Do you build kayaks or canoes?

In response to the question, “How has the internet changed the way you think?”, George Dyson, a science historian and Aleut-style kayak builder, answers by metaphor.

Dyson explains that in the North Pacific region, depending on the resources available to the people there, two approaches are used to build a boat – kayaks and canoes. Kayaks, he describes, are built by collecting pieces of scrap wood from the beaches, which are then pieced together for the frame and later covered with skin. Canoes, on the other hand, are created in this region by removing wood from a selected tree, until a boat is revealed. Each of these approaches yields a floating vessel, he says, but through opposite means. Dyson uses this metaphor to answer the internet question by suggesting there is so much information available to us via the internet, the challenge is in knowing what to get rid of to yield knowledge.

This kayak/canoe metaphor is worth considering in your approach to your work. Do you collect pieces of information and hold onto them with the intent to someday build a framework for a project or business? Or perhaps you discard unnecessary information and keep only what you need to serve you well when the time comes? Occasionally I hear professionals mention concentration or memory problems interfering with their productivity. Some blame it on age, and others mention having too much to do. While age- or time-related management issues may be contributing factors, I suspect something else is at play. I wonder if it has to do with holding on to what needs to be discarded – a type of information overload. Does all of this information distract us in a way that makes concentration difficult?

Perhaps using our strengths at work would help create focus. Research shows employees who use their strengths consistently at work are more productive and creative. Using our strengths means we do not have to hold onto disparate bits of information in anticipation of some unknown need. Instead, with focus we hold onto what we truly need to nourish our strengths, and foster our productivity and creativity – and disregard the rest.