It covers the essential information

Charlie O. Simms taught a Journalism 101 class in Beverly Hills High School… He explained that a lead contains the why, what, when , and who of the piece. It covers the essential information. Then he gave them their first assignment: write a lead to a story.

“Simms began by presenting the facts of the story: “Kenneth L. Peters, the principal of Beverly Hills High School, announced today that the entire high school faculty will travel to Sacramento next Thursday for a colloquium in new teaching methods. Among the speakers will be anthropologist Margaret Mead, college president Dr. Robert Maynard Hutchins, and California governor Edmund ‘Pat’ Brown.”

“The students hammered away on their manual typewriters trying to keep up with the teacher’s pace. Then they handed in their rapidly written leads. Each attempted to summarize the who, what, where, and why as succinctly as possible: “Margaret Mead, Maynard Hutchins, and Governor Brown will address the faculty on …”; “Next Thursday, the high school faculty will …” Simms reviewed the students’ leads and put them aside.

“He then informed them that they were all wrong. The lead to the story, he said, was “There will be no school Thursday.”

Greg McKeown,
Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less


It covers the essential information

This is minimalism as critical thinking. Filter out what’s not important, find the kernel that’s most important, and focus on that. The story as presented in McKeown’s book originates with Nora Ephron, who was one of the students in that class. It’s there to serve as an illustration of how we miss the forest for the trees, we absorb information without getting any useful bits of knowledge from it.

The same applies to the opinions we’re fed, the conclusions we’re given. Too often we’re presented with an answer without ever being shown how the person espousing it got there. We aren’t given the opportunity to replicate the work, and come to our own conclusions. We’re far too accepting of things, especially when we like what we’re being told.

I’m always in favor of listening to experts, but I still believe in questioning authority. I rely on experts to help me understand, not just the solution to the problem but the problem itself, how we got there, and why they’re presenting this solution as the best way out. Blindly rejecting expertise is as bad a blindly accepting it; the net result remains ignorance.

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