February 7, 2021
Alan Chen


Illustration by Alan Chen

There are countless memes about 2020 being a dumpster fire of a year, and it’s easy to see why. With all the drama of the past 12 months, we looked at 2021 with eager anticipation and a healthy dose of future bias. Surely it can’t get any worse, right? 

Illustration by Alan Chen

Story Highlights:

  • Data driven decisions may need to be reconsidered.
  • Wisdom is a lengthy process of distillation
  • Visual Metaphors help us think and perceive things in a different light


Historically things have been much worse. We need only to look at the people over the age of 80 in our lives and they will testify to times worse than what we’re experiencing. Pultizer Prize-winning author Jon Meacham says in his article for the Tennessean “Despite the narcotic of nostalgia, troubled times are the rule, not the exception.” Both my parents lived through the tumultuous times of the Chinese Cultural Revolution. They’ve lived in numerous countries, and experienced hardships and journeys that can only be described as unbelievable. Today, like many elderly, they take the necessary precautions to keep themselves safe, and have adjusted their lifestyle to fit with the current issues we all face. When I push for the secret behind their calm, my folks simply tell me that “Things will get better.”

Photo courtesy of Daniel & Jane Chen circa 1967

It makes a lot of sense when I think about my parents and most people their age. They’ve been around long enough, had a reasonable sample size of life experience to know that hardships and challenges inevitably come and go. This is the wisdom that comes with age and experience.

But wisdom, like fine wine - takes a long time to distill.

And we want to be comforted quick n’ dirty; the regular garden variety of moonshine or turpentine will do. We want to know that the storm will pass. We want to know if we should stock up on toilet tissue and track pants, or if we can buy a pair of heels and dance till dawn. So we latch onto random Facebook posts, and get drawn in by any tweet or shred of data that confirms our biases. It’s a bloody “Plan-demic”! The election was rigged! We should burn our institutions to the ground!

Does data drive decisions?

There’s a well known phrase which states that “data drives decisions”. But should it? We live in an age where access to information is no longer considered the hallmark of an expert. These days it’s even common for us to refute experts on the grounds that we have Google at our finger-tips. But there’s a downside to this; the more information we have access to, the more overwhelmed we are with it all. We scroll through pages and pages of information, grasping at the bolded headings, trying to absorb it all at once.  

More often than not, we are subject to fake news, and hearsay. And filtering out what’s valuable from what is merely opinion is becoming increasingly hard. We don’t have time to process everything, and yet we want to consume it all. At the end of the day, data is raw, and unless we give it shape, it is meaningless. For data to drive decision-making in any way, it goes through a lengthy process of distillation in order to finally arrive at the wisdom to make good decisions. 

These days, we’ve become so accustomed to skimming through content and reading headlines, we mistake this easy access to data for wisdom. Unfortunately, no matter how much we pretend otherwise, the abundance of information in the device we keep in our pocket doesn’t automatically translate to a well of meaningful knowledge in our head.

Think of data as wheat in a field. For wheat to become bread, there are numerous steps involving many hands and a lot of skill and experience. 

The path to wisdom

Take a look at the DIKUW pyramid, which may have been inspired by the late great T.S. Eliot. DIKUW represents the process in which Data becomes Information which evolves into Knowledge and is finally distilled into Wisdom. In most discussions around this, wisdom is often the least defined or seen as the most blurry part. This is where Understanding comes in; wisdom intrinsically requires human experience. It needs knowledge of right and wrong, an understanding of ethical implications, and draws on experiences built on both failures and successes. In short, wisdom can’t be faked. It needs to be harvested, refined, ground, kneaded with other elements, and then finally, under a watchful eye it is well baked; metaphorically speaking.

Illustration by Diana Ayoub

A big part of the work I do requires me to ask a lot of why’s. My clients present me data and information, and my prodding pushes them to drill deeper into their intent. Often this takes shape through visual metaphors which distil the ideas by bringing in relevant context, resulting in a more human experience. When the client sees this, the concept becomes clearer, and brings them one step closer to wisdom.

Future focused

When it comes to making decisions about our future, most of us aren’t great at looking into the far future. Prospect Theory suggests that when we think about the future, we’re actually looking exclusively at the near future according to global economist Daniel Kahneman. If we wish to be far future focused, we may need to slow down our decision-making processes, rather than react to the first speck of data that confirms what we know. It might be clearer still, if we could see an actual picture of what our future could look like. 

Perhaps one of the greatest exemplars of wise action in turbulent times is Abraham Lincoln. He tackled his own shortcomings with his “team of rivals” who were people that actually ran against him whom he then invited to be part of his cabinet. This gave him genuine counter-points to his own approach, forcing him to take time, and question his motives. It ran deeper than Lincoln’s personal needs, allowing him to see beyond his generation affecting people even today. He was not focused on self-gain, but rather looked at the moral whole. Our future, grim or hopeful; is inevitable. If we want to steer things in the right direction, we might need to be willing to show some humility and acknowledge that we’re all still learning, and that maybe having the Google in our pockets doesn’t mean we know it all.

Illustration by Alan Chen