Always consider the context

Image by Mohammad Takhsh

“If content is king, then context is god!” – Gary Vaynerchuk

Each time you read something and think about how to apply it to yourself or your business, it’s important to think about the context of how and why it was written.

There are a few different questions to ask, but they all help answer the question of “How does this apply to my situation?” Some of these questions might be:

  • How much experience does the author have in the subject matter?  Your goal shouldn’t be to only listen to the top leaders of a field you are interested in; instead, your goal should be to understand where the information is coming from so you can interpret it.
  • How specialized is their expertise?  When Tim Cook makes a statement about how to run a business, keep his role and experience in mind.  When the founder of a local mobile app development firm gives the talk at the chamber of commerce lunch, that context is important too. If you lead a small custom development shop, the chamber of commerce talk may have more pertinent information than statements made by the CEO of one of the largest companies in the world.
  • What are the goals and needs of the person who wrote what you are reading?  Are they already successful, and working to maintain a leadership position in their field?  Or are they hungry and scrappy, leading a company that is growing 500% a year?  You can get good advice from both, but context matters.
  • One of the most important things to consider: what does the person writing the piece have to gain by persuading you to their point of view? Everybody has motivations for writing something, and understanding those can help you interpret context.  Somebody trying to sell you something their company offers will have a different context than somebody trying to build their personal brand.  Somebody who believes that their ideas and experience will make the world a better place will have a different context compared to somebody who is paid per click or per view.

Take this quote from Jeff Bezos:

“All of my best decisions in business and in life have been made with heart, intuition, guts… not analysis.

“If you can make a decision with analysis, you should do so. But it turns out in life that your most important decisions are always made with instinct and intuition, taste, heart.”

The leader of one of the largest and fastest-growing companies in the world just implied that you should make your decisions with your gut, not by using data or analysis. How should you interpret the context of the statement? How does his context and the context surrounding the statement line up with your context?

Here’s another quote from a CEO of a large company:

Some decisions are consequential and irreversible or nearly irreversible – one-way doors – and these decisions must be made methodically, carefully, slowly, with great deliberation and consultation

So which one do you listen to?  If you knew instantly what advice is worth listening to, you would of course be instantly successful.  Since that isn’t reasonable or even possible, examining context for clues is a key skill.

Oh, and the quote from a “CEO of a large company”? Also Jeff Bezos.  Even if the quotes appear somewhat contradictory taken alone, both were valid and accurate when considered with everything else said at the same time.

There’s lots of great information out there, but there’s lots of not-so-great information too.  It’s hard to know which is which, but understanding the context goes a long way towards helping you interpret what you read. The more you know about where the information comes from and what sort of background influenced it, the better you can know how well something applies to your specific scenario.

Absorb the content – but always consider the context.

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