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Notes Against Note-Taking Systems
-Your natural salience filter is a great determinant of what’s most alive to you. If you begin to rely on any other filter, you will increasingly record what seems like it should be interesting according to some preexisting criteria rather than what organically sticks to your mind. This is a tradeoff. It is often not a worthy tradeoff.
-Getting lost in your knowledge management system is a fantastic way to avoid creating things. Or calling that friend you’re estranged from. Or doing anything else even mildly threatening. It’s also a fantastic way to convince yourself that unpreparedness is what’s between you and creative work. If you believe you’re unprepared, know that you will never transmute into the perfectly prepared person that you think exists in the future. Unfortunately, you have to start with the person currently in this chair. That’s all there ever is.
-All of the above applies to reading books about note-taking, taking courses about note-taking, and watching videos about note-taking.
-Most heart-stopping writing comes from synthesizing the previously unarticulated in the moment. Rather than reaching for your database, try channeling what’s in the air at this very second. If it’s some stunted, fragmentary version of an idea you were exposed to previously, that is good. These read/write errors are what we call originality.
-Consider how you may be limiting yourself by focusing on the presentation of factual insight as the core of your work.
-There are serious reasons for systematic note-taking: perhaps you need to summarize the literature on some element of the mitochondrial background radiation of early childhood geography, or something like that, and you have to keep track of a million references to do the thing at all. If your note-taking system is adapted to a specific context of use such as this, then you’re working. If it’s not, then you’re LARPing. I will also give a pass to those with truly bad, unfixable memories who are compensating for a real disability. That is probably not you.
-I am waiting for any evidence that our most provocative thinkers and writers are those who rely on elaborate, systematic note-taking systems. I am seeing evidence that people taught knowledge management for its own sake produce unexciting work. This is not a genetic condition. I think they could do better if they wrote what they knew, rather than what they recorded.
-It’s not that I advocate for no note-taking. I just strongly believe in keeping it as elementary as possible, such that the note-taking itself doesn’t become the thrust of the endeavor. Leonardo da Vinci kept all of his notes in one big book. If he liked something he put it down. This is known as a commonplace book, and it is about how detailed your note-taking system should be unless you plan on thinking more elaborately than Leonardo da Vinci. Taping a bunch of cryptic phrases to the walls is also acceptable, or keeping a shoebox full of striking phrases on a jumble of papers, as Eminem did.
-Shun the useless adoption of the aesthetic of the useful. When something can be like work or like play, never make it work.