True But Useless

The truth might be true…Did you know that email adresses that begin with A, M or S receive a higher amount of spam than those that begin with Q or Z?

Incredible, right?

Yeah, and pretty useless. Unless you are have an A, M, S address, and prefer changing it over activating your spam filter, of course.

In reality, this email fact is nothing but a tiny piece of TBU information: “True But Useless”.1 I first stumbled upon the name for this concept when reading Switch.2 Chip and Dan Heath use it when describing the case of a development worker trying to fight malnutrition in Vietnam. He has all kinds of statistics and he knows how to win the fight on a theoretical level – but all of this is useless as long as he doesn’t manage to implement change on site.

Even if you’re not a development worker and never have been to Vietnam, TBU knowledge has certainly been a companion in your life – although you maybe didn’t even realize it.

Ignore the News and Pierce Your Eardrums?

Many personal development bloggers recommend complete ignorance when it comes to news. They say that news are a useless time-suck because they only cause anxiety and don’t help us improve our lives. If you look closely at their advice, this is pretty much true for anything else that is being published on a regular schedule, too – with the notable exception of their very own blogs and overpriced ebooks, of course. Honi soit qui mal y pense.

Admittedly, they have at least some kind of a point. Using our new vocabulary, much of news is TBU indeed. Unfortunately, the same could be said of most blog posts and the majority of the quarter million books published each year in the US alone.

Consequently, this personal development recommendation is TBU itself. True but useless! 99% of news isn’t relevant to our lives? So what?! “Ignore the news because most of it doesn’t concern you” is as good an advice as “Pierce your eardrums because most of the talk around you doesn’t concern you either!”

What we really need to learn is how to get rid of TBU knowledge in any given context, while maintaining ourselves informed and up to date about the things that do matter to us. Here are my thoughts on that:

The Use of News

News anxiety obviously doesn’t help anybody except the people selling news and counting clicks on CNN.com. Ernst Jünger wrote already in 1951 that the modern man’s obsession with checking the news several times a day was more an indicator of his personal fears and worries than anything else – and of course he has a point here.

At the same time, ignoring news altogether is not beneficial for most of us either. I doubt I even need to write this, but: If we like it or not, we are political animals, and we live in societies that might require us to manifest, demonstrate and take action against the things governments and corporations are doing – or at least cast a vote. If we have no information at all, we might happily live in our self-development bubble until we get hit by a nuke.

News can also bring us information about what’s happening in our very own neighborhood. I’m not thinking about the muggery last Saturday, but more about the new photography exposition, the beginning of theatre season, the opening of a new bar. Admittedly, we could find out about all these things through a well-informed peer group – but the news could be helpful, too.

Use it or Lose it

The real question when it comes to news or any other piece of information we might consider to consume is if we intend to use or lose it. “Using it” can mean pretty much anything from taking massive action (DDoSing Mastercard, boozing at the gallery opening, signing protest notes for Amnesty International) to merely entertaining ourselves – but it should be clear that entertaining ourselves with news for more than half an hour a day or so probably won’t do much good. It’s actually this part of news zapping that many of the mentioned bloggers would like to avoid – but by becoming obsessive about it, they lose the positive side of news, too.

The Best Piece of Useless Information is Still Useless

…but it still might be useless…Books are great. I’m always stunned by the amount of high-quality non-fiction books that are published in English every year; many of them written for non-collegiate audiences. Then, there are quality ebooks, and even a handful of quality blogs.3

But here comes the thing: Even the best resource will be TBU if you don’t act on it. A great novel might become useful by taking you to a world of imagination, lightening your spirit. And admittedly, so might many non-fiction books. You should be honest to yourself, though: Was that the reason you bought them? Did you really only want to be entertained reading about non-conformity or losing your fears? Or did you justify the expense by promising to yourself that this would be a step to changing your life?

The information we read and digest day after day may be correct, well-researched, backed up by science, and even available for free – but if we don’t put it to use in some way, it will probably be TBU!

Antidote 1: The Intellectual Diary

Just as much as anybody we ever meet can be our teacher, pretty much any information we consume can be of use to us – as long as we know how to process it. Unfortunately, this is the point where at least I could certainly improve: This year, I read some 50 books or so, but I feel like I didn’t make too much of it. While I don’t think that everything I do or read has to be put to use,4 I noticed that some of my good habits of processing information were slowly vanishing.

