How to Sort Out Data, Information, Knowledge, and Wisdom

Learning what to do -- and why

Like the useless legs of one who is lame
    is a proverb in the mouth of a fool.” – Proverbs 26:7

It seems we are awash in data. The sheer amount of stuff one has to learn and retain has increased geometrically over the course of our lifetimes. Don’t ask me to cite the source — it’s too difficult to figure out who said it first — but I have read in several places that knowledge is doubling every twelve months, but soon it will likely double every twelve hours. That means if you’re old enough to read and understand this paragraph, you have already lived through several doublings of “all the stuff there is to know.”

Noteboooks, books, vintage

Hit the books and cultivate wisdom.
(photo by John-Mark Kuznietsov — used with permission)

You may have heard the famous business fable about a peasant who won a chess match with his emperor. As his prize, the poor man asked for a grain of rice to be placed on the first square of the chess board, and for the number of grains to be doubled on each successive square. The emperor, thinking this a foolish thing to request, agreed, only to find himself bankrupted before he got halfway through the squares on the board. Thinking only in terms of doubling grains of rice, the 64th (last) square of the chessboard would have to hold 15 quintillion grains of rice.

But we’re not talking about rice

With a worldwide population of seven billion and growing, it’s not entirely surprising that inquisitive people would develop new ways of solving problems, earning a living, and entertaining themselves. Think about all the domains of knowledge that have come into existence in the last 120 years. Cars, airplanes, manned and unmanned spacecraft came into being in a meaningful way in the 20th century.  Along with them came television, computers and the wonder that is the internet. And although these are not the newest fields, they continue to develop and change. If you try to take it all in, you’ll be swamped.

Not all facts are created equal

My way of thinking about this explosion is to sort it into four main categories. Data are like the bricks in a Lego set. You can arrange them to add up to something, but their value is more in the potential they hold. Information is data that have been arranged to support or advance one or more ideas. Knowledge is information that has become “sticky” either because it works, or because it has a memorable form. Rhyme, alliteration, metaphors, and or emotional triggers are all examples of stickiness.

And then there’s wisdom. This is the highest form of knowledge. Not only is it practical, wisdom stands alone because it provides the synthesis of knowing what to do — and why it is the right thing to do.

How do you handle it?

If data multiply faster than roaches in a low-rent restaurant, how can anyone keep up with what he needs to know and still become wise? It’s not an entirely rhetorical question. There are several large and small strategies, but let’s start with information and knowledge: We can outsource our memories, relying on our smartphones and the cloud to keep track of everyone’s birthdays, multiple phone numbers and email and social media addresses. (My mother moved and I still haven’t memorized her new home phone number.) These isolated facts (bits of data) don’t hold much meaning apart from their context, so there’s little risk unless your phone goes swimming.

For larger issues, such as presidential candidates’ respective positions, or the newest treatment regimens for catastrophic illnesses, we can assemble cooperative repositories of data and knowledge — for public or private uses. (Hello Wikipedia, Watson, and Big Data. These fall into the “I don’t know, but I know where to look” category.) None of these will add to the capacity of your brain or your heart, though.

The real effect of these moves is to make certain types of knowledge so readily available they become irrelevant. I don’t remember my mother’s phone number (sorry, Mom!) because the phone I carry with me “knows” it for me. Although I know how to build a cooking fire, I don’t have to build one if I’m not camping. I don’t have to build a car to be able to drive one. And the relief of not having to actively recall these things enables me to devote my mental capacity to other, more specialized topics — and to the moral context in which they exist.

You gotta have a system

I worked with a very intelligent PhD chemist several years ago. As a teenager, he had encouraged his parents to buy a television. They didn’t think much of the idea, so instead they bought him a set of encyclopedias. Then another. Then another. The man had literally read several sets of encyclopedias — from cover to cover. After that, he never really cared much for television.

I must add that he was extremely knowledgeable about his own field of expertise, and he was also a master of many others — and he also had a quick wit and a great sense of humor. Reading entire encyclopedias gave him something remarkable, but he was already extraordinarily gifted. But the man was truly wise. His great learning enabled him to sort what was genuinely good from its attractive counterfeits.

So if there were one strategy I’d offer for making one wise, I’d recommend reading broadly. Read fiction and nonfiction. Great stories can be great teachers. You’ll remain mentally agile and you’ll also encounter new ideas. This is a Very Good Thing as long as you recognize that everything you read cannot be correct. Logically, some ideas are true — others are false. It isn’t possible for a thing to be true and false at the same time. So how can you sort it out?

Start with the Bible

If you live in the West, you cannot understand your culture without an understanding of the Bible. Even if you’re not a believer, the Bible’s stories, sayings, and syntax reverberate through the art, literature, and law of the Western world — from Shakespeare to Nick Cave. There are even books of the Bible referred to as Wisdom Literature. To cultivate wisdom, start with the Old Testament book of Proverbs and do what I do. Read the chapter whose number corresponds to the calendar date. Read chapter one on the 1st, chapter two on the 2nd, etc. There are 31 chapters, so even in leap year you won’t get all the way through Proverbs in February. No matter — start at Chapter one on the 1st and go again. I’ve been doing this for years. Repetition also makes knowledge sticky.

Something higher

If you read through Proverbs, you’ll see that one of the themes is that wisdom is a gift from God. He is its source, and he gives it generously to any who will seek it. If a man will avail himself of Divine wisdom, he will cultivate discernment and sound judgment — and avoid a lot of painful lessons in the process.

You’ll also meet the biblical opposite of the wise man in Proverbs:  the fool. This is the man governed by appetite. He is short-sighted and morally dull. This is no way to go through life.

The late Arthur Jones — the inventor of Nautilus fitness equipment — used to say, “Success in life comes from good judgment. Good judgment comes from experience. Experience comes from bad judgment.” As data, information, and knowledge increase, we all need to cultivate our capacity for wisdom to help us learn from others’ poor judgment. I’m still working on it myself.

So how about you? How do you intend to increase your wisdom? Add your comments below.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic. Bring your best manners, please.

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