Knowing What You Don’t Need to Know

It’s not that important to know things.

Two things are far more important than what you know.  What you can learn, and what you know you don’t need to know.  Maybe I’ll write a bit more about the importance of being able to learn another time, but today’s post is about knowing what you don’t need to know.

We’re surrounded by information.  Every new environment is jam-packed with people, assumptions, objects, ideas, processes, rules (written and unwritten), and data.  The vast majority of it is not necessary for you to achieve what you want to achieve in that environment.  But a handful of things are absolutely indispensable.  That is why the most valuable skill for success in diverse circumstances might be the ability to quickly identify what doesn’t matter.  Discern what is not of fundamental importance and ignore it.

Nearly everything taught in schools can be ignored.  So can nearly everything in a government or HR training video.  These are the easy ones.  Most people can intuitively gather from a young age that these things are unnecessary to successfully navigating the world (though harsh punishments may induce them to pay just enough attention to avoid manufactured pain).  It gets harder when you enter a social scene, family party, or workplace.  It’s harder still if you want to be an entrepreneur and enter the vast market with no blueprint.

The most successful and contented people I know are brilliant at being ignorant.  They are not stupid people nor are they unable to learn almost anything of interest or value to them.  But they are conscious of their chosen ignorance of the vast majority of facts and subjects and skills.  They know what they don’t need to know and they don’t waste effort trying to learn it.

This typically requires genuine humility and self-confidence.  Most people feel pressure to know a lot of useless stuff because it will save them the embarrassment of ever appearing to not know something.  This is ridiculous and sad.  Someone without broad swaths of conscious ignorance in many areas is usually wasting a lot of time and stressing over people-pleasing without ever gaining much self-knowledge.

There is no inherent value in knowledge of a fact.  When you enter a new situation the limiting factor to getting the most value out of it is not how much you can learn, but how much you can identify that you don’t need to learn.

This is the other side of the 80/20 rule.  Sometimes figuring out your 20% – what activities you will get the vast majority of your return on – is too hard.  It’s sometimes easier and no less important to identify the 80% of things not bringing you sufficient value and stop learning and doing them.

Why Not Go Work for an Awesome Company Now?

Many people can’t get paid jobs because they lack experience.  Most will go pay a lot of money to buy a credential in hopes that it gets them access to the jobs, or take a different job.  You could also just see if you can do the job for free as a way to get access.  Apparently, this is a controversial suggestion.

Today I posted the following on Facebook:

Young people: if you have the choice:

Work with awesome people on interesting stuff for no pay


Work with average people on average stuff for a salary higher than most of your peers

Which would you take?

I suggest the former will pay off 5 or 10 tens more over the short term psychologically and over mid-long term financially as well.

Avoid anything that makes taking the former opportunity more difficult. (Debt, obligation, geographical restrictions, pressure from others, promises you wish you hadn’t made, etc.)

And this:

Imagine your favorite existing company or your dream startup idea. If someone there came to you and said, “We want you to work with us! We just can’t pay you right now.”

Could you do it? Would you?

If you’re 15-25, I’d say a major goal should be to be in a position where you can afford to say yes.

I was baffled by the number of comments and private messages I received from people who passionately disagreed or found these posts dangerous, ignorant, or offensive.  You never know what things will rile people up on the internet.  Didn’t expect this to be one of them!

No, the posts are not anti-work.  No, they are not anti-money or anti-capitalist.  No, they do not claim in any way that everyone should share the same time preference or risk tolerance.  No, they do not imply that working for free is morally or practically better than working for pay.

The posts are making a point about the particular position of young people early in their careers.  They spend tens of thousands of dollars and several years attempting to gain credentials they hope will grant them access to jobs they like and that can sustain them.  My question is, why not just go get that job now?  Work for free if it’s the only way.  Working for free at a great company is probably better than paying to not get paid at a university so that you can hopefully work for enough pay to cover your debt later.  It’s probably more likely to lead to more money and happiness in the long term.

Do it when you’re young and inexperienced your opportunity cost is low and your financial obligations are few.  Invest in yourself by trading pay for great experience if you can.  That’s what many people think they’re doing with school.  What’s different about working instead?  In many cases, it’s better.

But let’s say you’re out of school already.  I think the same question applies.  Ask yourself, if a great opportunity came your way that didn’t have a lot of money with it but it did have a lot of long term promise, would you and could you take it?  You don’t have to in order to be a good person.  It’s your life, not mine.  But if you wish you could but think you can’t because you have a lot of financial or other obligations, the point is to consider ways in which you can reduce those obligations.  Be in a position to take advantage of the best opportunities (measured on all fronts, not just by pay).  The golden handcuffs are real, and they can hurt.  I’ve written before how debt can limit your options, and how lack of income can be an asset.

