You Don’t Pay Enough for Information

Some time ago, I read a forum discussion involving one student asking for advice about getting into grad school. One of the commenters gave an unusual piece of advice: before you commit to a university, a lab, or even grad school itself, do one year as a paid research assistant.

It’s unusual advice because most people wouldn’t consider it. Why spend a year as a research assistant which won’t count towards completing a degree?

The answer is information. This person didn’t know what they wanted, so doing a test year will give information as to whether or not the person actually likes doing research.

Personally, I’m not familiar enough with success criteria in academia to comment on whether this research assistant strategy is underused. Perhaps some of the more experienced readers can comment on whether the signalling pros and cons might outweigh the information advantage.

Nonetheless, it strikes me as an interesting example of paying for information. In this case the information isn’t a book or seminar, but information about the world—how much this person wants to pursue a research career and how to do so.

Paying for the information (in this case, with a year of your life) is expensive. But the benefits can often outweigh the cost and turn a potentially risky decision into a safe one.

Reality is Strange

Information is valuable because reality is strange. Strange in ways we rarely appreciate or anticipate.

A big part of the problem is something called hindsight bias. This is a well-documented effect that shows that if you give people a piece of information, along with an intuitively appealing explanation, people will say the information is obvious. They still feel this way even when they were lied to and the truth is the exact opposite of what they felt was obvious.

Because of this problem, information, once acquired, is often quickly devalued as something we, “knew all along.”

Consider our research assistant example. Reluctantly, he follows the advice and takes up a year working as an assistant. It turns out to be everything he feared—the research is dull, everyone around him is overworked and the subject which seemed so interesting from afar now feels too specialized to make a real difference. After a year of this, he leaves the field disillusioned after having wasted a year of his life.

Or maybe, instead, he starts the research path and discovers that he loves the field. Research, as opposed to classwork from his undergrad, is exciting and groundbreaking. He loves being surrounded by other intelligent, ambitious people and can’t imagine a different life. In doing so, however, he realizes that he could have started his PhD a year earlier and now his career has been needlessly delayed.

In both cases, the truth seems obvious. Of course research work is cutthroat and self-sacrificing. Of course it’s noble and inspiring. In both cases the year feels like a waste, even though it has provided the key information needed to make an important decision.

I believe the remedy for this situation is realizing how unexpectedly strange reality can be. The opposite of a seemingly good idea, can also seem to be a good idea. Only by gathering information can you tell the difference.

Most Information isn’t Free

The internet has made nearly free access to tremendous amounts of information something we take for granted. Wikipedia, funded entirely through donations, dwarfs the libraries of even the most prolific and well-funded book collectors.

Because so much information has become cheap or free, there’s a tendency to believe that most information can be acquired free of charge, or that the most important information is free.

I disagree. Most information is and will remain expensive. It’s expensive because it’s difficult to acquire. This difficulty pushes against the relatively free distribution cost the internet enables. Which wins out depends crucially on what kind of information it is.

The most general information is the most likely to be free. Wikipedia is a good example, containing summaries of topics which are universal.

More local information will be more likely to be expensive. Consider the decision to go into academic research as an extreme example. Many aspects of that decision: information about schools, fields of study and scientific advances, are general enough to likely be fairly cheap. The decision about whether you will personally enjoy the career dimensions of research work apply to just one person, you, and so are a lot more expensive to acquire.

Middling categories of information, which is neither completely personalized nor completely generalized might fall into an intermediate camp. Some of your questions about research might be answered by sitting down and interviewing past grad students of the lab you’re considering. Not as easy as a mouse click, but less costly than a year of research.

Pay More for Information

There seems to be a stereotype between two types of people. The nervous bookworm, who does endless research but is afraid to actually go out and do anything. And the aggressive decision-maker who goes with his gut and takes on big risks despite uncertainty.

This picture, often advocated by motivational speakers and self-help platitudes, makes it seem as if overcoming internal doubts and uncertainty is mostly a matter of summoning up the courage to act.

But there’s a middle road between paralysis and bravado. That’s the road where you avoid a lot of the fear, self-doubt and uncertainty by making carefully chosen actions to gain more information before moving onto bigger decisions.

Since a lot of this testing and tweaking is low-profile, many of the people who seem to be able to consistently take huge bets and win, are actually engaged in a sophisticated process of risk minimization by gathering more information. Whenever a big bet is laid, the research has been so meticulous that much of the uncertainty was resolved long before.

