they don’t have to be. Because even the best list is completely worthless without one crucial thing.
# Perfect information isn’t the answer
As exciting as it is to collect lists of principles for navigating the world, these lists are just a small piece of the puzzle. The man who knows everything and does not apply it is a fool.
Most of the principles above are just common sense. You wouldn’t have to go to the library or interview the most interesting people in the world to discern them.
Derek Sivers, the founder of CDBaby and all around awesome person has an amazing quote that goes something like this: “If more knowledge was the answer to success, we’d all be billionaires with perfect abs…”
The secrets to the universe are not secrets at all. Humans are just too lazy to apply and live by the knowledge they acquire. The battle is not against the universe, it’s with our daily impulses to be lazy and stay in our comfort zones that keep our societies in the dark ages and prevent us from living the lives we desire.
I’m not trying to discourage making lists of principles. If you haven’t collected a list of principles for the most important areas of your life (money, career, relationships) please try it, it could be one of the highest ROI activities you conduct. I’m just clarifying that having principles for living a successful life is not a sufficient condition for living successfully.
Once you have a working list you have to apply it to actually get anywhere. There’s no point in designing the perfect rocket trajectory on a whiteboard, if you don’t actually build it, and fly it to the moon.
“A good plan violently executed now is better than a perfect plan executed at some indefinite time in the future.” ― George Patton Jr.
This leads us into a separate conversation of tactics. What are the day to day practices you utilize to put your principles into action to achieve your goals in the real world and not just on paper.? How do you fight battle with yourself each and every day.
So let me end with a couple of simple exercises you can follow to get some value out of your list.
Stoic philosopher Seneca recommended taking a bit of wisdom, a quote, phrase, or passage and reflecting on it each and every day. This exercise copies that approach
- Compile a numbered list of principles for your life (hopefully as a living breathing document)
- Create a journal somewhere, either physical or digital
- Set a recurring reminder in your calendar to review
- During your review, generate a random number write the principle at the top of your journal and answer some of following questions
- How am I not living by this principle?
- What are some changes I can make or ideas to live more in line with the principle?
- What would my life look like if I followed this principle?
If you’d prefer to review on a weekly basis, here’s a slightly modified version.
Schedule a consistent event in your calendar at some point in the week.
- Follow steps 1) and 2) from above
- When it’s time go over this list, copy and paste the top 5–10 principles from the list over to your journal, leaving space underneath each one
- Answer some or all of the questions from step 4) above
This is just one example of how you might bridge the gap between wisdom and its successful application so you can make better progress in today’s informational Wild West.
Hopefully this sort of practice would work to help you closer to living a life you might be proud of, rather than the one that others would have you live for their own purposes. I sometimes like to think what the world would look like if everyone followed a process like this. That thought keeps me going. Happy thriving!
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