James Leroy Wilson's blog

Thursday, October 27, 2005

When Facts Really Do Get in the Way

Some time ago, I was an on-again and off-again runner for a number of years. Jogger, really, going 3-5 miles at 9-10 minutes per mile. I never did train for a marathon or any kind of race or run, and I have several more pounds of pure fat on me now than when I stopped jogging (which I plan to take up again soon).

Ask me if I can run a marathon today, I would say, "Are you kidding?"

But if you told me that a million dollars was waiting for me 26.2 miles away, that I had just four hours to get it, and I wasn't allowed any means of transportation other than my feet, I would spend a minute stretching my limbs and then I'd be off.

Would I get to the million dollars in time?

Three possibilities:

1. I get there on time.
2. I get there, but not on time.
3. I never get there, which (barring injury or worse) means that I quit.

What would keep me going? The million dollars. What would cause me to quit? Knowing with absolute certainty that I won't get the million dollars. Maybe I've gone just 12 miles in 2 1/2 hours, out of breath and in searing pain. Or maybe I've gone 20, but have just 15 minutes left. Two pieces of information that would probably aid a trained, in shape, experienced runner might devastate me: the time and the distance. Nothing would hurt my chances like mileage markers and a watch.

Without them, I'd have no idea how fast I'm running or how far I've gone. I would maintain a pace that keeps my pulse and breathing steady, keep my mind on the million dollars, and affirm to myself that my pace is good, my energy is limitless, and that I will get stronger and even faster the longer I run. Nothing will stop me from getting the million dollars. We perform best when we're so focused that we lose track of time.

But if I knew the time and distance, my mind wouldn't be on the destination, but on the time. I won't be thinking "I can make it! I can make it!" but rather, "Can I make it?" or "I'm off the necessary 9 minute mile pace; I'm not making it!" or "I'm dead tired, and there's 22 miles to go!" I wouldn't be thinking about that million dollars, but rather about losing the million dollars. Once I'm convinced I've lost it, I'd stop.

The facts - and I mean objective, irrefutable facts - have a way of discouraging us, of preventing us from giving our best effort, the effort we would have given if we didn't know the facts. The facts tell us when to quit, when to give up. But isn't it better to arrive to the destination late? Isn't there greater satisfaction in running a marathon than in quitting one?

Dreams maximize potential. There are two kinds of information: things you need to know, or learn, on your way to your dreams, and things you don't need to know. Knowledge that you don't need to know hurts you, because at best it clutters your mind and knocks off your focus, and at worst create doubts in your mind. Maximizing your potential means continuing on when the facts say it's time to quit. When your mind is made up, sometimes it's best not to know the facts.


  1. If this is an indication of the "new direction," bring it on! Thanks for an inspiring way to start a Friday morning ... or any morning, for that matter!

  2. y'know, i had the same thoughts in a conversation that i was in a few days ago about bio-diesel. Folks that know i'm a chemist want me to get them all the facts and become the local expert for them to use my knowledge for their profit. But i did that for carbon and got burnt. i did it in science ed and got burnt. people know the facts and they see its not a good deal, so they burn the fact finder and forge ahead anyway.

    well - the entire bio-diesel question is rendered moot in one sense in the Nov 2 Science - two days after i made the point that me doing the research now was way way way behind the game.

    original thinking means leaving the constraints of what we know because we don't really know what we know. anything based on learning could be adulterated with non-fact facts that take assumptions and impose artificial, yet buried, constraints.

    i stop reading about a month before i start serious writing. it helps me clear my mind of the non-essential debris. Right now, i wouldn't take my advice on anything though because rationality does not appear to co-exist with reason in my individual world. time to smell the coffee and move on to being and doing rather than fact finding and over-thinking.

    the end of baseball season is a great time to make change.