Information and Entertainment

Another confusion about gathering information comes from people who read too many books or blogs about making life improvements but never act on the advice. This could reasonably be construed as spending too much time gathering information and not enough time taking action, but I’m not sure the critique is as solid as people make it.

Self-improvement can have an information content—thus competing with other routes to gaining information such as education, research or experimentation. But it also has an entertainment component—and thus is a substitute for television, movies and video games.

Much of the potential source of books and blogs to become a distraction seems to me to come from this entertainment aspect. Just like anything else you enjoy for its own sake, it can become a distraction.

Gathering information when done for the specific purpose of trying to help you take on a more ambitious goal or make a hard decision doesn’t suffer from this temptation as much.

How to Pay for Information

Information is expensive to acquire but cheap to disseminate. Unsurprisingly, that makes it hard to monetize and therefore a lot of information which you might find useful simply has no seller. Therefore, most of the ways to pay for information have to be paid for in time, not money.

Here are some of the best ways to pay for information:

  1. Talk to people with experience. Want a job? Talk to people who previously had it. Thinking about moving to a new city? Talk to people who live there. Our similarities as human beings far outweigh our differences, so talking to lots of people who have previously made the same decision you’re facing will reduce uncertainty.
  2. Do pilot projects. Don’t go all-in. Try to break down your ambition into something smaller and test it out over a short period of time. I do this with every product I launch and every project I pursue. Before I announced the MIT Challenge, I did a test course under the time constraints I knew I’d need to reach.
  3. Develop good online research skills. Many decisions are simply too big to not be extremely well-researched. Having good online research skills should enable you to become a near-expert on any subject.
  4. Seek outlier experiences. Travel, especially if it’s deeply immersive, is a good way of learning about yourself by being in completely new environments. So is learning another language, trying new habits and applying temporary constraints on your life.
  5. Master the general, before the specific. Personal experience is rich in detail, but susceptible to many biases. Getting a broad, scientific understanding of a field can’t answer all questions, but it can avoid the worst kinds of errors.

Have any other suggestions that you’ve found personally valuable? Please share it in the comments!

  • Tim Logie

    Thx Scott. Interesting discussion. Starts out a lot like the Lean Startup Model. Build-Measure-Learn with an MVP. As Steve Blank says, get out of the building and talk and as Ries says, do small tests, measure learn and then continue keep going with Build-Measure-learn. Ask yourself what are the assumptions you need to test and design a test to get your answers.

    I enjoy your emails thx

  • Tim Logie

    Thx Scott. Interesting discussion. Starts out a lot like the Lean Startup Model. Build-Measure-Learn with an MVP. As Steve Blank says, get out of the building and talk and as Ries says, do small tests, measure learn and then continue keep going with Build-Measure-learn. Ask yourself what are the assumptions you need to test and design a test to get your answers.

    I enjoy your emails thx

  • cmm1911

    interesting, “consuming self help for entertainment purposes”. this struck a chord.

  • cmm1911

    interesting, “consuming self help for entertainment purposes”. this struck a chord.

  • DronesClub

    Hey Scott,

    I’ve learned a few things from your blog, and since I’m doing this research assistant thing you talked about – in space physics – right now, I figured that I could contribute a little – by spamming you with a wall of text 😉

    Where I’m from, you have to first get a master’s degree, and then wait to apply for pre-funded PhD positions, and the timing meant I had to do something else for half a year. There aren’t really any short term research assistant jobs here, so I signed up as an unpaid research assistant. This was
    1) because I plan to apply for a PhD position here and wanted to get a little more experience, see if I could work with the people, and “get a foot in”, and
    2) because the project is to analyze data sets from Rosetta in collaboration with the teams that sent it out in the first place. (So I “get paid” in good and scientifically rewarding data sets.)
    So far, it’s gotten me a few contacts in the field, let me travel a little, and made me more attractive for the position I want, so I’d say it was worth the investment. I think it’s mostly worth it if you know this is the approximate field that you want to enter, know the fundamentals in the field already, and manage to squeeze out time for other educational pursuits while you’re doing it.
    I don’t think it’s a very good idea if you’re only starting your undergraduate degree, though. I think your last few points about how to ‘pay for information’ with time, on a much broader basis, is an obviously smarter way of doing it in that case. I think your way of thinking about information as an investment on your own part makes it clear that one should keep in mind just how much time and energy one is willing to invest, and to keep an active mindset, even when one is “only absorbing information”.

