What do we Really Need to Know?

  We don't know 96% of the universe

Half of the battle in managing ourselves is about deciding how we place value on our activities. 

When it comes to quantifying one activity in comparison with another, knowledge work suffers from a metrics black hole. As Peter Drucker says in The Effective Executive: The Definitive Guide to Getting the Right Things Done, “Working on the right things is what makes knowledge work effective.” Says Drucker:

“The problem is rather that the important and relevant outside events are often qualitative and not capable of quantification. They are not yet facts. A fact, after all, is an event that somebody has defined, has classified, and above all, has endowed with relevance.


The danger is that executives will become contemptuous of information and stimulus that cannot be reduced to computer logic and computer language. Executives may become blind to everything that is perception (i.e. event) rather than fact (i.e. after the event). The tremendous amount of computer information may thus shut out access to reality.”

But it also suffers from lack of curiosity. For example, we wonder, Is “knowing obsolete?” Asking good questions is important, it's a high-level form of thinking. And it makes a big difference in becoming more knowledgeable, in coming up with the proper way of framing a problem. Finding opportunity and solving problems is at the root of science, business, and arguably art.

At a time when answers may be just a short search or text away, we expend little to no effort in understanding how to use knowledge to extrapolate information that gives us actionable data. It may be because we have not done the work to build our knowledge on which to rest and test hypotheses. For example, learning about the jobs people enroll our products and services to do based on customer reviews.

Immersed in a culture of positive we “discount the value of experiencing frustrations, failures, and disappointments,” real or apparent. Yet it is from them that we learn the most.

Marvin Minsky, a pioneer of artificial intelligence who made many contributions to the filed of cognitive science, appreciated the value of what he called negative knowledge. We tend to shy away form all things negative, or potentially so. Feedback, reviews, even conversations. Yet, it is through these vehicles that we learn the most. Says Minsky:

There are many ways to avoid dangers You can escape your enemies by destroying, controlling , or evading them. Perhaps our societies, cultures, and governments themselves originated in negative goals, namely, for protection against the most common causes of accidents.

The evolution of intelligence brought great new opportunities — but also gave us great new ways to fail.

As soon as we were capable of reasoning, we became susceptible to fallacies. As we extended the range of our plans, we fell prone to more intricate kinds of mistakes. As the arts of speech evolved, this increased the risk of infection by more bad ideas from other minds.

The mental, as well as the physical world may also contain more bad than good. Of course, communication can also transmit ideas that give immunities to other, good and bad, ideas.

In The Society of Mind, a book published in 1980, he says “that intelligence is not the product of any singular mechanism but comes from the managed interaction of a diverse variety of resourceful agents.” How do we figure out how much of our knowledge is negative? Says Minsky:

We spend our lives at learning things, yet always find exceptions and mistakes. Certainty seems always out of reach. Except in worlds we invent for ourselves (such as formal systems of logic and mathematics) we can never be sure our assumptions are right, and must expect eventually to make mistakes and entertain inconsistencies. To keep from being paralyzed, we have to take some risks. But we can reduce the chances of accidents by accumulating two complementary types of knowledge:

  • We search for 'islands of consistency' within which commonsense reasoning seems safe.
  • We also work to find and mark the unsafe boundaries of those islands.

Both as cultures and as individuals, we learn to avoid patterns of thought reputed to yield poor results.

There is such a thing as the beauty premium. When confronted with beauty, we suspend our ability to articulate how something makes us feel, thus we “stop evaluating, selecting, and criticizing.” Likewise, we consider humor positive while it may not be.

We can learn to ask better questions.

But just asking “why” without taking any action is unlikely to produce change. To do that, we need to advance from the why to possible ideas for improvement by asking “what if” questions, then figure out “how” to make something happen.

With the Internet accessible to us via the world wide web, we have unlimited opportunities to find information and retrieve data that supports our argument. Yet, it is the act of sharing knowledge that advances our understanding of how things work and creates opportunity for figuring out where to go from here.

Harvard psychology professor Steven Pinker says we should start with making our knowledge more explicit. He believes language is a window into human nature, and thus into social relations. How do we use language? In two main ways, says Pinker:

  1. to convey some content — such as a bribe, a command, a proposition
  2. at the same time, to negotiate e relationship type

Direct speech thus creates mutual knowledge.

With that in mind, what should we teach our children? What important information should we all have at our disposal? Intelligence won't help us if we train it on the wrong things. Legendary producer John Lloyd says, “It's what we do with our intelligence that matters.”

“People get really cross about things they can't possibly know or prove. Such as the existence of God and the beginning of the universe. But they let other things that are really important like how to get on with your own children pass.”

Watch the RSA short in which Lloyd explains that ignorance, what we don't know, is the driver of knowledge that matters.


 It's what we do with our intelligence that counts.