Garbage In, Garbage Out (True In Computing and Life)

Keep your heart with all vigilance, for from it flow the springs of life.

—Proverbs 4:23

The good person out of the good treasure of his heart produces good, and the evil person out of his evil treasure produces evil, for out of the abundance of the heart his mouth speaks.

—Luke 6:45

In a computer system, the data that you feed into the system determines the quality of the output. Inaccurate data produces inaccurate output. For example, if you’re trying to create a budget, it doesn’t matter how slick your Excel formulas are if the data is wrong. The only way to ensure an accurate and useful result is to provide correct data. The adage “garbage in, garbage out” captures this idea in a memorable way. 

The concept of garbage in, garbage out has applications far beyond computing. For example, if I eat Taco Bell, there’s a good chance that I’ll feel like garbage later. If I allow weeds to propagate in my yard, then I’ll have more weeds than grass next season. More importantly, “garbage in, garbage out” squares pretty well with what Solomon writes about the importance of guarding your heart as well as what Jesus says about the connection between the heart and the mouth. 

What we consume eventually makes its way into our speech and actions.

The pastors at the church I attend and work at have been expounding on this idea for the past few months—even being as explicit to discuss types of inputs and outputs (e.g., news versus Bible reading). The input affects the output of our heart to such a large degree that Solomon warns us to guard it “with all vigilance.” To be vigilant means “alertly watchful, especially to avoid danger.” 

So what’s the danger? That the “wellspring of life” would be polluted. There are two types of treasure we can keep in our hearts—good and evil—and they produce qualitatively different types of abundance, and consequently different types of speech. 

Reminders to curate my inputs

A few weeks ago I was filling up my truck, and one of those annoying advertisements started playing on Gas Station TV (GSTV). The health guru said something to the effect of “If you want to see a huge change in your life, change who you’re spending time with.” My gut reaction is to ignore anything that comes on GSTV because it has about the same nutritional quality as the 16-hour-old taquiritos that they sell inside. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized Wow, that lady is right.

Then I came across Dru Riley’s ”100 Rules To Live By,” which he compiled over many years as a reminder of his priorities and previous lessons learned. It’s worth checking out, but the section that stood out to me was called Influences. Here’s what he had to say:

Influences

13. “Don’t read/watch the news. Skewed incentives.” — The news is a war on our attention. We are frightened into coming back to find out what else to be afraid of. This leads to availability bias and pessimism. Some of us are more afraid to fly than drive. Counteract the news with positive propaganda. 

14. “You’re the average of the 5 people you surround yourself with.” — This goes beyond people. What books, podcasts, videos or music do you consume?

15. “Stay away from negative people.” — Vibes are contagious. 1 Dru Riley, “100 Rules To Live By,” accessed June 13, 2023, https://druriley.com/100-rules-2020/

Rule 13 is a good take on news media, and a good reminder of why too much (or really any amount) of news intake can be detrimental to the soul. Rules 14 and 15 reminded me of what the GSTV health guru lady said. Which then prompted me to think about the sermons that our pastors have been preaching on inputs and outputs. 

Years ago, I discovered that God often speaks to me through repetition.2The fact that God uses repetition to speak should not come as a surprise to me since repetition in Hebrew is basically like putting things in ALL CAPS FOR EMPHASIS AND SO YOU WILL PAY ATTENTION.When a certain idea pops up in a few different places—maybe a book I’m reading, a sermon, a conversation, a blog post, etc.—and that idea is something that pertains specifically to how I’m living my life, there’s a good chance that God is trying to get me to listen.

Over a course of about two months, I listened to a bunch of sermons on inputs and outputs, came across the clip on GSTV, read 100 Rules to Live By, and read Proverbs 4. And the message in all of them was the same: You need to take an honest assessment of the content you’re consuming. What’s the effect on your heart? How does it affect your thoughts and conversations? What is the fruit?

It turns out that some of the lessons I’m learning today are actually lessons I learned years ago. But maybe I forgot, or maybe I just thought they don’t apply in the same way. It also turns out that reaping and sowing go together and that old lessons still apply—even if they’re old.3Maybe I need to create my own 100 Rules to Live By as a reminder.

Relearning the same lesson, again

I first learned about the importance of curating inputs and outputs about a decade ago. When I Lived in Savannah Georgia, I would regularly go to the evening compline service at Christ Church Anglican. One Sunday during lent, the rector explained the purpose of fasting. He said that fasting was not so much giving something up, but making room for something more important. When we fast, we give up something lesser for something greater. 

