Unlimited Access to Information is Not Enough

Over a hundred years ago, during World War I, a Chicago newspaper found itself being sued by Henry Ford for libel. The paper had labeled Ford an “ignorant pacifist”, and during the trial it attempted to defend the statement by asking Ford a bunch of general knowledge questions in the hopes of exposing his ignorance.

Ford’s alleged response has always stuck with me:

“If I should really want to answer the foolish question you have just asked, or any of the other questions you have been asking me, let me remind you that I have a row of electric push-buttons on my desk, and by pushing the right button, I can summon to my aid men who can answer any question I desire concerning the business to which I am devoting most of my efforts. Now, will you kindly tell me, why I should clutter up my mind with general knowledge, for the purpose of being able to answer questions, when I have men around me who can supply any knowledge I require?”

Reading this quote might have brought to mind another (albeit fictional) advocate for a narrow, specialized bank of knowledge – one Mr. Holmes of 221B Baker Street.

“…you say that we go round the sun. If we went round the moon it would not make a pennyworth of difference to me or to my work.” – A Study in Scarlet

From Ford’s response, however, you can take away two conclusions; the first being that he didn’t prioritize having a wide array of general knowledge (like Holmes), and the second (which was the reason for the first) being that he knew exactly who he could call to get any knowledge he found himself needing.

It’s this second conclusion that I want to focus on here.

Let’s start by getting really, really general.

Everything, when you really boil it down, is matter defined by its position in space and time. (I told you it was going to get really general)

You are a collection of atoms, each with a position in space at this particular point in time. At another point in time, each of them will occupy a different position in space.

Now, as a collection of atoms that has come together and given rise to a phenomenon known as “consciousness”, you have the ability to perceive abstract concepts like love, anger, happiness, etc. Among those concepts are also advantage and disadvantage. A single atom does not care about its standing in the universe; it’s an atom. As a hyper-complicated collection of atoms, you do.

Yet, as high-level as these concepts are, they are still defined by our two fundamental properties: space and time.

My local grocery store is usually not very busy. But at certain times of the day, it’s exceptionally busy. If I go to buy my groceries at 5PM, I’m gonna have a bad time. The aisles are crowded, things are often out of stock, and I’m going to be waiting in line at least 10 minutes before I get to the checkout – often more. And, of course, I’m going to have to spend more time finding a parking spot as well.

However, if I choose to buy my groceries at 10pm it’s a totally different story. The parking lot is nearly empty, as is the store. I can grab what I want, instantly find an open checkout lane, and be on my way in just a few minutes.

In the latter case, I’ve gained an advantage. Instead of spending a stressful 45 minutes in the grocery store, I spend a leisurely 15. What could I do with the 30 minutes I saved? I could work on my business, finish reading a book… quite possibly I could do something that might advance my career.

This advantage was gained all because I chose to manipulate one of the two fundamental elements. The store’s position in space didn’t change. All that changed was the time at which I chose to occupy it.

The same advantage can be gained in your morning commute, or at the DMV when you need to renew your driver’s license. Opting for a contrarian schedule means competition for the spaces you need to occupy is low. You save time, money, and stress.

This is a very simple example, but it’s a good beginning illustration. If you take a seemingly more difficult question, the fundamental answer is still the same.

How did Elon Musk become so successful?

Fundamentally, he (a reductionistic term in this context), or aspects of “he” – his attention, energy, resources, etc – went through a specific sequence of positions in space and time that resulted in a massive advantage.

Earlier positions in space and time set him up for later ones. Time spent reading math books and science fiction novels built neural pathways which were primed to take advantage of later opportunities that would have gone unnoticed by others.

Crucially, each moment in time consisted of a position that was occupied and a virtually infinite number of positions that were NOT occupied.

Musk’s success has as much to do with the speed at which the sequence of positions was assembled as it does with the fact that they were occupied at all. He, like all of us, has a limited amount of time on this Earth.

More importantly, many advantages can only be gained for a short amount of time. They’re open during a small window, but they’re soon closed – whether by another person snatching them up first, or by circumstances changing in another way.

This is why the article you’re reading is titled, “Unlimited Access to Information is Not Enough”.

