Over the last few years, I've made it a priority to read a lot of books. Not just any books, but those that teach you Worldly Wisdom.
What is elementary, worldly wisdom? Well, the first rule is that you can’t really know anything if you just remember isolated facts and try and bang ‘em back. If the facts don’t hang together on a latticework of theory, you don’t have them in a usable form.
Books are the great leveller. They give you access to the musings of the most talented people of not just today, but throughout history.
Want to learn about investing? Legendary investors Ben Graham, Warren Buffett and Charlie Munger have penned their thoughts. Want to learn about dealing with uncertainty, read anything by Nassim Taleb. What to learn about Stoic Philosophy, read any of the classics by Seneca or Marcus Aurelius.
Yes, books are the great leveller and have become incredibly important to me over the last few years.
How to read a book is also important. That’s been covered in detail over at Farnam Street Blog and you can read about it here and here.
Learning From and Relating To What You Read
When I read a book, I'm always scribbling in the margins, always writing down my thoughts, thinking how it may relate to knowledge I already have or experiences that I'm going through. I'm not a special snowflake here, most curious people will be scribbling in the margins. In fact, it's termed "Marginalia" and has been done throughout the centuries by various historical figures including Mark Twain and Oscar Wilde.
I've found scribbling my thoughts incredibly useful, it turns the reading experience into something very active. With pen or pencil in hand, I'm searching for understanding, for new combinations, for nuggets of wisdom that will help me across a number of domains.
But note taking alone isn't good enough. Reading is a huge time investment and you want to maximise the pay-off from putting in the effort. Richard Feynman had a great technique for learning new things and figuring out the bits that haven't sunk in. It's called the Feynman Technique and is as follows:
Take a blank piece of paper and write that concept at the top of the page.
Step One: Choose Your Concept
Step 2: Pretend you’re teaching the idea to someone else
By writing as if you are explaining the idea to someone else, you can quickly establish those things that you understand and those things where you need to brush up.
Step 3: Whenever you get stuck, go back to the book
Re-read, re-watch, re-listen - until it sinks in enough that you can get it down in line with step 2.
Step 4: Simplify and Create Analogies
Use your own words. The simpler you can explain it, the more chance that you truly understand the essence of the idea. If you are being wordy, the chances are you don't quite grasp the idea fully.
You can read a more detailed PDF of the Feynman Technique by Scott Young here, or alternatively watch his YouTube video demonstrating it below.
Personally, I see great value in the Feynam Technique and have used it successfully to learn new concepts. I'm not great at keeping up the habit of systematically using the technique every time I want to understand a new idea. In fact, it's a habit that I need to work on a lot!
Bringing It All Together - A Common Place Book
Up until the end of last year, even though I took notes in the books I was reading and in certain cases went on to write pages of notes using Google Docs or Word, I still felt very uneasy that I was not being effective in my learning. As I said, reading takes a lot of time and is undoubtedly one of the best time investments you can make. I figured that there had to be a better way to collate and utilise the wisdom available in all of the books read.
A few Google searches later and I found a blog by Ryan Holiday, 'How And Why To Keep A "CommonPlace" Book', that gave me the answers I was looking for.
Here is an excerpt from the blog concerning what a Common Place Book is:
A commonplace book is a central resource or depository for ideas, quotes, anecdotes, observations and information you come across during your life and didactic pursuits. The purpose of the book is to record and organize these gems for later use in your life, in your business, in your writing, speaking or whatever it is that you do.
Awesome! A Common Place book - a way to collate all of the wisdom I've been learning into loose topics in one central place. The problem is, I have a large back log of books to bring up to date into a system. Simple but not easy!
Ryan Holiday recommends using a physical system in the form of notecards. He recommends creating loose themes or categories and noting them in the top right hand corner of the card.
I'm a big fan of doing things in physical form, I totally get that a physical system is in front of you, it's accessible. I get that digital systems can be at risk of being hidden away and therefore not used.
With books, I always buy them in physical form. I've tried Kindle, it's not the same. A book is an experience. You can smell it, feel it, see it. You can't interact with a book in the same way in Kindle Format.
However, when it comes to a Common Place Book, I have catching up to do, and so have opted to start the process in digital form. Once I catch up, I may transfer the system to a physical format - it's a problem I'd one day love to have!
After reading the Ryan Holiday blog and further articles by Robert Greene (who Ryan Holiday learned from), here is the process I've been using for the last 3 months to build a Common Place Book:
1. Read Widely
Read a lot (I've been doing this part for 3 years or so). Read across topics that will give you Worldy Wisdom. If you're unsure, go to the classics (why the Classics you ask? - The Lindy Effect). Want a place to start, check out some of the books that have inspired me here.