    Another thing I got time for when I did this was to invest time in working on my other pursuit – fiction writing. I first joined Camp NaNoWriMo, but took it one step farther by using it to really get to know other serious-minded amateur writers. We ended up creating a private forum of about 20 writers where we critique and motivate each other and help each other sit down and write.
    There are much more experienced writers (than me) there, with a few published pieces under their belts, but not famous or anything. Like you said in a previous post, their advice has actually been a lot more helpful for me than the type of general advice you’d get from known authors like Stephen King on the internet or by buying books, and also, I suspect, if I harassed S. King into giving me some writing tips :p

    What I learned was:
    1) If you want to take some time to “scout the field”, it also pays to use that time to check out several of your other pursuits, before you’re committed to one path. (Also, a semester as research assistant should be sufficient, not a whole year.)
    2) Research and practice the fundamentals by yourself first – then connect with a community and mentors. You’ll be able to actually contribute, and you’ll have ‘currency’ to pay for that information you want.
    3) Find a mentor who is more experienced than you, but still remembers what it was like, and find a way to be useful for them (free research/free critical feedback on excerpts, in my case). I also found this to be true by how useful good Teaching Assistants are vs Professors, especially if you want direct help/feedback.
    4) Don’t just try to “consume” information, try to find an active way of “paying for information”.

    As you can see, your post this time really resonated with me, and I’ve learned a lot of the same things as you mention here over the last half year.
    Thanks for putting it out there, and keep up the good work!

  • DronesClub

    Hey Scott,

    I’ve learned a few things from your blog, and since I’m doing this research assistant thing you talked about – in space physics – right now, I figured that I could contribute a little – by spamming you with a wall of text 😉

    Where I’m from, you have to first get a master’s degree, and then wait to apply for pre-funded PhD positions, and the timing meant I had to do something else for half a year. There aren’t really any short term research assistant jobs here, so I signed up as an unpaid research assistant. This was
    1) because I plan to apply for a PhD position here and wanted to get a little more experience, see if I could work with the people, and “get a foot in”, and
    2) because the project is to analyze data sets from Rosetta in collaboration with the teams that sent it out in the first place. (So I “get paid” in good and scientifically rewarding data sets.)
    So far, it’s gotten me a few contacts in the field, let me travel a little, and made me more attractive for the position I want, so I’d say it was worth the investment. I think it’s mostly worth it if you know this is the approximate field that you want to enter, know the fundamentals in the field already, and manage to squeeze out time for other educational pursuits while you’re doing it.
    I don’t think it’s a very good idea if you’re only starting your undergraduate degree, though. I think your last few points about how to ‘pay for information’ with time, on a much broader basis, is an obviously smarter way of doing it in that case. I think your way of thinking about information as an investment on your own part makes it clear that one should keep in mind just how much time and energy one is willing to invest, and to keep an active mindset, even when one is “only absorbing information”.

    Another thing I got time for when I did this was to invest time in working on my other pursuit – fiction writing. I first joined Camp NaNoWriMo, but took it one step farther by using it to really get to know other serious-minded amateur writers. We ended up creating a private forum of about 20 writers where we critique and motivate each other and help each other sit down and write.
    There are much more experienced writers (than me) there, with a few published pieces under their belts, but not famous or anything. Like you said in a previous post, their advice has actually been a lot more helpful for me than the type of general advice you’d get from known authors like Stephen King on the internet or by buying books, and also, I suspect, if I harassed S. King into giving me some writing tips :p

    What I learned was:
    1) If you want to take some time to “scout the field”, it also pays to use that time to check out several of your other pursuits, before you’re committed to one path. (Also, a semester as research assistant should be sufficient, not a whole year.)
    2) Research and practice the fundamentals by yourself first – then connect with a community and mentors. You’ll be able to actually contribute, and you’ll have ‘currency’ to pay for that information you want.
    3) Find a mentor who is more experienced than you, but still remembers what it was like, and find a way to be useful for them (free research/free critical feedback on excerpts, in my case). I also found this to be true by how useful good Teaching Assistants are vs Professors, especially if you want direct help/feedback.
    4) Don’t just try to “consume” information, try to find an active way of “paying for information”.

    As you can see, your post this time really resonated with me, and I’ve learned a lot of the same things as you mention here over the last half year.
    Thanks for putting it out there, and keep up the good work!

