Follow Your Heart


Questioning our overreliance on data in the age of information overload

There is a notion floating around us each day that if I have enough information (data) about myself, the world, the planet, then I will know what to do. 

The notion is then that with this data I consume, I can fix myself, fix the world’s problems, and clean up the planet. These notions are not really true. 

What ultimately drives how we make decisions is not the data, but the emotions that are within us. The more anxious I am, the more likely the actions I take will have little to do with all the data we have gathered. What we do with the data is moderated, or directed, by who we are and the experiences we have had since birth—maybe before.

In today’s culture, we have become addicted to the idea that if I can know enough data—numbers and facts, which are also suspect—I can live the good life and be happy. Seldom are we exposed to the idea that how we ultimately live our lives has less to do with the data and more to do with our emotional self. 

How well I know myself (remember, I never know much more than half) has to do with maturity, not data. Maturity is another one of those words we do not hear much about. But it’s one that is an absolute necessity for human beings to understand.

In a remarkable way, those who are most mature in their decision-making will look at the data and then tell you, “My gut tells me this is what I need to do.” The less mature, the less understanding of“self,” the more likely to make a poor decision.

An example: a friend who is a successful car salesman made the remark that people often come to buy a new car with a list of what they want: color, make, model, horsepower, etc. Then when they drive off the lot with the new car, it seldom is what was on their list; it was simply the car that they “liked.” An emotional process, not a cerebral one.

Well-known management consultant and author Peter Drucker often says, “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.” It’s used to help businesses understand that while the data, numbers, and plans are importnat, they are meaningless without a place where people are valued. Culture is the emotional entity that we all exist in; it’s not the data. But each of us knows that what is happening in our culture, in family, in religion, in business, in politics, is changing. The amount of data we are bombarded with each day is impacting our ability to live our lives happily. It may not be solving our inner problems, but rather, confusing us. That’s not to say data is useless; it is indeed important. But the overwhelming amount that is accessible to us is making us more anxious. 

It was surprising to me when I looked up the word “anxious” in Webster’s Dictionary. The synonym for anxious is eager. If we are an anxious culture, we are an eager culture. But eager for what? I believe we are eager for calm, for peace. The amount of conflicting data we receive each day only increases our anxiety. (The antonym for anxiety is calm. That I also didn’t know.)

We each know to some degree that we live in a time of uncertainty—despite the fact we have more data and information available to us than any time in history. So how do I get out of this chaotic data gathering mess if it is embedded in our culture? If the data that is constantly there is making me more anxious, what can I do? 

I have spent the last 39 years working and ministering at a Level 1 trauma hospital. The chaos of the community is felt within these kinds of places. They are a microcosm of life, death, birth, and hope. So to me, the answer to this data mess (and hospitals gather tons of data) has been in being with people as they share themselves and their stories as human beings—their fears, their loves, their wonderings about what will happen next, confessing their most inner emotions. It has been a daily learning to experience as I have met doctors, nurses, patients, food service folks, housekeeping folks, visitors as they come to see the sick. Each has a story. Our life stories are who we are, and it is in telling these stories that we learn even more about ourselves.

Science has long been aware that feelings can impact judgement. Science is also learning that the feeling of one of us is connected to the feelings of others. We are able to learn about others because we not only listen with our ears, but hear each other in our emotions. 

When two people fall in love, for example, it is not an intellectual process. Data gathering is seldom done when we love. Our emotions stand at the forefront. Who we fall in love with actually tells us more about ourselves than about the person we love. In knowing you, I know more about me. In knowing myself, I open myself up to knowing you more. And the cycle forever continues. Once again, it is an emotional process at the forefront, not a cerebral one.

Collecting and believing that the answers are in data will keep us more anxious and less able to grow and mature. One of our tasks in living is in forming relationships, not only with those who are “like minded,” but with those whose lives are different than ours. Somehow it is in these relationships we will form a community that seeks to learn and to care for one another. 

The data will always be there, and we will always have the opportunity to consume and use it; but our happiness ultimately begins with how we follow our heart—and how well we manage the data in order to do that.

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