Information Is Not Power

The true sign of intelligence is not knowledge but imagination. - Albert Einstein

We're regularly told "to buckle down," "to focus" on goals, but when it comes to imaginative outcomes, a single-minded focus can be counterproductive. In fact, Daniel Goleman's book "Focus" makes the case for an indirect receptiveness to information of all kinds. From a New York Times Sunday Book Review of the work:

According to Goleman, the author of 'Emotional Intelligence,' it’s a form of attentiveness characterized by 'utter receptivity to whatever floats into the mind.' Experiments suggest it’s also the source of our most creative thoughts. Going beyond 'orienting,' in which we deliberately gather information, and 'selective attention,' in which we concentrate on solving a particular problem, open awareness frees the brain to make the “serendipitous associations” that lead to fresh insights. Artists and inventors alike seem unusually adept at such productive daydreaming.

We tend to think of attention as a switch that’s on or off — we’re focused or we’re distracted. That’s a misperception. Attention, as Goleman explains, comes in many varieties. Its extreme forms tend to be the most limiting....

What appears to be most at risk is our ability to experience open awareness. Always a rare and elusive form of thinking, it seems to be getting rarer and more elusive. Our modern search-engine culture celebrates information gathering and problem solving — ways of thinking associated with orienting and selective focus — but has little patience for the mind’s reveries. Letting one’s thoughts wander seems frivolous, a waste of practical brainpower. Worse, our infatuation with social media is making it harder to hear the mind’s whispers. Solitude has fallen out of fashion. Even when we’re by ourselves, we’re rarely alone with our thoughts.

The reviewer points out that any misunderstanding of what it means to focus can also be attributed to a belief that attention is solely a function of the brain when, in fact, it's informed at least in part by culture. The mention of solitude instantly reminded me of William Deresiewicz's West Point address on solitude and leadership, wherein the essayist argues that leaders need time and space to reflect. "If you want others to follow, learn to be alone with your thoughts."

Does your culture encourage reflection or mere information churn?

The latter is not only counterproductive, but dangerous. Paying attention to the wrong things is the leading cause of flying accidents, as I was repeatedly told by my primary flight instructor when I was learning to fly. Every year, pilots lose their lives because they blundered deeper and deeper into a dangerous situation, missing, or dismissing, the cues that could have warned them of danger. The information they had was wrong.

A "productive awareness" also means being attuned to our senses, of feeling, as clearly as possible, what we are feeling at any moment in time so as to not miss important connections. Suspending belief in their own ways, successful scientists and playwrights see what there is to see because they know that information is not power. The right information is power. To have that aha moment, we must use imagination. We must be open to surprise. We must be curious.

The cognitive "reverie" is what I loved about Occupy Lunch's Robert Karimi and his fellow Creative Capital artists at IdeaFestival 2014. They peek behind the curtain. They have leaky mental filters. From time to time, they make space to think about nothing in particular because they care about leadership - self-leadership. The irony is that by venturing beyond mere "orienting" in the search for knowledge, they come to know what they know.

Stay curious.


Image: Geoff Oliver Bugbee