Zen and the Art of Data Maintenance: All Data is Suffering (Part 2)

In part 1 of this series, I shared how our reactions to data can cause a great deal of suffering and discussed the following 3 principles to identify how this suffering can occur as well as ways to alleviate suffering:

  • Attachment is a root cause of suffering
  • ‘Not knowing’ has unlimited possibilities
  • Always being ‘right’ is wrong

In this article, in order to further help provide thoughts to alleviate suffering from reactions to data, I will share perspectives on the remaining principles:

  • Acceptance is healthy
  • Be present
  • Don’t rely on judgements
  • Set appropriate expectations
  • Nothing is either good or bad

Acceptance is Healthy

“When you argue with reality, you lose, but only 100% of the time.” 

—Byron Katie.

We may think that we don’t have to accept certain things. This could be wise if we can do something about changing the outcome. However, in order to reduce suffering, it is crucial to accept what is.

This may seem so common sense, yet we often don’t do this. For example, when one makes a mistake, it is sometimes difficult to accept responsibility for it.

On one engagement for a distribution company, I went into an emergency meeting of the data management group. At this company, there were many distribution points throughout the United States for sending out the company’s products. However, on this particular day, all the orders were scheduled to be shipped out of New Jersey and all the other distribution points had no shipments. Thus, the company was in chaos with thousands of people trying to figure out what to do. One of the people in the data management group responsible for that particular database exclaimed, “Oh shoot, I thought I was working on the development database and not the production database!” (He didn’t actually say, ‘oh shoot’.)

What can one do under these circumstances? Resign? Blame someone else? Fix the issue fast and then communicate what happened? Accept responsibility first and then work on fixing the issue?

What he actually did was to fully accepted his mistake first, take responsibility for it and then he diligently worked on fixing it. This involved first communicating his mistake to thousands of people and letting them know that he was going to be dedicated to fixing it. By accepting, acknowledging, and widely communicating his mistake, this created trust. Management commended him on accepting his mistake and working hard to fix it.

It is not always easy to accept what is, however, we suffer when we don’t.

Be Present

When we are not present, we miss out on life. Yet, the data shows that we are often not present. For instance, one Harvard study revealed that 47% of the time, the test subjects were not present, in other words, they were not paying attention to what was directly in front of them.[i]

We are continuously presented with data throughout our lives in all forms such as via sight, hearing, numbers, sensations, and so on. And yet, a great deal of the time, we are not present to it.

Sometimes the lack of presence is caused by being overwhelmed by so many tasks and other forces and pressures. There’s an old Zen story about a man on a horse going really fast through town. A bystander yelled to him, “Where are you going so fast?” He yelled back, “Ask the horse!” Sometimes, we are not aware of where we are going and are just taken away by our thoughts and/or other demands in life.

I have been involved in several data management efforts where the teams were so busy trying to meet deliverables and deadlines, that they were not acting in a fully present manner on the project. In these types of efforts, participants were distracted when they related to people, they had difficulty enjoying the experience, and they often did not make the most out of the time spent. On one effort like this, not only did the team members feel unfulfilled, but the project was also not a success at all and after two years of work, it was cancelled without yielding any significant project deliverable.

Don’t Rely on Judgements

“We suffer not from the events in our lives but from our judgement about them.”


One may say that is it necessary to judge things. Many scientists have concluded that judgement is just part of the process that our mind goes through.[ii] People are involved in all sorts of situations and it seems that our decision-making is often based upon our best possible judgement of the parties involved, the circumstances, and what we think is best to do.

However, I would like to propose an alternative way of thinking about judgements. Let’s define judgements as ‘assessments based on emotional content’ and discernments as ‘assessments based on objective data.’    

Often, this emotional content has a negative charge and is like a poison, taking energy away from us. For example, if we harbor a judgement that someone is a selfish awful person, who does this hurt? Regardless of the circumstances regarding a person’s actions, laboring on these types of thoughts can have the effect of robbing ourselves from a healthy mindset.

Thus, if we can refrain from being too immersed in our judgements that contain emotionally charged perspectives, we can live more vibrantly with more energy in life and develop more effective relationships.

As humans, it is inevitable that we will have judgements. Yet, if we can acknowledge the judgements that we have, not completely rely on them, and instead rely more on discernments based upon the data we receive, we can make better decisions and reduce suffering.

Set Appropriate Expectations

“A carelessly planned project takes three times longer to complete than expected; a carefully planned project takes only twice as long.”

