Information That Would Get Your Attention

I’ve always thought Twitter makes you twice as informed but half as productive. On net it’s probably a wash.

A lot of media works that way. Everyone has access to an astronomical amount of data relative to even 10 years ago. How much does it make us more informed vs. more distracted? More intelligent vs. more biased, able to cherry-pick, and confirm what you already believe?

There’s obviously a hierarchy of information. It ranges from life-changing good to life-changing disastrous.

That got me thinking: What would be the most interesting and useful information anyone could get their hands on?

Years ago I asked that question to Yale economist Robert Shiller. “The exact role of luck in successful outcomes,” he answered.

I loved that answer, because nobody will ever have that information. But if you did, your entire worldview would change. Who you admire would change. The traits you think are needed for success would change. You would find millions of lucky egomaniacs and millions of unlucky geniuses. The fact that it’s impossible to possess this information doesn’t make it useless – just thinking about how powerful it would be to have it forces you to ponder a topic that’s important but easy to ignore.

Keeping the idea that the most interesting information doesn’t have to be realistic – it can be impossible-to-obtain, magical-wish thinking – here are three other things that would get your attention.

1. The history that was never written down, the thoughts that were never spoken, the beliefs too controversial to share.

Comedian John Mulaney has a bit where he ends by saying, “As you process how obnoxious, wasteful, and unlikable that story is, just remember: that’s one I’m willing to tell you.”

That applies to so many things.

Everyone filters what they say for reasons that range from social norms to embarrassment to the inability to articulate how they feel.

Everything you know about people – everything everyone knows about people – comes from what someone was willing to say, or write down, or that was observed in action.

What percentage of what goes through people’s heads falls into one of those categories?

It has to be way less than 1%.

If you could actually see what people were thinking – not just saying, but thinking – you’d find that the world is 100x wilder and more diverse than you assumed.

You’d see that people are 100x more creative than they’re able to articulate.

You’d see that people are 100x more anxious, worried, and self-conscious than they let on to be.

You’d see that jealousy and envy are more common than you imagined.

You’d also see that some of the kindest, well-meaning people are just not good at expressing their intentions.

You’d see that many articulate experts are filled with doubt, and many homeless people are filled with wisdom.

You’d see that the world is scarier, funnier, odder, and stranger than you thought.

In every dimension, good and bad, you’d see that the boundaries of what people are capable of are wider than you imagined.

I once heard that in our quest for life on other planets in the universe, we have observed the equivalent of one cup of water out of all the oceans on Earth. It would be absurd to take a cup of water from the ocean and say, “There are no fish in here, therefore there are no fish in the ocean.” It’s the same when looking for extraterrestrial life. And I think it’s the same when pondering what we know about other people. They are sharing such a small portion of what they’re actually thinking, even if what they share and what you can observe is all you know about them.

The same is true for history. When Franklin Roosevelt opened his presidential library, he entered a room of waiting journalists and laughed. He said he thought it funny to think of all the historians who would come to the library thinking they’d find answers to their questions – when, in fact, the real reason he made many decisions was never recorded in anything other than his own mind, and perhaps a few advisors who also stayed silent.

History knows three things: 1) What’s been photographed, 2) what someone wrote down or recorded, 3) words spoken by people who historians and journalists wanted to interview and who agreed to be interviewed. What percentage of everything important that’s ever happened falls into one of those three? No one knows. But it’s tiny. And all three suffer from misinterpretation, incompleteness, embellishment, lying, and selective memories.

We have so much information, and we know so much about the world. But no matter how much we ever know it will always be dwarfed by what we’re blind to.

2. Meeting all the versions of yourself that you could have become.

I read something recently that said the definition of misery is: on your deathbed, meeting the version of yourself that you could have become.

I think there’s a broader way to think about this: On your deathbed, you meet every possible version of yourself that you could have been. If your actual life ended up in the top half of possibilities, you’ve had a good life.

There are infinite ways everyone’s life could have turned out. Who would you have become if you made a different decision at this point in your life, or if you hadn’t met someone at another point?

What if you took a chance here, or opted for a safer route there? What if there was a terrible accident here, or if you won the lottery there?

What if you took a new job here, or chose a different spouse there?

What if you had worked harder, apologized more, followed a dream, or worried less? What would you have become if you had kids, or didn’t have kids, or chosen a different profession, or had been caught stealing by an unsympathetic cop?

If you had that information you would realize that no matter who you are, your life could have been way better or way worse if just a few tiny things had gone differently. You’d realize how fragile the direction of your life was, which would make you less judgemental of other people’s lives. And you’d realize that instead of comparing your life to other people’s, comparing your own life to who you could have been – for better or worse – would have been a better and more meaningful benchmark.

3. Knowing how much time you have left.

This is probably the most important. No information would be more powerful than knowing exactly how much time you have left to live. It’s so powerful that a lot of people say they wouldn’t want to know even if they could. It would be too scary, and would take the mystery out of life.

But almost nothing in your life would be the same if you knew.

I met someone a few years ago. When we parted ways he said, “Life is long. I hope we stay in touch.”

Life is long. No one says that. They always say, “life is short.” But obviously it could be either. We have no idea.

The “life is short” philosophy says don’t wait, go have fun, live a great life – eat, drink, and be merry for tomorrow we die. If your life were shorter than you expected, nearly everyone would follow that advice. You’d also be likely to forgive, forget, and not be bothered by petty annoyances, realizing that with your limited time to enjoy good stuff there’s no use being held back by dumb stuff. You’d appreciate every sunset, smell the flowers, and call an old friend. You wouldn’t miss a single of your kids’ little league games. Part of the reason Lyndon Johnson had so much energy and ambition is because he always feared he’d die young.

What about the “life is long” philosophy? If you knew you’d live to 101 years old, you probably wouldn’t feel as rushed. You’d be less anxious about your career. You wouldn’t feel guilty sleeping in, taking a sabbatical, or using all of your vacation pay. You’d plant trees to watch them grow and take more pictures to remember. You’d be more willing to learn a new skill. You’d take better care of your joints, and long-term investing would be more exciting.

Unlike Twitter, it might make you twice as informed and twice as productive. Now that would get your attention.