Note-taking is an ancient activity that has been practiced for thousands of years in different cultures, languages and writing systems. It's different from just writing things down. For our purposes, writing is:
- Personal, informal, fast and messy: notes are not optimized for public consumption, but for personal use, such as a leather notebook that you keep in your backpack.
- Open ended and never finished: “Taking notes” is a continuous and generative process, where you can come up with ideas without having an explicit goal in mind.
- Low friction: notes impose low quality and polishing standards, meaning they are easy to add up, subtract and edit, and they can be messy, incomplete, or completely random.
- Multimedia: Just as a paper notebook can contain drawings and sketches, quotes and ideas, and even a pasted photo or post-it note, notes naturally combine different types of media in one place.
What sets it apart from the general notes is that such notes are not intended for a one-time project. They are intended for a lifetime of uninterrupted, open learning and creative output.
This series examines remarkable examples of these types of creative notes throughout history, to extract useful techniques and timeless principles for our own personal knowledge management in the 21st century.
Our first two are the German sociologist Niklas Luhmann and the Renaissance scientist and artist Leonardo da Vinci.
NIKLAS LUHMANN'S SEAT CABINETS
One of the most comprehensive and influential historical sources for note-taking was the “Zetterkasten” developed by the German sociologist Niklas Luhmann (1927–1998). His approach is described in this blog post.
Luhmann rejected the alphabetical classification of his notes, along with predetermined categories such as the Dewey Decimal System. His notes served not only for a single project or book, but for a lifetime of reading and research. He found one research database consisting of index cards (Zettel) that was "thematically boundless" and could be infinitely expanded in any direction.
Each index card was given a sequential number, starting at 1. When a new source was added to that topic, or if he found something to complement it, he added new index cards with letters as suffix (1a, 1b, 1c, etc.). ). These branches were marked in red, as close as possible to the point where the branch started. Each of these branches could also have its own branch. The card for fellow German sociologist Jürgen Habermas, for example, was labeled 21 / 3d26g53.
Luhmann's branching technique
This not only created a system that could be expanded infinitely in any direction, it also gave each index card a permanent ID number (Folgezettel). This number could be referenced from any other card as it would never change. The branches created "strands" of thoughts that one could engage at any point, follow it downstream to be worked out, or upstream to the source.
It also led to meaningful topography within the system: subjects that had been extensively explored had long reference numbers, making their height informative in itself. There is no hierarchy in the Seating cabinets, no privileged place, which means it can grow internally without a preconceived schedule. By taking notes as a decentralized network rather than a hierarchical tree, Luhmann anticipated hypertext and URLs.
Luhmann described his system as his secondary memory (Zweitgedächtnis), alter ego, or reading memory (Lesegedächtnis). He spoke of it as an equal thinking partner in his work. He reported that it had the ability to constantly surprise him with ideas he had forgotten. That is why he claimed that communication actually took place between himself and his Seating cabinets.
LESSENS FROM LUHMANN
I draw four lessons from Luhmann's work:
1. Long time horizons change the game
Luhmann was a visionary in seeing that a note card system can be much more than a one-off project support. It could last for decades and became as integral to our thinking and working as the memories in our head. Paradoxically, creating such a lifelong system becomes even more important as the media we consume is changing faster and faster.
2. Categorization itself can be creative
Luhmann refused to settle for existing categorization systems. Perhaps his biggest idea wasn't something on an index card, but how those index cards were linked together — in a decentralized network using permanent ID numbers. It's a good reminder that we don't have to accept anything as given when it comes to organizing information.
3. Good notes don't depend on technology
Obsession with note-taking tools has been a constant temptation over the centuries. This was as true in the age of arguing over the correct size of index cards as the modern debates over Vim vs. Emacs. Luhmann did not get caught up in these controversies. He created a system that was “good enough” and then focused his energy on collecting ideas and producing content (70 books and 400 scientific articles, for example).
4. Our second brain can think and communicate, not just remember
Luhmann entered almost metaphysical territory with his commentary on what his setting cabinets could do in later life. He claimed it was an equal thinking partner, not just a resource. He stated that it could think and communicate, which is a powerful call to raise our expectations of what digital tools can do for us.
LEONARDO DA VINCI'S NOTEBOOKS
More than 7,000 pages of Leonardo's notes have been preserved to date. Some were from private notebooks he carried for quick sketches and observations. Others were for long-term studies in geology, botany, human anatomy, music, military engineering, astronomy, and many other fields.