If at an incredibly young age you already find yourself having to take a job you don’t like because nothing else will cover your expenses, you might try to find ways to reduce the obligations.  I’m not saying don’t work hard.  I’m not saying money doesn’t matter.  I’m not even taking a side on the follow your passion/don’t follow your passion debate.

I think people overestimate the long term value of money early in their career, and underestimate the long term value of time well spent early in their career.  The latter has greater returns.  I’ve talked to many stressed out new employees who are thinking about not taking a job they love because it pays $27,000, instead of the $31,000 they’re making at the job they can tolerate.  I’ve been there myself more than once.  The thing is, in a few years, and certainly in ten years, that extra money will mean little to you, as much as it feels like right now.  But your time and how well you spent it will mean even more, not to mention the network and skills you build along the way.  Odds are that not just in happiness, but in long-term financial rewards, you’ll do better going with the one that is more up your alley vs. a few thousand bucks.

I’ve never worked for free except on side projects and launching my own company.  I’ve never had an internship.  I’ve always been a paperboy or grocery clerk or golf course go-getter or construction worker or something else to earn money.  The sooner I was able to merge my interests with my income the happier I was.  That’s not for everyone.  But I can tell you many of the best decisions I’ve made were saying no to well paying jobs.  I could have been a pharmaceutical rep at age 19 and had a company car, benefits, and starting at $50-60k.  I couldn’t be happier that I picked a series of jobs with a higher ceiling and more in line with the kind of people I wanted to be around and the kind of stuff I really love doing.  That extra $25k in starting salary seemed like a million bucks at the time.  Now it seems like it would have been more than foolish to take it instead of the path I chose.  If you’re doing great work and working hard at it, the financial rewards will come.

I am not preaching dependence.  Far from it.  This is a message of independence.  Don’t just take internship after internship and live with mom and dad until you’re 40.  Heck no.  Don’t be dependent.  Be independent of as many things as possible – debt, promises, other people, and even a certain income level.  That’s the point.  Pick things that take advantage of your strengths even if the pay is low upfront because of what it can be down the road, and because of the fulfillment you’ll get.  Don’t get locked into an income level that your friends think is cool if it limits your options.

Get paid if you can and as much as you can.  But the idea that schooling is the only way to invest in yourself for greater future gains is absurd.  As is the idea that a better salary is always the best long-term payoff.  Why not give up income to gain human capital on the job?

If after all this you still don’t get my point or think I’m somehow against work, or money, or subjective value, or rainbows and hugs and everything lovely, this post is not for you anyway.  If it resonates with you as similar advice and thinking did with me many years ago, take it to heart.

Time and money are both valuable.  One of them you can create more of, the other you can’t.

A Pure Duality

It has come into my mind that you’ve grown frustrated, or confused as to why I have not been in any real sense present in your life. I will not pretend to have an answer sufficient to settle your uneasiness and feeling of loss, but I can perhaps provide a fuller perspective.

I don’t know exactly where I am, or rather where all of me is. Have you ever been two places at once? I don’t suspect so, as I think it is rare among the healthy on earth. Maybe I should start from the beginning…

Late in the fall some twenty years ago I awoke on a typical morning and left for work. I left a wonderful family and a great house, and headed off to a promising job. I don’t remember giving much thought to my life during that short car ride, but I felt somewhere that I had led a good one.

Something happened…blackness…I don’t remember much for a long period of time-like when you know you’re asleep, but you’re not dreaming or thinking, just blackness. This felt like weeks, or months.

As if my eyes were opened, there I was. I was suddenly in a great green field, surrounded by multitudes of rejoicing people. It was a magnificent celebration, and we seemed to be in some beautiful valley on a beautiful sunny day. It was unlike any landscape I’d seen before, unreal in its beauty, yet more real than any solid object.

A wise old man, who seemed one thousand years of age, yet looked not fifty and healthy, stepped out from the crowd and greeted me warmly.

“Welcome! We have been waiting for you for quite some time!”

Thinking I was dreaming I didn’t respond, but just watched and listened.

“Come, walk with me; you have many choices before you.” He said, “You have come here because you are greatly needed…your gifts make you extremely precious in these times, and those to come no doubt. I can assure you it will all make sense eventually, and your every need will be met, you have only to choose whether you are willing, or not.”

“What are you talking about?” I asked.

“Not many are given this choice you know.” He replied.

“What choice am I given? Am I dreaming? Given the choice to wake or continue dreaming, I would gladly wake, and remain sensible.”

“You are in no way dreaming!” He shouted, not seeming in the least amused, “I took you for smarter than one who thinks this is a dream!”

Not wanting to further offend him, but still unsure of the nature if this experience, I did not attempt to defend my statement.

“Now, your choice?”

“Explain to me what choice you refer to, and I will gladly tell you my thoughts on it.” I replied.