  • This is an excellent post. The suggested notion of systemizing one’s own self-development makes sense.

  • tyelmene

    This is an excellent post. The suggested notion of systemizing one’s own self-development makes sense.

  • I couldn’t agree more. I recently paid four figures for an hour-long phone call, and it was well worth it.

  • Aaron Wolfson

    I couldn’t agree more. I recently paid four figures for an hour-long phone call, and it was well worth it.

  • Hi Scott – Very timely advice, thank you very much as I’m considering a radical career change.
    As usual an excellent post.

  • Mathilde * Clouded Dotted Mind

    Hi Scott – Very timely advice, thank you very much as I’m considering a radical career change.
    As usual an excellent post.

  • Teri Richards

    Good stuff…I feel I learn when I have to write an article about a topic. As I pull the research together, compose the outline/content and make it understandable for my readers, I learn. The very “practice” of blogging articles can be a great way to acquire knowledge.

  • Teri Richards

    Good stuff…I feel I learn when I have to write an article about a topic. As I pull the research together, compose the outline/content and make it understandable for my readers, I learn. The very “practice” of blogging articles can be a great way to acquire knowledge.

  • Thoroughly enjoyed this Scott…some very relevant advice for me in my career currently. I am considering a startup design studio / non-profit, trying to navigate this new world, and decide where I want to go with it. Thanks for sharing! I especially appreciate the notions of experimenting, testing and ‘paying’ for information with time and usually caffeine or beer! Both great pieces of advice that I have utilized. Cheers!

  • William Doran

    Thoroughly enjoyed this Scott…some very relevant advice for me in my career currently. I am considering a startup design studio / non-profit, trying to navigate this new world, and decide where I want to go with it. Thanks for sharing! I especially appreciate the notions of experimenting, testing and ‘paying’ for information with time and usually caffeine or beer! Both great pieces of advice that I have utilized. Cheers!

  • Katrina

    I agree that a semester is usually enough to determine if you want to go into a specific field. When I first entered college, I began working toward a degree in business administration because I didn’t really know what I wanted to do, but I knew it would transfer to a wide variety of things. I worked at several different jobs, and eventually started working at my local library. After a few months there, I realized that I wanted to be a librarian. I’ll be starting work on my master’s in library science this fall. If I hadn’t started working there, I wouldn’t have even considered it as a potential career field.

    But if paid positions are hard to come by (like at my library, there are only 15 employees total and turnover is incredibly low), I recommend volunteer positions. Even if you aren’t doing the exact work you’d be doing in the job you’re considering, you can get a feel for the atmosphere and daily routine of that type of work situation.

  • Katrina

    I agree that a semester is usually enough to determine if you want to go into a specific field. When I first entered college, I began working toward a degree in business administration because I didn’t really know what I wanted to do, but I knew it would transfer to a wide variety of things. I worked at several different jobs, and eventually started working at my local library. After a few months there, I realized that I wanted to be a librarian. I’ll be starting work on my master’s in library science this fall. If I hadn’t started working there, I wouldn’t have even considered it as a potential career field.

    But if paid positions are hard to come by (like at my library, there are only 15 employees total and turnover is incredibly low), I recommend volunteer positions. Even if you aren’t doing the exact work you’d be doing in the job you’re considering, you can get a feel for the atmosphere and daily routine of that type of work situation.

  • e frowning

    About the gap between easy- versus hard-to-obtain knowledge–It sounds like you’re talking about tacit knowledge rather than explicit knowledge. Explicit knowledge is a fact, and tacit knowledge is only learned through experience. For example, I can define what a bike is–a two wheeled vehicle powered by pedaling–but I can’t convey how to ride a bike by the same type of informational transfer. The skill of riding a bike can only be gained through experience. And you’re right–tacit knowledge isn’t free. It must be experienced to be learned, which is inherently more expensive. To your example, an undergrad might not know if they want to go into research, so gaining that tacit knowledge by trying it out (maybe by getting a summer internship between their junior and senior years rather than spending an entire year after graduation) is a good experiment to perform before making the commitment.