The development of the internet is often celebrated for having given us unprecedented access to information. Most of us now have a small rectangle in our pockets or purses that can answer virtually any question we can think of. And it is amazing.

But if you want to gain advantages, it’s not enough. 

If I walk into a university library today, it’s almost certainly true that there is some combination of information contained within its books that would give me the knowledge required to become a millionaire within one year.

Maybe it’s a combination of the advice in a real estate investing book, the trend data gleaned from a slew of census reports, and an old newspaper that just happened to mention that a farmer in North Carolina had fallen on hard times and was selling a piece of land near Asheville dirt cheap.

Who knows? No, really – that’s the question. Who knows?

It’s certain that an advantageous combination of information exists. But my chances of finding it just by waltzing into that library and plucking books off the shelves is slim to none.

What I need is a filtering mechanism. I need something that can narrow my search, something that can steer me clear of all the irrelevant, unnecessary information so I can quickly get to the stuff that matters. Before the window of opportunity closes. 

That row of electric push-buttons on Henry Ford’s desk was a fantastic filtering mechanism. Instead of taking a ton of time to learn something, he could call upon the experts. Instead of occupying a slew of non-advantageous space/time positions, venturing down many dead ends, and missing many windows of opportunity, he could simply talk to people who have been there and done that.

These people had already spent the time required to know what future space/time positions would be advantageous and which would not:

  • Expert A already knows the optimal tread pattern to put on the tires in order to improve traction on wet roads.
  • Expert B already knows how humans psychologically respond to tiered pricing, and can use that knowledge to develop a successful marketing strategy.
  • Expert C already knows where the three cheapest steel mills are near the proposed site of a new factory, and can ask Expert D which would be the best given all the logistics considerations.

Had Ford tried to learn everything he’d need to know within all those fields on his own, it would have taken so long that all the advantages would have been closed off to him once he was ready.

The lesson here is clear: Get access to filtering mechanisms.

Lots of filtering mechanisms exist. Google is a great example – without it, the internet would be an unorganized collection of web pages; you’d need to know the exact address of each one in order to access it. And if you’re old enough to have used search engines back before Google became dominant, you’ll know that they weren’t a whole lot better than that.

Other examples abound. Your library has a catalogue that acts as a filtering mechanism. Restaurant menus have sections and headings, allowing you to quickly scan and find the appetizers instead of reading through a giant list of everything available.

But often, the best ones are found in your relationships with other people.

Having relationships with smart people gives you access to the best filtering mechanisms in the world.

There are always insights, gained through unique and personal experience, that can’t be found via a Google search. The same goes for the ability to make context-based judgements.

Google will never truly organize all the world’s knowledge, because it’s never going to be as good as your best friend will be at telling you that girl you’re dating really isn’t for you. It won’t ever know what’s going on in your company’s IT department as well as the CIO does. And it can’t see that your technique on your three-turns sucks, and you’d do much better if you stopped throwing your free leg so far out… but your figure skating coach can.

At the end of the day, all search engines and all forms of mass communication are going to primarily give you access to content that was created for a large audience. But most communication happens one-to-one, and the information shared in those kinds of conversations is very different. It often contains insights that are never shared through mass communication.

Now, sometimes you’ll have to pay for access to these filtering mechanisms. Coaches are expensive. People charge lots of money for courses (which contain another filtering mechanism – a structured curriculum) that they’ve built. College – with its access to professors – often requires loans to afford. Hiring experts is incredibly expensive.

These filtering mechanisms give you access to advantages – and that’s why they often cost a lot of money. They’re valuable. 

Yes, there are many times when you can get the same advantage independently. Markets aren’t perfectly efficient, and many people gain their own advantages by convincing you that their services are the only path to the outcome you’re seeking.

But sometimes that’s the truth.

So, TL;DR:

  • Seek to build relationships with people whose experience and expertise gives you access to powerful filtering mechanisms.
  • Use courses, classes, and coaches as a way to accelerate your development when you perceive that there is a worthwhile advantage to be gained by doing so.
  • Don’t overvalue the unlimited access to information that the internet gives you.