January 22, 2010
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Could it be that knowledge is overrated?

Don’t get me wrong — Knowledge is a good thing. But, there is a point at which it may be bad. Even the sturdiest shelf crumbles under the weight of too many books.

We can only comprehend so much. Our minds have limits in our ability to digest information, just as shelves are only meant to hold so many books. Too much knowledge undermines the greatest insights, the deepest conjectures.

Take an example of a graduate school. To earn my Masters degree, I had to write a lengthy thesis (hundreds of pages) to demonstrate a command of knowledge in a broad field. When it came time for my Doctorate, however, I was asked to take my thesis and condense it into a synthesis of that knowledge. Most people think that the process should be reversed — that writing 20 pages is easier than writing 200. But, the lesson is less about writing than it is about learning that information and knowledge are something to dissect and discard. And, that is the difference between knowing and understanding; between knowledge and wisdom.

Wisdom can be shattered by too much information. Great scholars, for instance, tend to be great in very narrow disciplines. These scholars give ground on colloquial information so that they can digest more within their field. In many ways, we are all idiot savants: our expertise in certain areas necessitates weakness elsewhere.

Yet, we still spend our days analysing information and falling into traps. Decisions are destroyed by over-analysis. The brain is not intelligent because of the sheer volume of data it can ingest, but for the way it can quickly discern patterns — and then guess the rest. The more information you pile on, the less likely you are to make educated guesses. But, educated guesses spring from wisdom: all of your past experiences, knowledge and know-how, coupled with the most recent information and analysis. In other words, wisdom comes from your gut.

Pile on too much information and you fall victim to one of two phenomena: On the one hand, you might make a decision focused only on what has been analysed because the abundance of information suppresses even the most relevant past experiences. This “knowledge trap” disregards our decision-making skills (often intentionally), opting instead for the logical decision-making of a computer or calculator. You see this often on Wall Street where quant jocks confidently grind data into machines, only to face an unlikely (but not unexpected) event — or what Nassim Taleb calls a “Black Swan” event. For those on Wall Street, this is often an unfortunate demonstration of the power of wisdom over knowledge. Just look what happened in the hedge fund industry in general or credit default swaps in specific as painful examples.

Or worse, faced with an abundance of information you fall victim to analysis paralysis — unable to make any decisions in the face of so much data. To be frozen by information is perhaps the single biggest risk of knowledge. Ancient Greek philosophers used to warn their children about this ailment and Peter Drucker did a good job of combating it in the business world. But is anyone really listening?

People often become victims of the “knowledge trap” or “analysis paralysis,” thinking they need to weigh every bit of information against all possible outcomes. Those people rarely make it very far. Those who avoid these traps — who realize they’ll never have all the answers no matter how much knowledge they gather — are often the ones who succeed.

Jeffrey M. Stibel is an entrepreneur, a brain scientist, and the author of Wired for Thought: How the Brain Is Shaping the Future of the Internet. He studied business and brain science at MIT Sloan and Brown University, where he was a brain and behavior fellow. Stibel has authored numerous academic and business articles on a variety of subjects and is the named inventor on the US patent for search engine interfaces. He was formerly President of Web.com and currently serves on academic Boards for Tufts and Brown University, as well as the Board of Directors for a number of public and private companies.

About author

Dr Shailesh Thaker

Dr. Shailesh Thaker is a world-renowned management thinker and trainer on organizational behavior and development. He is the CLO of Knowledge Plus Inc., a highly reputed training firm based in Ahmedabad, India, helping organizations to achieve international benchmarks in management practices.

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