If you’re not familiar with the concept of a koan, it’s like a riddle or puzzle from eastern philosophies which is meant to redirect your way of thinking (think, “the sound of one hand clapping”). For example:

Two monks were watching a flag flapping in the wind. One said to the other, “The flag is moving.”
The other replied, “The wind is moving.”
The master overheard this. He said, “Not the flag, not the wind; mind is moving.

This explanation comes from Wikipedia: “This kōan demonstrates the realization that in naming an object one may cloud one’s understanding of the true nature of mind by falling into externalization and believing that the true nature of the flag, the wind, and the mind are different.”

OK, that’s pretty abstract, I’ll admit, but it started me thinking about how we think about data. I have been accused of becoming lost in numbers and losing sight of the story. People sometimes feel that when you use numbers to analyze a situation, the numbers take on a life of their own, and everything becomes about the numbers. Of course, numbers are simply a tool to telling a story. They work in service of a narrative. If they don’t, they’re not very useful.

If you’re working toward self-actualization (congratulations, by the way), a koan can help remind you that everything is one. Looking at data is similar. Like a flag, numbers can be an indicator of some cause, like wind. The flag can tell us something about the wind. But the wind is not a thing in isolation either. It has to be taken in the context of the situation, how we perceive it, and what affect we have on it. Its a part of the story, the goal, or the big picture of why you’re looking at the data in the first place.

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