If the man of action, in Goethe’s phrase, is without conscience, he is also without knowledge: he forgets most things in order to do one, he is unjust to what is behind him, and only recognises one law, the law of that which is to be. So he loves his work infinitely more, than it deserves to be loved; and the best works are produced in such an ecstasy of love that they must always be unworthy of it, however great their worth otherwise.
(F. Nietzche — “On the Use and Abuse of History for Life”)
Recently, I have been reading an article by Neal Stephenson on innovation starvation. The author speaks about the inability of Western societies to execute on big things. One point that made me think is the thesis that too much information is killing innovation. It is something I have thought about lately, so I want to share my thoughts with you.
Can information kill creativity?
We live in a world where anyone can easily access information; better access to information has surely improved our life increasing our efficiency. But excited by the power information gave us, we haven’t take any attention to the unintended consequences of having too much available information.
My thesis is that too much information, when not properly managed, can kill creativity, and consequently, innovation, by affecting our ability to take risks.
What is creativity?
According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, creativity refers to the ability to make or bring into existence something new. There is a lot of psychological research about what drives creativity — and also about the exact definition of what creativity is — but I don’t want to bother you, so we will stick to what common sense tells us.
If we define creativity as the ability to bring into existence something new, we must hold that if an individual wants to create something new, she must accept the risk that she might fail. Newness is intrinsically risky, because if something is really new, we don’t have anything telling us that we will succeed. It’s quite obvious that if we don’t accept such a risk, we can’t do creative things. We can do small improvements to existent things (that isn’t so bad, by the way), but we can’t make big, disruptive innovation.
So, creativity is deeply linked to the ability of individuals to accept the risk of failure. I want you to focus on this point because it is the keystone of my thesis. Since creativity is deeply linked to the ability of individuals to accept the risk, it goes without saying that anything which modifies our risk propensity modifies also our creativity.
So far we have understood that when our risk propensity lowers, we are unwilling to take the unknown road for the known one; but how does this affect creativity?
This problem is what in optimization theory is called the local maximum problem (or for the computer scientists between us, the hill climbing problem). Simply put (dear maths, don’t hold it against me), local maxima occur when you try to solve a problem step by step and find a solution that seems optimal, but it is optimal because you are considering only a small subset of the original problem. When something holds you from looking for alternative solutions, your creativity surely suffers.
How can information modify our risk propensity?
Information can modify our risk propensity in several ways; in the following I will discuss two ways information can affect our risk propensity: partial information and social proof.
The available information depicts the effects at the expense of the causes. Most of time, you only know the effects of decisions, while causes remain obscure to you. This is what I call partial information: you have a partial knowledge of the problem space.
Now, a wise man would acknowledge this situation and says: “Hey, this is what I have. I will use it but with the awareness that this is only partial knowledge”. A wiser man would further say: “I don’t mind, I will follow my instinct”.
But typically what we do is to believe in ineluctable certainty and transform that partial knowledge in a full, absolute knowledge. This is where you start avoiding risks; since there is no certainty, we build the illusion of a risk free world: we start taking small steps, the risk free ones, climbing the hill and forgetting the mountain, shaping our world as a risk-free world. We simply negate risks.
The availability of partial information generates the illusion that risk doesn’t exist. Since risk does not exist, how do you call people that take pointless risks (Take the word for yourself)? This is where social proof happens. As social beings, we are constantly responsive to the activities of others. When we face a situation in which we don’t know what to do, we are used to look for clues in others’ behaviors to make our choice. With all the social media available nowdays, we are being constantly flooded with opinions by others. What happens is that all these things might discourage us from continuing on big, bold projects. To say as Nietzche,
“He has lost or destroyed his instinct ; he can no longer trust the “divine animal” and let the reins hang loose, when his understanding fails him and his way lies through the desert. His individuality is shaken, and left without any sure belief in itself; it sinks into its own inner being, which only means here the disordered chaos of what it has learned, which will never express itself externally, being mere dogma that cannot turn to life”
How can we defend ourselves from too much information?
Information is not bad at all; it is bad only in the measure it starts affecting our risk propensity. Here are some simple tips you can use to control how information affects your behavior:
1. Understand that information is, at the best, partial
It is impossible to get a complete knowledge about an event. You only get partial information. What is worse, you don’t know what information you are missing. So, learn what you can learn after a critical assessment and leave a small space for your gut instinct.
2. Follow your gut instinct
Innovation requires you to fail. If you have a hunch that the gamble might pay off in the long run, place that bet. Life is too short to brood over things; trying is the best way to learn new things (of course, you must also minimize the negative effects of failing and setting your mind in learning mode).
3. Know thyself
Organize the chaos inside you and start thinking back to yourself, to your own true necessities, and letting all the sham necessities go.
I want to conclude with the opening quote from Nietzche. Remember that every man of action is without conscience and a bit of oblivion is needed to get things done.
And you? Have you ever been in situations where too much information were holding you back? How did you overcome them? Let me know in the comments.