Conquering Information Anxiety — Seven Suggestions from Richard Saul Wurman

Recently I pulled my copies of Information Anxiety by Richard Saul Wurman off the shelf. This book is filled with insights for managing the flow of information in your life and making sense of it.

The following ideas are especially useful for choosing what to include in your commonplace book and organizing its contents.

1. Learning begins with admitting ignorance

This is more than a platitude. Admitting ignorance is often a descent into chaos, with all the attendant fear. I’ve felt this fear at the beginning of projects about complex topics that were new to me.

Admitting ignorance runs counter to the sound-bite mentality of our culture. We fear looking stupid. And we admire people who exude confidence and deliver quick answers.

What helps me is remembering Richard’s words:

When you can admit that you don’t know, you are more likely to ask the questions that will enable you to learn. When you don’t have to filter your inquisitiveness through a smoke screen of intellectual posturing, you can genuinely receive or listen to new information. If you are always trying to disguise your ignorance of a subject, you will be distracted from understanding it.

Richard admits that he is typically the first person in a room full of experts to ask the “stupid” questions. What empowers him is remembering the curse of knowledge: Once you understand something, you immediately forget what it’s like not to understand it. Asking the first questions that occur to you can nudge the experts past this curse.

2. Access is the antidote to anxiety

For every body of information that’s new to you, there is a point of access. Be patient, and be willing to look.

Begin by remembering the difference between raw data and information. For example, an acre equals 43,560 square feet. This is data, and it doesn’t mean much to me.

In contrast, I can remember that an acre is about as big as an American football field without the end zones. That is information. I gain access by connecting a new fact to something I already understand.

3. Information is infinite, but the ways of organizing it are not

Those ways of organizing information boil down to the “five ultimate hat racks”:

  • Location
  • Alphabet
  • Time
  • Category
  • Continuum

Richard gives this example:

If you were preparing a report on the automobile industry, you could organize cars by model (category), year (time), place of manufacture (location), or Consumer Reports rating (continuum). Within each, you might list them alphabetically.

4. There is no such thing as “keeping up” — only following the trail of your own interests

“Learning can be defined as the process of remembering what you are interested in,” Richard notes. Due to the inherent connection between subjects, you can “follow any interest on a path through all knowledge.”

It’s perfectly fine to indulge ourselves by turning our personal interests into our primary information filter. The stuff that stimulates our curiosity is probably all that we’ll remember. Besides, there’s so much available information that we’ll never track it all anyway.

5. “News” usually increases information anxiety

News has been defined as “the same things happening over and over again to different people.” This is an exaggeration, of course. And it points us in a useful direction.

Too often, the news gets packaged as isolated facts, devoid of context. And let’s be honest: On any given day, there are only a handful of stories that really matter. The rest are optional.

In the first edition of Information Anxiety, Richard suggests that we ask these questions when consuming news:

  • What do the numbers mean?
  • To what other events does this incident relate?
  • What is it the announcer isn’t telling me?
  • Why is this story more important than another?
  • And, the most crucial question, how does this story apply to my life?

6. Most of our communication is about giving and receiving instructions

“Every successful communication is really an instruction in disguise — from love letters to company brochures,” Richard writes. This is particularly true when the desired outcome is an action for someone to take.

Good instructions include these elements:

  • Mission — the purpose or main benefit of following the instructions
  • Destination — the ideal outcome of following the instructions
  • Procedure — the essential tasks to perform
  • Duration — the amount of time that the procedure will take
  • Anticipation — the conditions that I can expect to encounter as I carry out the procedure
  • Failure — signs that I’m making errors and how to correct them

When we give instructions, Richard adds, “we test our ability to communicate information and gauge what we really know.”

7. Talk is deep

Conversation “is imbued with extraordinary complexities, nuances, and ephemeral magic.” When talking to others, we start, stop, digress, and make connections in non-linear ways.

Conversation leads to understanding as we allow ourselves to admit ignorance, explore options, and probe for context. Richard gives this example:

The industrial design critic Ralph Kaplan was talking to a woman who was trying to explain something to him. “I know what I want to say, but I just can’t put it into words,” she told him. Puzzled, Caplan asked her, “Can you tell me what form it is in now?”

The inherent richness of conversation makes it a worthy match for the sheer onslaught of data that confronts us daily. Ironically, the oldest medium of communication helps us make peace with the newest ones.

This is why my commonplace book includes nuggets of insight from daily conversations as well as quotes from the things I read.


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