A big inspiration to counteract this can be Derek Sivers’ reading list: Not only does he list and rate the books he reads, he also takes notes or creates summaries in order to make it easier to come back to the content at a later date. The idea is to create a kind of intellectual diary that initially doesn’t need to be written for no one but ourselves.

Consequently, I became more disciplined in writing my own summaries again. I then took it a step further with Switch and compiled what I read and my accompanying thoughts in two of my largest blog posts ever. This can both help you to make changes in your life, and serves as a reference for myself. And as the experience and the feedback has been quite positive, I will certainly continue creating similar posts in the future.

Antidote 2: The Info Razor

Use it or lose it!In order to fight TBU knowledge before spending time consuming it, here is the antidote I’d like to suggest:

1. We don’t need to consume all the information on a given topic just to feel “well informed”. As long as we aren’t planning to become experts on that matter or it’s directly relevant for our survival and well-being, we don’t need to dive into it too much, but can only read the interesting digest.

2. In order to ease our decisions (Remember, habits are free!), we need to develop a kind of Ockham’s razor for our personal information consumption. The goal is to make the razor easily applicable, so that it doesn’t require much argumentation, but cuts the crap right away.

The information razor could be whetted by asking two questions before spending time on any information:

  • Is this directly relevant for my life?
  • Will I act on it?

If you negate both questions, move on and skip the information. The exception to this recommendation is whenever you have free time to spend with info entertainment, of course. But then, consider the downsides of loading your brain with TBU knowledge – you might be better off by just taking a walk and giving your idle brain some time to do its job!

True but useful photographies accompanying this post (CC) by LU5H.bunny, m4r00n3d and laverrue. Thanks for that!

  1. TBU also stands for Tape Backup Unit, Tertiary Butyl, and is the airport code for Nuku Alofa/Tongatapu, Tonga. Now you know. []
  2. Yes, that book definitely left its marks on me. []
  3. Most of them publish too much to always provide quality. It’s hard to create well-written content several times a week. Realistically, most bloggers are either not good enough writers, don’t have enough knowledge to share, or just don’t care about editing. Quality over quantity should become the new standard, as far as I am concerned. It’s also much more fun, as Joel points out! []
  4. This would be yet another crazy obsession of some personal development peeps out there! []

Comments 13

  1. Jonathan Ziemba December 23, 2010

    Thanks to you Fabian I have put down my ice pick sparing my tympanic membrane.

    I would like to add too your “information razor”; I am not sure if it is another point or attached to your first point, “Is this directly relevant for my life?”.

    Is this divergent information, or the same crap rehashed?

    Divergent information is priceless, it enables us to see lots of possibilities and forges new synaptic junctions that would never exist. This is essential for adding creativity capacity and pulling the social thinking apes forward.

    To be free we must first see what holds us in bondage.
    “It is impossible for anyone to begin to learn what he thinks he already knows” – Epictetus AD 55 – AD 135

    Cheers,

    • Fabian December 23, 2010

      Jonathan, I’m glad you spared your eardrums! Good point concerning repetitive information. I really believe it’s okay to adapt and remix – building new synaptic juntions, as you say -, but if our writings don’t attribute at least some new angle, it’s probably (TB)U!

        • Fabian December 23, 2010

          Depends on the situation! My MacGyver genes kick in whenever I need them! ;)

          • Jonathan Ziemba December 23, 2010

            Check out JOHN CLEESE WCF video if you get a chance. He make a case that “To know how good you are at something requires the same skills as it does to be good at that thing. Which means if you are absolutely hopeless at something you lack exactly the skills to know that you are absolutely hopeless at it”.

            Thanks for drawing outside the lines Fabian

            Happy Holidays

  2. James December 24, 2010

    Some great points. That reading list is a good idea. One of the reasons I started a tumblog was to capture information, views and notes on everything – a bit like the intellectual diary you describe I suppose. So much information and entertainment passes me by these days, that I just wanted something that encouraged me to slow down and think about what I’ve read, played, watched, etc.

    • Fabian December 24, 2010

      Sounds good, James! A tumblog could be the perfect platform for an intellectual diary!

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  4. Boykie January 13, 2011

    Just landed on this post and like what I’ve read. In terms of the reading list I’ve been thinking of something similiar and might ‘steal’ a few concepts.

    Nice blog, excellent content, I’ll definitely be following (have no choice, now got you in my rss reader!).

    Keep up the good work!

    Catch ya on the rebound!

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