  • e frowning

    About the gap between easy- versus hard-to-obtain knowledge–It sounds like you’re talking about tacit knowledge rather than explicit knowledge. Explicit knowledge is a fact, and tacit knowledge is only learned through experience. For example, I can define what a bike is–a two wheeled vehicle powered by pedaling–but I can’t convey how to ride a bike by the same type of informational transfer. The skill of riding a bike can only be gained through experience. And you’re right–tacit knowledge isn’t free. It must be experienced to be learned, which is inherently more expensive. To your example, an undergrad might not know if they want to go into research, so gaining that tacit knowledge by trying it out (maybe by getting a summer internship between their junior and senior years rather than spending an entire year after graduation) is a good experiment to perform before making the commitment.

  • Shuvan Prashant

    Hi Scott, very nice post. I have been keeping up with many of your post until now. And they are becoming better and better. I always felt that we always pay for our ignorance. If we knew how things are done in the first place, we would not have hired a professional. So it often happens that we pay a humongous amount for getting the task done and later when we learn the tricks of the trade, our costs come down.

    The idea of doing the research assistantship before a phd is really worth it for people who are still unsure. If not paid research assistant, one could even try doing a MS by research topped with a research project. This may be just a semester more but would give you an additional degree without loss of an year. I had 6 months of time before my PhD offer came. I invested that time by doing an unpaid internship at a local university. It was highly rewarding in terms of skills and knowledge gained prior to joining academia.

  • Shuvan Prashant

    Hi Scott, very nice post. I have been keeping up with many of your post until now. And they are becoming better and better. I always felt that we always pay for our ignorance. If we knew how things are done in the first place, we would not have hired a professional. So it often happens that we pay a humongous amount for getting the task done and later when we learn the tricks of the trade, our costs come down.

    The idea of doing the research assistantship before a phd is really worth it for people who are still unsure. If not paid research assistant, one could even try doing a MS by research topped with a research project. This may be just a semester more but would give you an additional degree without loss of an year. I had 6 months of time before my PhD offer came. I invested that time by doing an unpaid internship at a local university. It was highly rewarding in terms of skills and knowledge gained prior to joining academia.

  • Scott Young

    They’re related but I don’t think they map exactly. I can think of factual knowledge that is hard to obtain. Knowledge about some detail of a niche profession is factual, yet hard to get. In contrast, some skills (like communication skills) are tacit, but can be developed easily and widely.

    But, I think on the whole tacit knowledge is more expensive than factual knowledge because of the same reason.

  • Scott Young

    They’re related but I don’t think they map exactly. I can think of factual knowledge that is hard to obtain. Knowledge about some detail of a niche profession is factual, yet hard to get. In contrast, some skills (like communication skills) are tacit, but can be developed easily and widely.

    But, I think on the whole tacit knowledge is more expensive than factual knowledge because of the same reason.

  • Luiz Machado

    Hey Scott,

    I have been following your blogs and learning programs for many years. I know you will LOVE this new article that came out today about how Elon Musk learns new subjects. His learning methods are surprising. It a short article that is based on exclusive interviews with Elon Musk.

    http://waitbutwhy.com/2015/06/how-tesla-will-change-your-life.html

  • Luiz Machado

    Hey Scott,

    I have been following your blogs and learning programs for many years. I know you will LOVE this new article that came out today about how Elon Musk learns new subjects. His learning methods are surprising. It a short article that is based on exclusive interviews with Elon Musk.

    http://waitbutwhy.com/2015/06/

  • Anonymous

    I like this one. This is the most true of all of your posts I think. The most realistic. However, you didn’t mention the tuition fees for the Universities in America, for the smallest and biggest ones. Is it that we don’t pay enough, or is it that we have to pay for it?

  • Anonymous

    I like this one. This is the most true of all of your posts I think. The most realistic. However, you didn’t mention the tuition fees for the Universities in America, for the smallest and biggest ones. Is it that we don’t pay enough, or is it that we have to pay for it?

  • Scott Young

    I don’t think paying tuition is the best example of “paying for information”. As I tried to show in my MIT Challenge, the truth is most of the information found in a college degree can be acquired for next to nothing. It’s a perfect example of what I listed above of information that wants to be free.

    Universities are, for the most part, in the accreditation and prestige business. That may still make them a worthy investment, but at least it’s a good idea to know what exactly it is you’re purchasing.

  • Scott Young

    I don’t think paying tuition is the best example of “paying for information”. As I tried to show in my MIT Challenge, the truth is most of the information found in a college degree can be acquired for next to nothing. It’s a perfect example of what I listed above of information that wants to be free.

    Universities are, for the most part, in the accreditation and prestige business. That may still make them a worthy investment, but at least it’s a good idea to know what exactly it is you’re purchasing.

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