I must be a cog in the wheel, because I asked Melissa to get me some links to read that answer the question, “What information is important?” and she came back to me with, “I think that’s a bad question, but here are five links.”

Which made me decide to write this test to find out how good an Information-Age worker you are.

1. Can you frame a question? Plus one point.
The first link Melissa sent is about how you are information illiterate if you can’t ask good questions:

The ability to critically evaluate and ethically apply that information to solve a problem are some of the hallmarks of an information literate individual. Other characteristics of an information literate individual include the spirit of inquiry and perseverance to find out what is necessary to get the job done.

This quote comes from a university, which is ironic since you don’t learn this in a university. In a classroom the teacher poses the question and tells you the framework for answering. Otherwise, the teacher couldn’t grade people consistently. And school is about grades, of course.

2. Can you memorize information? Plus one point.
Amazingly enough, Melissa, who has a photographic memory, found a link that says the more things you can memorize, the better you will be able to solve problems. To do that, you have to be great at knowing right away what is trustworthy and what is not. (This seems like a good time to tell you that Melissa does not read the inside caps of Snapple bottles because Snapple puts information that may or may not be true – you have to go to the Snapple site to find out. And Melissa can’t risk memorizing wrong information.)

3. Can you take action on an idea? Plus one point.
At this point I think it’s pretty safe to say that Melissa has defined a knowledge worker as someone like her, but the thing is: she’s an extreme type who mostly sorts information and matches it. (To her credit, she acknowledges this, in her secret language of links, by sending me a link that shows how ineffective knowledge is without real-world experience.)

The art of taking action is a mix of a great ability to sort information and a knack for functioning in the real world. A McKinsey study about star performers, summarized at Priceonomics, concluded that a star is someone who can transition from information processor to action taker. It’s a very difficult transition, especially if you’ve been in school your whole life where you get told how to process.

Many people think that because someone is smart they’ll be good at getting things done. This is completely not the case, and McKinsey concludes that Enron is an example of super-smart people who realized they had no idea how to execute so they started lying to cover it up.  (I didn’t read every word of this article. I just read to get the gist. But one of Melissa’s links says you need to know if a source uses links in an ethical way, and really, you could say all my links are unethical, because the last time I read every word of a link I put here is maybe never. Most of you know by now to read my links before you let me change your mind on something. But take a point off your score if you didn’t know that.)

4. Can you delete your “read later” folder? Plus one point.
I was on Zen Habits pretending to read but really stealing ideas because Leo Babauta is great at information design. (Oh, wait, plus one point if you are good at stealing the way people have synthesized ideas. I think this is meta-synthesis, even though I can’t find a link that says so.) Leo wrote that one thing he does to simplify his life is delete his folder of stuff to read later.

Which made me feel bad because I can’t do it. It’s true, you should not have on your to do list to read a pile of links that you worry you might miss something in. It’s the Information Age equivalent of hoarding. Which I am doing. And which is upsetting because I’m so great at throwing things out in real life that two people have sent me a link about how the DSM is putting compulsive discarding into its own category of mental disorder.

If you can’t keep up with the information coming your way, you’re an Information Age retard. Before you get excited about clicking that link, it doesn’t actually use the phrase Information Age retard in the link. That’s my phrase. And let me tell you, it’s killing me that the juiciest link to click in this post is one that’s not going to my site or the site of one of my friends.

In an effort to clear out my piles of links that I’m hoarding, I am giving you one. Dirty secrets you didn’t know about various industries from the people who work there. I kept telling myself to delete the link, but I saved it to make sure I told you how to negotiate for a funeral.

5. Do you interpret information well? Plus one point.
I get 50 offers a day to write guest posts for this blog. I always say no because people who write guest posts are so scared of being wrong that they end up saying nothing. In the Information Age, though, you have to be willing to form a lot of opinions and risk being wrong  – otherwise you’re just a computer memorizing data, and we can outsource that to a developing country. (At least until developing country is not synonymous with smart people trapped in a bad economy.)