Leonardo's notes weren't primarily for self-examination, like a journal or diary. They were world-focused, a continuous log of his explorations and experiments. There is no clear line between the fanciful and the practical: on one page he studied the flight mechanics of birds, on another he designed a flying machine, and on the next page described his efforts to build it. It is not known if he actually attempted to fly, but his later designs for a parachute system give us some indication of how it could have fared.
Da Vinci's notebooks were an expression of his combinatorial style of creativity, transcending the boundaries between fields. It is impossible to discern in his notes where science ended and art began, or where his observations ended and his imagination began. Behind the famously enigmatic smile of the Mona Lisa we find pages and pages of studies of lip muscles, which Leonardo drew both with and without skin. On another page, examining the flight patterns of birds, he distractedly recalls a childhood memory, a dream in which a bird flew down from the sky and punched him in the mouth.
His notebooks follow the “personal, informal, fast and messy” criteria very well: they were minimally organized, with fast, messy lettering that was clearly intended for personal use only. He used a personalized shorthand and in many places his pen seems to have barely touched the page as he rushed to keep track of his thoughts.
There is ample evidence throughout his life of how valuable Leonardo found his own notes. They provide a background story to many of his greatest works, even those on which he never started. For example, the only evidence we have of his unfulfilled commission to paint a wall of Florence's Great Hall is his preliminary drawings, which suggest it might have been a masterpiece. His notes served as a work-in-process record of his many projects, which were later turned into precious historical documents. For example, the massive bronze statue of a horse commissioned by Ludovico Sforza, the Duke of Milan, which he never finished. It was later sent to be melted down and turned into cannons, and we only know that from its preliminary sketches.
To speculate a bit, it seems likely that Leonardo's notebooks both facilitated his very diverse projects and lifestyles, as well as enabled him to learn and gain value from everything he worked on, even if it was unfinished or soon. faded. He bounced from state to state, working on everything that enabled him to survive and make enough money to live on. In his 30 preliminary drawings for a giant crossbow, for example, we see a ghost interested not only in killing with efficiency, but obsessed with mechanical principles that would later crop up in dozens of other designs.
In his fifties, fearing the end of his life, Leonardo turned away from painting to complete his studies and organize his notes. In our last report on him, during a visit by the Cardinal of Aragon in France, he showed those notebooks and called them an "infinity of volumes." I wonder if, hundreds of years from now, Da Vinci will be remembered as much for his creative process — which is timeless and universal — as for his paintings, which will inevitably fade.
LESSONS FROM LEONARDO
I draw three lessons from Da Vinci's notebooks:
1. There are hidden gems in our notes
Although he was celebrated as a genius during his lifetime, it took ages for us to fully appreciate Leonardo's brilliance. His technical designs were way ahead of their time, and perhaps he worked with modern materials and some minor adjustments. He seems to have used and described the scientific method long before it was invented, writing in one of his notebooks:
“I will conduct a number of experiments before continuing, because my intention is to first consult the experience and then demonstrate through reasoning why such an experiment should work like this. And this is the rule by which those analyzing natural effects must proceed; and although nature begins with the cause and ends with the experience, we must follow the opposite path, namely (as I said) begin with the experience and thereby investigate the cause. ”
This reminds us that we ourselves do not know which ideas in our notes will ultimately be the most important, the most impactful, or the most innovative. To find out, we need to record everything, test it early and often, and create tangible artifacts to share with the world.
2. Notes are a means to an end
It is very tempting to take notes in ritual totems. To obsess over the grain of the paper, the thickness of the pencil, or the default spacing and font. All this distances itself from the act of creation. Leonardo's notes were so chaotic and messy that they bordered on being unintelligible even to him. He understood that the final product — The Last Supper, or the Mona Lisa — would really leave an impression. All notes created along the way pale in comparison.
3. Notes deserve respect
Despite the above, the notes are also worthy of our respect. Only when we consider our ideas valuable enough to record and revise do we start to have more good ideas in the first place. Leonardo spoke of his notebooks in his later years with something close to worship. Our identity depends on our memory - expanding our ability to remember things may also increase our sense of who we are.
PRINCIPLES AND TECHNIQUES
The principles are higher than the techniques. Principles produce techniques in an instant. - Ido Portal
What we are looking for in these historical examples are principles and techniques. Principles are timeless and universal, but often difficult to see clearly. Techniques are temporary and context dependent, but concrete and give us clues about the principles on which they work.
For you as a reader, ask: Which principles or techniques resonate most with you in these two examples?