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Opportunity, Information, and Book Recommendations

January 15, 2021
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I’m doing a little bit something different on the blog right now. I’m working on a series of posts revolving around opportunity, risk, and decision-making. The motivation for this series came out of a discussion that I had with a client concerning his daughter wanting to go to medical school. For those of you who might not know, there are actually two different degrees that allow someone to practice medicine as a physician: medical doctor (MD) and doctor of osteopathy (DO). The difference? “Doctors of Osteopathic Medicine use a unique whole-person approach to help prevent illness and injury.”[i] I suppose one might think that any doctor would, and maybe should, take that approach, but that is apparently not the case, which is why osteopathic practitioners represent their approach as distinct.

Having said that, though, those who hold the DO degree are obviously more rare than those who hold the MD degree—there is apparently one DO degree awarded for every three MD degrees.[ii] As you might imagine, this is an issue, much like any other, where both sides have advocates and critics, and that is the part that was particularly concerning to our client. Like any father, he wants nothing but the best for his daughter, but the difficulty he was experiencing with settling some of the issues surrounding her medical school endeavor is indicative of the fact that it’s not always easy to know what’s best, and that’s only one part of the decision-making process.

After we had the chance to speak, I reflected on our conversation and sent the client an email to follow-up with some additional thoughts. What I shared with him is that, fundamentally, it seemed like we were dealing with a question of opportunity. There are two doors (or medical degrees) that hide their own unique path forward. Both will result in the same outcome, with the daughter practicing medicine, but the magnitude of the outcome seemed to be what was in question—i.e., is the DO as bonafide as the MD, thus can a DO be as successful as an MD?

Helping clients parse through information and make decisions is nothing new. I’ve certainly assisted clients with financial decisions, but I have also helped with decisions dealing with everything from choosing between two job offers, deciding whether to buy the family property, or even as simple as when to take Social Security or whether shares of Apple should be purchased.

As you might imagine, there is no shortage of friends, family, neighbors, convenience store clerks, etc. who just can’t wait to tell you what little piece of wisdom they’re hiding—if only everyone knew what they knew, the world would be a better place. While I sincerely appreciate the idea of someone wanting to help, what I also know is that some decisions can be so daunting, and even so unfamiliar, that the process of orienting yourself and understanding what all you should consider takes on a level of importance that can spare little compromise.

There is an expression that I like to use to describe how I feel when I am taking in a lot of information, and maybe too much to retain as accurately as I would like: drinking through a firehose—that is also my go-to phrase to describe how people, like our client here, feel when faced with these kind of situations. In case that analogy doesn’t resonate, allow me to say this: water comes out of a firehose at a very high rate and pressure, and attempting to drink from one may very well be dangerous to your health. That explains why it is such a good analogy to use when referring to the consumption of an overwhelming amount of information.

Now, I’m going to stick with the firehose as a prop, but I’m not going to force you to drink through it, literally or figuratively—no matter how much it might entertain us all. Instead, just imagine that you are standing there watching the water come out. Now, also imagine that you have an apparatus that enables you to attach a single hose to two fire trucks, so that they both can pump water through the same hose at the same time. Setting aside concerns for the integrity of the hose, I’m sure that you can imagine that if the pressure and volume of the water that one truck can pump is already a considerable amount, then adding another truck is going to compound those factors significantly.

So, we’ve got our setup: one hose, two fire trucks, and you’re watching the water come out. In the middle of this, you spot a stream of color in the water that you didn’t see initially. You look toward each truck to try to collect additional information that might indicate the cause of the stream of color, but you see and hear nothing that is out of place. What do you do?

In case it’s not obvious, if we are to stand any chance of trying to identify the cause of the coloration in the water, we have to change at least one of our conditions. In other words, there is no way that, in the absence of additional information (odd sights or sounds from one of the trucks), we can make such a determination. There is something else to consider, though, that I won’t focus on too much here: even if one of the trucks happened to make an odd sound or maybe even emit smoke, the best the additional information can tell us is where we should probably start in trying to determine the source of the coloration; but it is not definitive proof of which truck is creating it.

As we embark on our detective work, the very first step that we must take, and the very first step that we absolutely will take, will be to impact the rate at which water is coming out of the hose—i.e., the water will be slowed as a result of at least one of the trucks being shut down, if not stopped altogether. The basic reasons we will do this are two-fold: first, as a matter of necessity—the water has proven to be our most valuable source of information, albeit insufficient for defining the problem. So, we might have enough information immediately available to us, but the volume of information being offered to us is too much to make that determination. Further, the fact that the water, or it might be more precise to say the color in the water, is our most valuable source of information is proven by the fact that it’s the only indication we have that there is even a problem. Given the fact that we know we have a problem, we can at least use that information to potentially protect the truck(s) with the problem by shutting it/them down. So, out of the noise, we know we have detected a signal that is at least an indication of a problem, but is insufficient for going much further than that.

What lessons might this teach us about the consumption of information, in general? First, if we want to implement real solutions, then we have to identify the precise sources of our problems, and this means consuming information at a rate, and in a way, that fulfills that objective. To be clear, this also means that we need to consider the number of sources from which we are attempting to consume information. We might very well need multiple sources, but if you are attempting to consume something from one source at a rate that exceeds your ability to comprehend it, adding another source is not going to help the problem. The second lesson: Of the things that we are attempting to consume, we have to be able to identify what is useful and what is not. We’ve already established that you can only truly consume things at a rate that matches your ability to manage, but once we slow things down, we might very well find that some of the things we were on the verge of consuming might have no benefit to us at all.

Essentially, the point I want to make here is the simple fact that all of the information that we are confronted with on a daily basis creates a noise that envelopes everything we do. If we are to identify the information that we need to make the best decisions possible, then we must be able to manage noise and detect signals—information that is useful in arriving at a definitive conclusion. If we attempt to solve problems and make decisions outside of that paradigm, we run the risk of confusing noise for signal and suffering the consequences of what results.

I’ll call that a preview, of sorts, to blog posts to come, but if you would like to read up on some of the factors at play here, this list of books is a great place to start:

The Biggest Bluff by Maria Konnikova

The Signal and the Noise by Nate Silver

SuperFreakonomics by Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner

Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman

Scarcity: The New Science of Having Less and How It Defines Our Lives by Sendhil Mullainathan and Eldar Shafir

The Ostrich Paradox by Robert Meyer and Howard Kunreuther