You have to be wrong a lot to be interesting which means being wrong is probably also a sign of being useful. The Economist redefines high-potential employee not as one who can climb the ladder but as a person who can synthesize information in a new way to inform the way the company makes decisions. I like to believe this since I’ve been fired from every job way before I could finish my ascent to the top of their ladder.

How to score yourself.
Well, Melissa would only score four points here, because she doesn’t take action. And I’d only score four points because I can’t throw out my pile of links. (Wait. Here’s another: Greenwich CT is cool, Brown University is not.)

So definitely if you scored 4 you are a great knowledge worker, and if you scored five, you are better than me and Melissa – rock star quality – although to be clear, anyone who scored five should probably not have kids, but that’s a good post for another day. (Oh, wait, I’ve already written it.)

If you scored a 3 or less you are probably like my husband, Matthew – you’re doing something productive with your hands all day. And anyway, Matthew could never stay inside all day and process information – he’d say he just feels like a cog in the wheel.

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36 replies
  1. Gary
    Gary says:

    Very entertaining and logical post, as usual. On the edge of intriguing, as I attempt to extrapolate some usefulness to myself from it. As with most cool stuff I read, I’ll have to read it a couple more times to remember it, and try it out in a couple years. Oh, and P, you did it again, and I hope you have a super heavy-duty umbrella sitting on ready, because there’s probably another shitstorm headed your way.

  2. Catherine
    Catherine says:

    Great post! Especially as I couldn’t be bothered to read it at first.

    I read 90% of your posts as soon as or within a couple of hours of them hitting my inbox. The other 10% I delete straight away if I think the title really has nothing to do with me or covers a topic that doesn’t interest me (or in reality, a topic that I fear e.g tech and gadgets…which is what I thought this post was going to be all about).

    But I read it anyway because I like taking personality-like tests and tests tend to be written out as a list – I’m always attracted to lists – I process information much better (read, quicker) when it’s written as a list, mainly because I don’t have the patience to read a large body of text otherwise. I like each point to get straight to the point.

    I think I only score 1 on this test I.e.

    I thought that I was a great problem-solver, but after taking this test, I’m not sure that I am. I frame questions to other people with the intention of proving that I’m right and their wrong or that I’ve thought of something that they haven’t. If I’m being honest with myself, I don’t frame questions to genuinely inform my decision or thought process. I’ve already made up my mind by that point. Score = 0.

    I can memorize information. Score = 1.

    I love processing and analysing information, but prefer others to take action on my recommendations. I lose interest after all that work of coming up with the answers. Score for taking action = 0.

    I can’t delete my read later file out of fear of missing out on information I probably will never use anyway. Score = 0. (I’m more likely to delete it now after reading this post however).

    I can interpret information but I don’t like to be wrong. Score = 0?

  3. Rachel
    Rachel says:

    That Reddit link was awesome… Nice reminder that every industry is screwed up today. Think twice before leaving your own industry, or in my case more times than that. Change what you can. Accept what you can’t.

    • -k-
      -k- says:

      Right? That may have been the best thing I’ve ever read on this blog. Not technically on this blog, I guess, but.. thoroughly engrossing link.

  4. Michael
    Michael says:

    Hi, I scored 3. And correct you are I am in the mechanical field working with my hands like your husband. Worked as a bookkeeper for many years but hated every moment of it. This could be used as a sort of aptitude test.

  5. Sadya
    Sadya says:

    I don’t think you can be a information-hoarder without being an information junkie. The reason for that saved folder is usually because we don’t want to miss out of any info, even if some of it maybe just trivial.

    Is information synthesizing done consciously? Can it be done consciously? The only way for me to assess if I’m doing so is when I get new ideas, new perspective to something old – mostly it’s just my thought process evolving. Does that count?

  6. Cindy
    Cindy says:

    This made me laugh when I got to the bottom…
    “If you scored a 3 or less you are probably like my husband, Matthew – you’re doing something productive with your hands all day.”
    Trust me, I’m not an INTJ. INFP if there ever was one…… Anyway, I have my own business (a lifestyle business). At this point I do just about anything involving my hands. I’ve actually held my hands out to customers when they inquire whether I would be willing to do such and such and I hold out my hands, “If it involves these, I do it….” I write too. INFP’s are writers….must accept my destiny.

