“The Data-Driven Life”: Who’s Not Interested In Discovery?

Gary Wolf writes in The New York Times about self-measurement, the desire of some people to measure what they do, say, think, eat, and more, sometimes just for the sake of doing it and other times for a specific purpose. Sometimes the measurements end up creating a reason for doing them.

Wolf’s interest in self-measurement prompted him, with colleague Kevin Kelly, to set up a website, The Quantified Self, where people can find “tools for knowing your own mind and body.” A variety of contributors, including Wolf and Kelly, write about their own experiences with self-measurement and, of course, comment on others’ postings.

I won’t re-tell individuals’ stories Wolf recounts; you can read the piece for yourself and it is absolutely worth the time to do so, probably worth re-reading.

What people learn about themselves from the data they collect – a key, of course, is to be honest and objective in the collection and reporting – is fascinating. Wolf writes: “Although they may take up tracking with a specific question in mind, they continue because they believe their numbers hold secrets that they can’t afford to ignore, including answers to questions they have not yet thought to ask.”

I found this last phrase perhaps the most memorable in the piece: “answers to questions they have not thought to ask.” The discovery of some truth in data probably makes the exercise worthwhile in and of itself; the discovery of new questions to ask generates enthusiasm for the search.

We have written quite a bit about “unbounded data” as a challenge to organizations. Although I am not sure I completely understand the phrase itself, the concept is simple: Organizations are surrounded by and suffused with data, which demands attention but creates its own set of problems. The sentence “we don’t what we don’t know” has gotten a lot of attention in organizations, in part, I think, because the idea of trying to know all of it is too daunting a task. What I take from Wolf’s piece (one of several insights and ideas it contains) is that the effort of tracking, of acquiring data, is worth it because it starts the individual (or the organization) on a path of discovery. There are few things more interesting to humans than discovery, and I’d say that the same is true for organizations.

Certainly not all discoveries are money-makers or competition-killers, but if organizations believe that discovery of new ideas and new questions is a guiding principle, it can almost ensure, by itself, that discoveries will happen.

Unbounded data is a challenge, but only overwhelming if you don’t start.

(I anticipate writing about Wolf’s article again. One post does not do it justice.)