Is it a skill or is it information?

As we go through life problems crop up. Our taxes are not filed, or we get angry a lot. Things need to change. But finding a solution looms over us like a mountain of work. Where do we start? How do we ask the right questions?

Whenever I find myself tackling something new, I’ve found that I can trip myself up by expecting the wrong type of solution. A good start is to ask yourself if the answer is a skill or information? Assuming one over the other could take years to undo.

Let’s say you are overweight and need to lose some of it. No amount of information on how to lose weight, or why it’s a good idea is going to help. What you need is a behavioural change, in this case it’s two skills: moving more, and eating better. But if you start looking for information, you are not only procrastinating and delaying the reward, you are also less likely to look for the real solution. This is how people end up at weird one off dietary tricks like “I only eat citrus for 2 weeks” or “I only eat once per day”. Since the solution is a skill, it has no single answer. And it isn’t a one off activity. It’s something you have to practice.

Let’s look at another example to highlight this. There’s an election coming up and you need to make a choice: who are you going to trust with your piece of the mandate? You can’t practice this. The “correct” answer for you might be different year to year. It should change over time if you look into the policies proposed. What you need to solve this is not a skill, it’s information. You need to time box an amount of time to figure out what are these lunatics are proposing, and make a decision. No practicing and iteration will help.

In real life situations, it’s rarely this simple to know which solution is the right one. Let’s finish with a more ambiguous example: you go to the doctor with a problem. Your stomachs hurts, and you need it to go away. The doctor is possibly aware of the distinction between skill and information. But how you ask your questions change what response you get. The doctor can give you a three hour lecture on nutrition. Or a pain killer.

What do you really want in this situation? And which is right? Is it a new skill that will give you relief for life, but will take weeks? Or is it a neat instant relief, but the problem might still be there when the pill wears off? It could be both. But if you enter the situation with your mind set on one or the other, you limit the progress you can make.