At the time, I was addicted to Twitter, and his homily convicted me to get off Twitter ASAP and devote more time to prayer, Bible reading, and actually being present with the people around me. I deleted Twitter off my phone and stopped checking it for the entirety of Lent. By the time Easter came around, I didn’t miss Twitter, and I realized how much of a grip it had had on my heart and mind.

I’ve been reminded of the same lesson many years later—God is faithful and patient in repeating His lessons. 4Now that I’m a parent of three kids under three years old, I have a much greater appreciation for God’s patience in repeating lessons. My kids need constant reminding to choose the good. Not much changes when we become adults.The reality is that much of what’s published online is click-baity, incendiary, manipulative, half-true (or patently false), corrupting, and cheap. When I get to heaven, God isn’t going to ask me if I’ve seen any fire memes lately. He won’t care if I know XYZ about ABC viral conversation on the news. Instead, He will care about whether I’ve guarded my heart so that I can be a blessing to others.

I want to take in good content that builds compound interest.5 This insight comes from an interview between Al Mohler and Matt Perman in Perman’s book What’s Best Next. When asked about advice on reading, Al Mohler said “Realize that when you read, you are putting investments in a bank from which to draw, even if it doesn’t appear to have direct relevance.” See also Rule #8 in 100 Rules to Live By: “The best returns in life come from compound interest.”I want the abundance of my heart to be full of the good, the true, and the beautiful so that it gives grace to all. To that end, I’ve resumed a posture of being more intentional about what I watch, listen to, and read. Although there’s a lot of garbage on the internet, there’s also a lot of amazing and very helpful content out there as well. In that way, the internet is not unlike the interstate. Sure, there’s fast food every 15 miles, but there’s also nutritious food along the way if you know where to look.

Questions for curating inputs

Here are some of the questions I ask about content at present to determine whether it’s garbage or treasure (in no particular order): 

  1. Will this help me grow into the man I want to be / who God has called me to be? (This immediately rules out 98% of social media)
  2. Does this provide legitimate spiritual, intellectual, or professional value? (Offshoot of Question #1)
  3. Is this something that I want to save and reference later? (Content that’s worth referencing weeks, months or years from now likely passes the test of Questions #1 and #2)
  4. Does this content contain sufficient context for me to understand the author’s point of view and/or motivation? (Also rules out most social media)
  5. Is the author/source trustworthy? 
  6. Would consuming this content be a waste of time? (The answer is almost always yes)
  7. What is the effect on my heart? Do I feel encouraged, motivated, and empowered, or does it drag me down?

I’m still learning what it means to curate my inputs, but at minimum, that’s meant deleting social media apps off my phone and/or forgetting to check them. If it’s become a habitual thing for me to check an app, I just delete it off my phone and that takes care of the problem. I’m not really going to go through the trouble of logging in on a browser or re-downloading the app for a quick dopamine hit.6My friend Steven used the phrase “frying your dopamine receptors” in a discussion about the effects of social media, and I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it. I haven’t deleted the accounts, but I just don’t check them. Out of sight pretty much means out of mind.

It also means cultivating an appetite for long-form sources—industry blogs, reputable blogs from individuals, thought-provoking podcasts, etc. Sometimes this means surfing through Wikipedia to get broad familiarity with the general contours of a new knowledge domain.7Yes, this is a thing that I do for fun.

And finally, it means limiting reading/listening to what people say about God and the Bible and actually reading the Bible itself. There are lots of good books out there, but I want to be as immersed in the genuine article as possible. 

Garbage in, garbage out is an accurate statement, but the opposite is also true: Treasure in, treasure out. Changing your inputs can change your life. 

  • 1
    Dru Riley, “100 Rules To Live By,” accessed June 13, 2023, https://druriley.com/100-rules-2020/
  • 2
    The fact that God uses repetition to speak should not come as a surprise to me since repetition in Hebrew is basically like putting things in ALL CAPS FOR EMPHASIS AND SO YOU WILL PAY ATTENTION.
  • 3
    Maybe I need to create my own 100 Rules to Live By as a reminder.
  • 4
    Now that I’m a parent of three kids under three years old, I have a much greater appreciation for God’s patience in repeating lessons. My kids need constant reminding to choose the good. Not much changes when we become adults.
  • 5
    This insight comes from an interview between Al Mohler and Matt Perman in Perman’s book What’s Best Next. When asked about advice on reading, Al Mohler said “Realize that when you read, you are putting investments in a bank from which to draw, even if it doesn’t appear to have direct relevance.” See also Rule #8 in 100 Rules to Live By: “The best returns in life come from compound interest.”
  • 6
    My friend Steven used the phrase “frying your dopamine receptors” in a discussion about the effects of social media, and I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it.
  • 7
    Yes, this is a thing that I do for fun.
Scroll to Top