A qualifier here: if the book you are reading bores you, or if you're not getting anything from it, move on. Don't fall foul to the Sunk Cost Fallacy. Procrastination is your body's way of telling you that you shouldn't be doing what you're doing!
2. Take Notes!
Take notes while you read. Read actively. have a pencil in hand. Think about how the information relates to what you know, how it relates to experiences you've had. Challenge the author. If you don't agree, say why. If you want to be critical, be critical. Don't assume that everything you read is accurate - be bold in your assertions!
3. Come Back To The Book in A Week Or So
After you've finished reading, leave the book alone for a week or so. Let what you've read marinate in the mind. Let your brain do it's thing, making connections in the background whilst you get on with every day life.
Then, come back to the book. The time period acts as a great filtration process to the notes you've taken. You'll see that some of the notes you've taken are not applicable, or as grandiose as you first assumed.
But some will remain. Some golden nuggets of wisdom that scream at you from the page, some words so poignant, so meaningful, that you have to absorb and apply them. These may be specific sentences or paragraphs from the book, they may be an insight of your own, or they may be the marrying up of an idea in the book to another idea from another domain that you've learned.
These are the things you want to transfer to your Common Place Book.
4. Create Categories and Themes and Transfer Notes To Your Common Place Book
I think this part of the process is very personal to the individual. For me, I've created loose themes around categories including:
[Update Nov 16: The categories I use have evolved over time, however the principle still applies]
I'm using Google Keep to develop my Common Place Book. I love the simplicity of it. I love the visual layout and the excellent search functionality. I know a lot of people will use Evernote, and I have an Evernote account, however I love simple tools with low friction. I think it was Nassim Taleb who said that Technology was best when invisible. There is no pain associated with Google Keep, I can write a note no problem and easily search accordingly.
Let me know in the comments what tools you use and why you use them.
With Google Keep, I use colours to represent my main categories. I record these categories on a Google Keep Note. I then have various themes within each category which I note with a #hashtag system. I also record the category as the first Hashtag for searching.
For example, within the Wisdom category, I have themes that include psychology, uncertainty and virtue. I even have a #strategy theme within my Wisdom category!
In this way, I have a very dynamic notes system. I can search by category, or theme, or both. With both categories and themes, I can see relatedness between ideas. If I have a note that falls into more than one category, I copy it. Every time I have a new theme, I add it to my main theme notecard.
Here's a snapshot of a note I took from Ryan Holiday's 'The Obstacle Is The Way', categorised under #Strategy.
4. Schedule Time To Update Your Common Place Book
This is particularly apt for me right now. As I mentioned, I've only just discovered this system and so have a huge backlog of notes to transfer. Further, I prefer to read and take notes that to transfer notes. With that in mind, I know I need to batch my note transferring at scheduled time to keep on top of things. So I schedule a few hours every weekend and work ferociously to add to my Common Place book. If, like me, you're easily distracted by books, ideas, projects and the like, scheduling and batching is a good idea.
5. Use Your Common Place Book!
Recording is one thing, using what you've learned is an entirely different level. When I'm between meetings or travelling on the train, I try to refer to my Common Place book. If I'm pitching to a client I might read some strategy or psychology notes. If I'm talking about specific tools I might refer to Business notes.
Just this Monday, I was in a meeting in Victoria talking to a tech start-up about various things including their Value Proposition. I had my laptop open with Google Keep on a tab. I brought up a note on sales messaging and showed the company how they could use it. Instant impact thanks to my Common Place book. I also shared with the company so they could use it straight away. Knowledge is to be shared and having a Common Place book facilitates that.
6. Get Started Now
Something like this is a life-long investment. The use of a Common Place book will increase as a function of the amount of good information you put into it. As you add more, the connections between ideas will vastly increase, giving you insight that you didn't have before.
Reading is a big, worth while investment. Reading about worldly wisdom is a great place to get started. The classics, the principles, the things that don't change; they give you a great foundation from which to grow.
"Marginalia", making notes in the margins, is essential. Add your thoughts, relate to other topics, agree, disagree, re-write. Making reading an active experience.
They Feynman technique is a great way to learn an idea an ensure that you've got it sussed.
A Common Place Book is an incredible way to organise the various nuggets of wisdom you've accumulated from reading books and blogs, listening to audios and watching videos. You can do this manually using a notecard system, or digitally, using tools such as Google Keep or Evernote.
Have you had experience with creating a Common Place book? What tools or systems do you use? Do you have Common Place Book photos you want to share?
Please post in the comments or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org