You Can’t Know Everything

Time for the inaugural post of Simplify and Optimize. Learn more about the blog and about me here. I’ve thought about starting a blog for years, but this idea was the catalyst, and I’m confident you’ll see why:

If there’s one thing I’ve learned from consuming gargantuan amounts of content from the internet, books, movies, and friends, it’s this:

You can’t know everything.

This notion turns up again and again (usually when I’m trying to learn information about a completely new subject area). Believing we can know everything is naive, dangerous, and ultimately fruitless. Even if we could reasonably keep up with the trends, thought-leaders, and literature in a particular field, there are neurological limits on the amount of information we can process and retain. Plus, you cannot spend every moment consuming information and must attend to more basic needs (eating, sleeping, having fun etc.)

This idea is relatively simple, but it helps me put my content consumption in perspective. I have permission to clear items in my feed reader, close unread article tabs in my browser, and most importantly, turn off the flow of information without feeling guilty. Better to spend time understanding, testing, and incorporating one idea that resonates with you than reading about ten ideas without taking any action.

I was reminded of this idea when Planet Money, a NPR show that distills complex economic questions and concepts into plain-speak, featured a TED Talk by economist Tim Harford on their show blog. It’s a 20 minute talk, shorter than that episode of 30 Rock you’ve been meaning to watch. Needless to say, I recommend you watch it.

Harford’s main focus is the importance of trial and error to determine optimal solutions.

I don’t pretend to know everything nor do I think it is possible to do so. I do, however, seek out and evaluate various ideas because that is the only way we can begin to know anything about one thing.


Additional Links

Original Post on Planet Money

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Does Harford make a compelling case? Do we know more than he admits? Let me know in the comments.


2 Comments on “You Can’t Know Everything”

  1. Aaron Clayton-Dunn says:

    This applies so well to US politics! It’s such a shame that we have two polarized parties, that Republicans have a quasi-religious belief in not raising taxes. Why not try out a bunch of policies and keep what works? For that matter, why not study the policies we have tried out and shape policies around what achieves specific broad goals for that country rather than what appeases certain constituents. Our system is so messed up. I wish there were no reelections.

    • Madeline says:

      Definitely does! We have the collective wisdom of government systems and policies that have worked to tap into, yet we end up believing that our problems are too different from those other government systems for their solutions to apply (read: universal healthcare, landfill taxation, etc.). It’s an unfortunate road block.

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