Beneficial Ignorance: Presence, Focus, and Knowledge Work

| 6 min read
#software-engineering #knowledge-work #current-trends

Doing Meaningful Work Requires Ignoring a Lot of Information

One of the interesting things about being a software engineer right now is the sheer amount of stuff going on in the world that you could theoretically pay attention to. Even if you're not staying up to date about AI there are still advancements in Frontend development and Serverless development that you could spend all of your time trying to keep up with. It is frankly stressful and can make just "doing work" seem less important than trying to keep up to date.

I was thinking about writing something about picking your battles when it comes to learning new information until I saw this article by Casey Newton about the plethora of note taking apps. I found the reframing from "choosing what to learn" to "thinking about how to build knowledge" helpful. Why note-taking apps don’t make us smarter

It put a bunch of ideas together for me about building and maintaining knowledge in the 21st century. Basically the idea that we have all these tools to build knowledge but it actually feels like things are getting worse, not better.

And I think basically that's because the way we build metaphors about saving information is actually out of sync with how we use it. And we typically run into two problems:

  1. Organizing Past Information that we've saved
  2. Staying up to date with the information being shared with us.

How We Think About Information Is Not How We Use It

We think of information like streams coming in and libraries in storage. So we spend a lot of time categorizing, bucketing and shifting records around in an effort to keep them close to our mind lest we lose something important. And when we're confronted with a new piece of information the choice is between drinking from the well of knowledge or not. And in that frame the answer seems obvious.

And that's because while we tend to behave like information is a discrete unit of facts that we can collect, organize and expound on, information is actually an active process.

But this is a critical misunderstanding of what "knowledge work" actually is. One of the interesting things about learning about spaced repetition is the idea that how we actually remember a thing has less to do with our ability to understand it and more to do with our ability to be tested on it. Which gets at something key about knowledge work. Knowledge work is about practice, not information.

Competence, when it comes to information and knowledge work is actually about the art of deeply engraining ideas within our neurons such that they can be reliably retrieved under a variety of contexts and circumstances. While we might act like our brains are vast libraries of informations, I would categorize them more like swirling maelstroms of information between which a cursor (our identities) ping bong between concepts. This means the value of merely reading something can be shockingly low.

The Line by John Curry, 1935

Our Software Tools Support These (bad) Metaphors

The interesting articulation in this article is the way that systemization of our personal knowledge stores (and I would add our todo lists) has done little in the way of actually helping us manage information more effectively.

Basically we creates backlogs of information as though they can act as "second brains". And the idea here is that (like Getting Things Done espouses) if we get externalize the actions we need to remember we can simply act on them later. But there are two challenges with this:

  1. As Newton notes in the article, the amount of time we have to spend building and maintaining these systems of knowledge is often much more of an investment than their payoff represents.
  2. The half-life of tasks, ideas, backlogs we capture is preciously small. To the point where, after a certain amount of time, an old task is as much a piece of "new" information as it is a remembrance of the past.

This means between bucketing and categorizing new information and maintaining old information, it's so easy to spend more time carrying forward past commitments to ourself than it is actually acting on the information that's in front of us.

It's Basically The Same With Incoming Information Sources

Because our society puts such a high value on "being informed", being up to date on the latest terms, vocabulary and ideas floating around can feel as important as executing the work. Not because the words flying around have an immediate impact on our jobs but because our ability to recognize and categorize them correctly feels tied to our social standing. If we don't know them we might feel lost, uncertain, foolish, or the dreaded word "behind".

If we let go of being up to date, there's a reasonable fear that our social standing will change. The value of our knowledge is deeply tied to the social standing we have in our community after all. (Check out Being Wrong for a deep dive on why and how that's the case) It's why disinformation spreads so fast, because if we have to choose between our status and our beliefs, we will tend to pick our status.

The irony of this situation is that "catch up costs" for information have never been lower. It is quite easy to find a few information dense articles and get a general understanding of a specific topic. But what's much harder is building the compounding sets of knowledge that differentiate your ability to act effectively.

Ignorance Is Bliss

The conclusion here to me is straightforward, if maybe painful to hear. It’s beneficial to choose to be ignorant. Being behind on some things gives you the ability to practice and act on information in ways that compounds your understanding and ties it to other knowledge you already have, so you can speak and act with fluency. It's the difference between understanding what a switch case is in Javascript and understanding when it's idiomatic to use one.

Cal Newport's concept that humans at value to knowledge through focus is key here. Knowledge work is active work. It's about choosing to recommit to a single topic repeatedly, which means letting some information literally slide past you. To accept the fact that you will become (and more importantly feel) less knowledgeable about other things because you believe the value of knowledge of the thing that you're focusing on is actually more important.

I’m saying this to emphasize that knowledge work requires active practice. It can feel like knowledge work is just about finding two sets of facts (bundles of words) and drawing a line between them, but it’s actually more nuanced. Part of the reason that executives can sound so weird is that they’re literally out of practice in applying concepts so they can sound like a tourist confidently mispronouncing words based on their extensive Duolingo practice. (I should note this isn’t all executives but when you think of the ridiculous executive, I think this is a large reason why.)

When we think about getting rid of our backlogs (tasks, books, movies) we imagine that what we're doing is being more forgetful, present driven, and ruining our memories. But... I think it's actually the opposite. Instead of letting go of half baked thoughts and ideas we carry them into the future with us, indefinitely, like the ghosts of what could have been, crowding out the space that we could devote to our present.

Where AI Can Step In

It's possible as Casey Newton notes, that AI could be an excellent solution here. Wouldn't it be great if we could simply ask ChatGPT which of the articles in our personal repository of stuff that we thought might be useful one day actually aligns with a present problem. Instead of asking it to hallucinate facts for us, ask it to recall information that we have found valuable at one point, but have chosen to forget when it is relevant to us again.

Leaders Are Important

That's why I think it's especially important for leaders to show good behavior here. This isn't to say that you should ignore new trends, just that, it's ok to delegate the research of bleeding edge stuff to other people you trust. Some people will want to commit to being up to date and actually experimenting with [insert new thing] and signaling to others that they can get up to speed when the time comes.


#1 Personally and professionally try to eliminate, hide, or ignore your backlogs. There are certain elements of our past selves that we want to carry into the future, but it’s worth being intentional and recognizing that

#2 Ignore new information more proactively. Prune your inputs as well as your backlogs. Lean into your social networks and let the people who are interested in new ideas help support your learning goals. If you’re in “wait and see” mode on AI that’s actually OK. You probably have friends who are digging in. Trust them and let them guide you. You can apply these sorts of practices to any number of skills. Invest deeply in the skills you care about instead of trying to stay up to date about what the internet thinks is most important.

#3 There aren't any easy outs. Choosing to not pay attention to some things still means consistently pruning and considering our sources. But hopefully making the decision to eliminate sources is easier and quicker than trying to organize them for future use.