—Golub’s Laws of Computerdom

If we expect less, we can reduce disappointments. If we expect more, we can sometimes achieve more than we thought possible. So, is it better to lower or raise expectations? Of course, this depends on the situation.

For many of us, there seems to be a tendency towards have higher expectations that what normally occurs. Thus, certain philosophies suggest that it may be better to lower expectations in order to better manage the ups and downs of life. For example, stoicism (where we lower our expectations and are indifferent to pain or pleasure),[iii] cynicism (where we lower our expectations regarding the motives of others),[iv] or skepticism (where we lower our expectations about the truth of something)[v] can help us.

To reduce suffering, when we look at data, let’s carefully consider what expectations to consider and not make them too high or too low for the situation at hand.

Nothing is Either Good or Bad

“Nothing is either good or bad but thinking makes it so.”

—William Shakespeare

It seems like there are good things and bad things—doesn’t it? Love is good. War is bad. Bad data quality is bad. Good data quality is good. And so on.

Yet, at a deeper level, there are often different perspectives on what is good and bad. Perhaps, things that seem good are not really as good as we think and things that seem bad are not really as bad as we think.

Let’s take data quality. How can it be ‘good’ to have ‘bad’ data quality? On one data management effort, the data governance professional was so excited that he had cleared up the definition of a ‘customer’, and the resulting definition didn’t include prospects, leads, or people that had not bought anything for over 20 years. He was proud of his announcement that the company now had an accurate count of customers to be about 1700. Corporate management was furious when he published his ‘good’ data, since they had thought and communicated that there were over 5000 customers. They fired him. He was quite upset. Was the data he published ‘good’ data, ‘bad’ data, both, or something else?

By always labeling things as ‘good’ and ‘bad’, we may be missing the positive things about the bad and the negative things about the good. If we can more often refrain from labeling things as ‘good’ or ‘bad’, this can keep us more levelheaded and stable, and thus reduce suffering.


Anything received, in other words, any type of data, can lead to suffering. The 8 principles outlined in this article series (parts 1 and 2) can help reduce this suffering, namely:

  • Attachment is a root cause of suffering
    • ‘Not knowing’ has unlimited possibilities
    • Always being ‘right’ is wrong
    • Acceptance is healthy
    • Be present
    • Don’t rely on judgements
    • Set appropriate expectations
    • Nothing is either good or bad

I sincerely hope that the content in this article series can have some impact regarding reducing suffering and increasing our effectiveness and mindfulness in the data industry and in your life. Thank you. Note: I am grateful to Karen Lopez from Infoadvisors, Inc. for helping to contribute to the 8 principles outlines in this article series.

[i] https://www.inc.com/scott-mautz/harvard-study-47-percent-of-time-youre-doing-this-1-fixable-thing-that-kills-your-happiness.html

[ii] https://time.com/3083667/brain-trustworthiness/

[iii] https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/stoicism

[iv] https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/cynical

[v] https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/skepticism

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Len Silverston

Len Silverston

Len Silverston is a best-selling author, consultant, speaker and internationally acclaimed expert and thought leader in the fields of data governance, data modeling, data management, and in the human dynamics of integrating information data. He is the author of The Data Model Resource Book series (Volumes 1, 2, and 3), which describe hundreds of reusable data models. The volume 1 book was rated #12 on the Computer Literacy Best Seller List and his volume 1 and 2 books have been translated into Chinese and in 2009, he co-authored “The Data Model Resource Book, Volume 3, Universal Patterns for Data Modeling”, which has been translated into Korean. Mr. Silverston has published many articles and has been a keynote speaker at many international data conferences. He is the winner of the DAMA (Data Administration Management Association) International Professional Achievement Award and the DAMA International Community Award. He has given many keynotes and has received the highest speaker rating at several international conferences. Mr. Silverston's company, Universal Data Models, LLC, http://www.universaldatamodels.com provides consulting, training, publications, and software to enable information integration as well as people integration. - He is also a personal and corporate mindfulness coach, trainer, and teacher and has studied and taught many forms of spirituality and life development skills for over thirty years. He has attended, staffed and/or led hundreds of days of silent, intensive retreats as well as dozens of life development workshops. After intensive practice in Zen, he was ordained as a Zen Priest in 2011. ‘Kensho’ Len Silverston provides ongoing ‘Zen With Len’ (http://www.zenwithlen.com) individual and corporate coaching, seminars, meditation gatherings, and retreats.

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