    I nodded my head in agreement on point one, ability to frame a question. My son (brainiac studying computer science, electrical engineering and physics to wrap it all up into robotics one day….) and I went to a computer science seminar at a nearby college a few years ago. One of the kids there blew everyone away with his questions. He was maybe 12 years old. Obviously a prodigy. The entire room knew that this boy was stellar smart simply by the questions he asked. He could cut through everything that was being said and distill it to the perfect question. I’m sure that’s one of the hallmarks of a good brain in general. I couldn’t wait to hear what he had to say every time he raised his hand. My son was jealous. I still tease him about Santiago and how smart he was…..His ability to form the perfect question blew me away.

    I’m still voting for morning sex, btw. Especially with a farmer. Nab him at 3:00 am, then he gets up to go to his chores happy as a clam and you get to go back to sleep. I timed us too, 30 min. Maybe because we’re older than you and the farmer.

  7. Cindy
    Cindy says:

    PS. I would have been a 4 (I hoard information too), but I had to take another point off because I didn’t realize you used links unethically. : ) Down to 3……guess I’m lucky I still have my hands……Bring on the flowers, food, paint, whatever the heck you want…I’m in…..

  8. Jon Pathan
    Jon Pathan says:

    Thanks you very much for writing

    I don’t think you can be a information-hoarder without being an information junkie. The reason for that saved folder is usually because we don’t want to miss out of any info, even if some of it maybe just trivial.

  9. Jack
    Jack says:

    I’ll be generous and give myself a 4. I have no problem deleting my unread file, but have a poor memory (please don’t ask me what your name is right after we’ve met!) and synthesize information well only when caffeinated.

  10. Marie
    Marie says:

    This post made me sad, because I scored a 2, and I work in a law firm where I’m supposed to be synthesizing information all the time.

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      I think you should be happy that you can assess yourself so honestly. Very few people can, I think. Of course, the only thing harder than honest assessment is action based on that. (Does that qualify as number 3 on the list??)

      Another thought, though, is that very few lawyers actually synthesize information. Most are just finding information, and handing it over, or courting clients. I think lawyers become lawyers to synthesize. But lawyers rarely do it for a significant part of their day.

      Not everyone can be Alan Dershowitz.


  11. Mariana
    Mariana says:

    I suspect that all INTJs feel guilty/inadequate for not taking action, or for their perceived below average capacity for action. Which for me is interesting, cause some people say that INTJs are good at execution.
    I am an INTJ and I always wonder about that. My guess is INTJs are lousy at execution, but they are mortified not to get their idea on the ground, so they push themselves and everybory around them to make the idea happen; or they get really depressed…

    • Melissa
      Melissa says:

      Typical of an INTJ, I lurve the planning stages, but hate the execution phase.

      The only way I get anything done is to rely on my inner control freak and scrupulous attention to detail to carry me through.

  12. Melissa
    Melissa says:

    Interesting how sometimes you think you want to go against type until you actually do….. My career began with a job that required me to use all my synthesizing, action taking information age skills. After a while, I thought the stress was out-weighing the reward. I took a new job in higher education due to a re-location and I was nothing more than a cog in the wheel. The job was so easy and stress free, but the work day was so long, tedious, boring, unfullfilling, etc… Now I’m back in private industry, making a difference, challenging myself, and up until midnight working….. am I sure I hated just being a cog….

  13. Tracy
    Tracy says:

    Fun quiz, I love the concept.

    Although I disagree with point 2 about memorizing, and the link does nothing to support that point. Melissa is an Information-Age star who happens to have an amazing memory, but you don’t actually need an amazing memory anymore than you might need, say speedreading. You just have to be able to find the info quickly (or in a pinch bs confidently).

    Also I’d score 2 points for items 1 & 5 (ISTJ alert :-)

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      Yeah, I think you’re right about memorizing, to a point. But the interesting thing is that I have a spreadsheet that I use to keep track of links and related links and blah blah, but I really only end up writing about stuff that I keep in my head.