“Your thoughts on it? Your thoughts? This surely will not do! This is not a choice but to muse on, or some hypothetical presented for mental exercise or sport! This is The choice! The choice!”

Still confused I was forced to ask again what now seemed a stupid question.

“What choice?”

“Sit down son.” He said, “I can see that you are still fresh in your logic, and your time in the darkness did not cleanse you from your confidence in what you know and have taught yourself to react to. Impressive mind indeed, very impressive.”

Not knowing what kind of statement this was, but choosing to take it as a compliment, I felt proud of whatever it was that my mind had done to slow this process, and necessitate further explanation.

“Your ignorance, at least, is a result of much discipline and so being is quite consistent, and finely tuned, so I shall paint for you a simpler picture, in your undeveloped language.”

I think he sensed my pride after his previous statement, and simply had to let me know that whatever plane he operated on was one higher than mine. At first I grew resistant, but this lasted only a minute, as my curiosity soon overtook my dual senses of dignity and defensiveness, and I listened to what he had to say.

“Here in this realm, let us call it X, for I can only assume by your look that you are comfortable with mathematical terms, there is a great movement occurring in the great war that is ever raging. Though I cannot explain it without giving you references to what you know as ‘time’, try not to focus on the sequential order of these events. Our enemy has hit us with something so twisted, so divisive and confusing, that we petitioned our superiors for an exception. This exception was sought so that we might bring you here, for we knew that to overthrow this plot of our foe, you were our only choice. An exception was granted. Which is what brought you, after a long time in the darkness for purposes of ‘unlearning’, (though now I see perhaps not long enough) out of what we shall call subordinate X, and into X.”

Though not understanding all of this, I moved on to the original question, and repeated it. “Yes, but you have still not told me what this choice is?”

“As with any exception, it is only granted on the condition that you are given the choice of whether or not to accept. You see, without this choice your presence here would be counterproductive and even fatal. By denying you choice, the enemy would have already won, and our need of you to combat his attack would no longer exist. Thus, I have been given the authority to grant you your choice.”

“Yes, yes but again, what is the choice! I cannot see any choice at all, for I am here listening to you speak whether I want to wake up or not!”

“You are incorrect! Even now you are choosing. You do not have to be here, but your willingness brought you, and now your curiosity keeps you here. Do not so underestimate your will. However, I need not go further into this. You are correct to seek an explanation of the choice. You have been pulled, temporarily, from subordinate X to be presented with the situation we are facing in our war, and our need of your gifts. Your choice is, quite simply, whether you want to help us, or return to your family and all that you previously knew (in the simplest sense of the word ‘know’ that is) in subordinate X. “

It suddenly occurred to me that I had a family. Three young children, a beautiful wife, a life that I loved….it suddenly sank in that I was indeed in another place, away from all of that, and that this wasn’t a dream.

“You mean, I must choose whether to stay here and help you, and never return to my family and my life as it was…or to go back, and leave you without whatever of me you are in need of?”


“And what of you, if I choose to go back?”

“I know not. I only know that things were desperate enough for me to be granted an exception. This is evidence enough of the nature of our situation for me to implore you with all my heart, please stay! But in any case, please choose soon, for time, as you know it, though not passing here, is growing short in the place from which you come.”

I felt, for no reason I could identify, an urge more pressing that any I’d felt before to stay with this wise stranger and to fight. I knew almost nothing of what I was needed for, or what would ensue, and yet never has my heart desired anything more than to stay and accomplish it. It was what I was made for! I almost shouted out with all my soul that I’d stay, and fight! But suddenly I saw my family again, my three children, my wife, my friends, all that was depending on me for provision, for love, for support and strength….I could not choose!

“Surely there is another way!”

“There is no other way!”

“But I cannot, and will not, abandon my family and my life for this! Yet I cannot and will not run from this place, where I know deep down I was made to serve and fight! No, there is another way, and I choose it!”

“But I tell you, there is not!”

“You? You who tell me all that is unbelievable, all that is profound, you who tell me that you yourself sought and were granted and ‘exception’, now say that there is no way?!?! I don’t believe it! There is another way, and I choose it!”

Suddenly another voice spoke, and thundered with all the urgency and authority in the universe…



I have been here in X since that one word was spoken. Yet somehow, in some way I know I am also somewhere else. I am two persons, not just one split in half, but two, somehow the same, but entirely different. Neither complete, both lacking something, but each existing where each is needed. I cannot tell you what this means, yet I know, somehow, that this was the right choice. I am here, fulfilling my destiny…yet I know, somehow I am there.

I am sorry you do not see me nor hear me as I once was. But I implore you, do not give up! I do hear you! I do see you! And what you see of me, whatever may be lacking, is me, and yet, not all of me. I am here….and I am there.