Keeping knowledge - jaredgorski.org

A brain with an arrow pointing to a notebook

Keeping knowledge

You may not have heard of Zettelkasten before. Here's a quick and dirty overview:

This intro isn't exhaustive by any means, but there's plenty of material already written about Zettelkasten on the internet if you want to dive in.

My interest in Zettelkasten began a few months ago when I came across Jethro Kuan's Braindump. Jethro wrote a series of blog posts detailing his Org-mode workflow for notetaking in Emacs that scratched an itch I didn't even know I had.

I spend a lot of time reading articles, browsing technical material, listening to talks, etc. I throw a lot of content at myself on any given day. But I fear very little of the valuable content I expose myself to actually sticks and becomes knowledge. I don't want to waste my time; I want to learn.

My brain isn't a hard drive

Computers extend our human abilities. In some cases computers even replace our abilities. Normally I'd hesitate to outsource an innate ability of mine to a computer, but in the case of remembering the impossibly vast array of data that comes my way any given day, I'm happy to let a hard drive take over.

A hard drive on its own doesn't do anything. We need input. That's where having "a system" comes in. Your "system" is every step you take between encountering a piece of information and storing it. Jethro's system involves a capturing step, a processing step, an entry/storage step, and a publishing step where he makes his notes available on the internet. I like these steps, so I've given them my own spin:

Reverse-engineering thoughts

Someone recently mentioned the connection between Zettelkasten and first principles thinking, referring to the "atomic" nature of Zettelkasten notes. One encounters a piece of information and then, before storing it, distills the fundamental parts from it. These basic elements of the greater idea become their own notes. This allows links between notes to be cleaner, since it ensures that a linked note won't be half-irrelevant due to peripheral information that was haphazardly included. I'm convinced that I'll end up beefing up my "processing" step in light of this insight, since I want to maximize my ability to synthesize new ideas in the future.

I feel good

Spending this small amount of time defining "my system" has made me more confident in my knowledge gathering. It takes just an ounce of intent to capture a thought for later storage before it flies away, or to open up a new note in Vim before I read a chapter on machine learning. I'm figuring it out as I go, but this new superpower of stuffing knowledge into duffel bags (or sandwich bags, if I'm really distilling the ideas) has removed the existential dread of my incapacity to remember.