      Which makes me think that we can only make connections to stuff we are able to toss around in our heads for a bit. From memory. I’m not sure though. I know that my memory is not even half as good as Melissa’s, so somehow I manage to sift information with an inferior memory.

      Sidenote: I think I should have put in the list that you should know the bias you bring to the information based on who you are and where you come from. The self-knowledge part that’s essential to being a good information-age-er. Your ISTJ alert reminds me, because yours is such an ISTJ comment – digging into the details.


  14. rebecca@midcenturymodernremodel
    rebecca@midcenturymodernremodel says:

    Being able to frame a question and inquire “why” in corporate America is invaluable and has gotten me into trouble from time to time. As far as information hoarding, I think you should add the tip off that if you can’t delete email and insist on reading and processing all email — you are an information hoarder. Which I know Penelope does. I love to wipe out email. Where I am really challenged is memorizing information. I have learned, from my son’s issues, that what I have most likely is no short term memory. He has that problem and we share a lot of characteristics. It makes it really hard to cram for tests, because effectively, we have to figure out how to get data in long term memory in order to spit it back out on a test. And, most assuredly, if we are not interested in the subject, we won’t bother to retain anything. I have noticed that people with great memories do well in life. However, I excel at working hard, keeping lists and knowing how to look things up quick — e.g. excellent compensating systems. My son has to learn this things — jury is out on that. He is trying though.

    • Carmen
      Carmen says:

      Quickly had to comment, Rebecca: The only time I ever got “fired” was because I kept finding answers to “why”, and tried to offer solutions. The solutions usually involved either the company communicating more with employees, which the higher-ups hated doing, or the solution involved money. Employees are never justified for requiring more money to complete a task even if it’s costing the employee to do it, and employees have no right knowing why they should do it. So I got myself fired, really, on purpose. Hated it there.

  15. Gwen Nicodemus
    Gwen Nicodemus says:

    I scored a 5. I have kids.

    I just use my awesome info skills to help my kids with the homeschooling. “Mom, how do you X?” “Why I don’t know. Let’s research and figure it out.”

    When I quit work, I had an old boss (female) say “What a waste of an engineer.”

    My thoughts differed. If you’re going to bother to have children, I think you should do it right. It’s not as if the world lacks for children, and that particular boss’ children were always in trouble.

  16. Beautiful life
    Beautiful life says:

    Who manages payroll for all the employees? And do you have to pay health insurance? Or is everyone sub-contracted?

    Speaking of health insurance, since you and Matthew are self employed, how does that work out? I looked into the self insure option for myself and family in case I decide to start my own business…..it’s close to 1 k a month with very high deductibles. What about retirement options and so forth?

    How does self employment work with the traditional savings/insurance cult? Do most small businesses and start ups simply go without?

  17. Kate
    Kate says:

    I scored a 5. I am back at school at age 40 and loving it. One of the things it has helped me figure out is what my skills are, and they basically line up with your list. Awesome.

    I also have three kids. ENTJ.

  18. Mark W.
    Mark W. says:

    “So definitely if you scored 4 you are a great knowledge worker, and if you scored five, you are better than me and Melissa – rock star quality – although to be clear, anyone who scored five should probably not have kids, but that’s a good post for another day.”

    I really like this post. However, I disagree with your scoring system. I think the score of each of the five test questions should be weighted differently depending on the task. And I consider #3 – ‘Can you take action on an idea?’ – to be the most important the vast majority of the time. But what if you are tasked with only research and compiling ideas? #3 would not apply as only the reporting of the findings would be required. No action.
    Also #6 – Are you able to pour over and analyze details when the task requires it? The stuff which can truly be boring where you’re essentially looking for that needle in the haystack that when found will finally piece everything together and complete the task.

  19. Katie
    Katie says:

    Great… 5pts and growing baby number 3 currently… I should just shoot myself now. At one point I considered myself a social media marketeer, in the forefront of the social media wave. I said fuck school and had myself a nice internship at a music marketing company after baby number one, which I quit to reduce tension with my spouse. I waited tables, bc it’s easier to work a bs job and make it home everyday at the same time. Now I’m 27 and have been stay at home for 2 years and feel completely irrelevant.

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