Few things have more of an impact on your life and career than the ability to zero in on what really matters. Most information is irrelevant. Most of your time is wasted. Knowing what to ignore is the key to unlocking another level.
Of course, this is harder than it seems. There is an ever-increasing amount of information coming at us. Occasionally we get motivated and try to reach inbox zero but the constant onslaught doesn’t stop and we are soon back to where we started from. Efforts like this are well-meaning but misplaced, asking us to put more time and effort into the problem. In the process, we skip the most important thing of all: our mind.
A lot of people think that Albert Einstein’s greatest ability was his mathematical mind. It wasn’t. Granted it’s probably better than yours or mine, but most people in the know consider his mathematical gifts average at best.
So what made him so special?
Einstein’s greatest skill was the ability to sift the essential from the inessential — to grasp simplicity when everyone else was lost in the clutter.
Only a master can make the complicated simple. Only a master can see the simple point that others miss.
John Wheeler points out in his short biographical memoir on Einstein that it wasn’t that he understood more about complicated things that made him impressive. It was that he understood the value of simplicty.
Many a man in the street thinks of Einstein as a man who could only make headway in his work by dint of pages of complicated mathematics; the truth is the direct opposite. As Hilbert put it, “Every boy in the streets of our mathematical Gottingen understands more about four-dimensional geometry than Einstein. Yet, despite that, Einstein did the work and not the mathematicians.” Time and again, in the photoelectric effect, in relativity, in gravitation, the amateur grasped the simple point that had eluded the expert.
While it’s tempting to think that Einstein was born with this skill, that would be a lie. He intentionally developed it as an adult. “I soon learned,” Einstein wrote, “to scent out what was able to lead to fundamentals and to turn aside from everything else, from the multitude of things that clutter up the mind.”
Where did Einstein acquire this ability to sift the essential from the non-essential?
In the view of many, the position of clerk of the Swiss patent office was no proper job at all, but it was the best job available to anyone with (Einstein’s) unpromising university record. He served in the Bern office for seven years, from June 23, 1902 to July 6, 1909. Every morning he faced his quote of patent applications. Those were the days when a patent application had to be accompanied by a working model. Over and above the applications and the models was the boss, a kind man, a strict man, a wise man. He gave strict instructions: explain very briefly, if possible in a single sentence, why the device will work or why it won’t; why the application should be granted or why it should be denied.
Day after day Einstein had to distill the central lesson out of objects of the greatest variety that man has power to invent. Who knows a more marvelous way to acquire a sense of what physics is and how it works? It is no wonder that Einstein always delighted in the machinery of the physical world—from the action of a compass needle to the meandering of a river, and from the perversities of a gyroscope to the drive of Flettner’s rotor ship.
Who else but a patent clerk could have discovered the theory of relativity?
“Who else,” Wheeler writes, “could have distilled this simple central point from all the clutter of electromagnetism than someone whose job it was over and over to extract simplicity out of complexity.”
The biggest mistake that most of us make is that we try to consume more information without understanding what’s relevant and what’s not.
The constant search for more is the natural response of someone who doesn’t truly understand what matters and what doesn’t. Often, wanting more information is a sign you don’t understand the problem. If you understood the problem, you’d want specific information.
To understand what I mean consider investors. The worst investors focus on every little bit of information. They’ve read every press release, news article, and earnings report. No detail escapes them. But they don’t know what’s relevant and what’s not. They don’t know what matters and what doesn’t. And because they’re looking for something that everyone is missing, they will eventually find it. The brain wants to justify the effort. So some new piece of information gets overvalued, which leads them to unwarranted confidence. You can see where this is going.
The best investors focus only on the few variables that matter and ignore the rest.
Most information is irrelevant. Most of our time spent chasing it is wasted. But only those who can learn to sift the essential from the inessential, only those who can learn to see the simplicity, know what to ignore.
The skills to better filter and process are within our grasp: (1) focus on understanding basic, timeless, general principles of the world and use them to help filter people, ideas, and projects; (2) take time to think about what we’re trying to achieve and the 2-3 variables that will most help us get there; (3) remove the inessential clutter from our lives; (4) think backwards about what we want to avoid.