Mar 6, 2021

How to Generate More Insight

How to Generate More Insight

How to Generate More Insight

Nathan King

How Stories, Meaning, and Learning RelateThe greatest stories of all time cycle between feast and famine, defeat and victory, tragedy and epiphany. Contrast is an essential element to any story that captures our attention and increases or creates understanding. Nancy Duarte visualized this in her book Resonate with “what is” and “what could be” as revealed alternately in a story.


Contrast makes meaning. But wait, there’s more: when meaning is achieved, we learn. Contrast isn't only the key to a good story,  contrast is essential to learning as well. Learning does not occur without it. In his book, How to Take Smart Notes, Sonke Ahrens illustrates how to incorporate the meaning-making and learning ingredient of contrast, so fundamental to our humanity, into daily life.  The title of the book certainly gives pause to, if it doesn’t repel, the busy professional. We don’t go back to read “How to Ride a Bike” when we’ve pedaled ourselves for years from location to location to do some greater thing. For anyone beyond student-life,  attention is on an important daily battle of solving complex organizational problems that effect career growth and accomplishment. Note-taking is like a bicycle, a basic means to an end. But this book surprises in its insight. It provides key steps to maximizing learning in how we digest what we encounter in daily life. It lays out how to use notes to make meaning of these events. Note-taking becomes a vehicle for learning as well as for creating. And this is what makes How to Take Smart Notes a gem of a book. Inherent to the book is the important concept of contrast. Embedding the contrast of our ideas and observations in the notes we take in the course of daily life is critical to the development of our own ideas that we use to learn and create – content, business plans, sermons, novels, and strategic analyses. This stands in opposition to the prevalent view of learning today, where memorization plays such a key role. Where schools and universities push memorization as the primary learning vehicle, research overwhelmingly demonstrates that learning is about making connections between ideas. Our Minds Are Not Idea ContainersDavid Allen, in his incredibly useful book Getting Things Done, pointed out that “your mind is for having ideas,” i.e., creating them, “not holding them.” Ahrens uses this idea as the fundamental starting point for his book, writing that "we need a reliable and simple external structure to think in that compensates for the limitations of our brains." He quotes Kahneman, that our minds are “a machine for jumping to conclusions.” Ahrens sets out to illustrate how we can use notes to optimize that approach.Allen's book emphasizes completion of tasks and projects. Ahrens takes it in a different direction, writing about how to generate insights and put them to use, especially in writing. The Note Taking MethodologyHow to Take Smart Notes describes and promotes the note-taking methodology of Niklas Luhmann, a 20th century sociologist who rose to acclaim without formal schooling and became a prolific writer, penning 58 books over 30 years, an astonishing quantity of work. It was academically rigorous as well, respected by the academic community.Luhmann attributed his success to a note taking system that he calls Zettelkasten in German, which translates to "slip-box." It is a paper based system in which notes are coded to connect ideas between each other.I don't know what a slip-box looks like. Before I could get very far in imagining it (Is it metal? Wooden? What color would it be? How big is it?), Ahrens instructs that we should be interested in the workflow of the system, not the physical apparatus of the system. And inevitably, with the abundance of technology tools available to us, ours will be a digital slip-box, not a physical one. To take notes in the modern context, a coding system is mercifully replaced by keywords. The concept of tagging, so prevalent in software such as Evernote and One Note, provides the basis for how this works. Luhmann maintained two slip-boxes. The first simply collected the titles of books and articles, page numbers that they came from, and brief notes describing what the book was about. His second one contained the ideas he read about: he would look at his brief notes and think about their relevance for his own thinking and writing. He then would turn to the main slip-box and write his ideas, comments and thoughts on new pieces of only one for each idea and restricting himself to one side of the paper, to make it easier to read them later without having to take them out of the box. He kept them usually brief enough to make one idea fit on a single sheet, but would sometimes add another note to extend a thought. He usually wrote his notes with an eye towards already existing notes in the slip-box.If you take anything from this book, try taking notes more consistently. Ahrens describes three types of notes:Fleeting notes - ideas or recollections randomly pop into your mind throughout the day. He suggests, just as David Allen does, keeping pen and paper, or a notes app on a mobile device, within arm's reach at all times. Ideas that occur to you can be a task, "The lightbulb in the guest bedroom needs to be replaced," which occurs to you while you are taking the dog for a walk. It will be be recorded alongside the sudden idea that occurs to you while watching YouTube video about rocket launches, "a blog post about how developing rocket technology requires the same level of grit as renovating your posture after decades of sitting too much." Any category of idea, as it occurs to you, should be recorded. Literature notes - this type of note comes from your reading. This type of note is to write down what you want to remember, that you might want to use later. It should be a very brief note. You read a passage in Pride and Prejudice about Elizabeth touring Mr. Darcy's house after spurring his advances. It makes you think about impulse vs reflection, pre-conceived notions vs reality, and so you record a summary of the passage, along with the page number.Permanent notes - this is the most valuable concept of Luhmann's system. The permanent notes are the cream that rise to the top. They are what we turn the most relevant of fleeting notes and literature notes into. This type of note combines ideas, explores concepts, notes and argument. A permanent note contains a single idea, based off of a literature note or fleeting note. A Real Example of Using Smart NotesOver the last several months, I have endeavored to adopted the process that Ahrens describes. As an example, I opened this post by describing the importance of contrast in a good story, and related it to note-taking. The importance of contrast in story-telling emerged for me in Resonate by Nancy Duarte. I recalled a passage I had highlighted: Contrast allow[s] you to create observable distinctions between your perspectives and your audience's perspectives-this helps keep their attention…Though people are generally more comfortable with what's familiar to them, conveying the opposite creates internal tension. Oppositional content is stimulating; familiar content is comforting. Together, these two types of content produce forward movement.While reading How to Take Smart Notes, I came across the following quote about contrast:oppositions help to shape ideas by providing contrast. Albert Rothenberg suggests that the construction of oppositions is the most reliable way of generating new ideasHere's what makes this so powerful. The two books are about separate subjects. I have many notes about Resonate, and many notes about How to Take Smart Notes. They only overlap in small ways. Using this note taking system, both notes would have been tagged with “Contrast,” a topic that is interesting to me because of its storytelling importance. By tagging the quotes above with "Contrast," I would be able to see them next to each other and make the connection.Because this note-taking methodology is new to me, I wasn’t set up to serendipitously discover the connection; I relied on my memory, which I know to be faulty. But nevertheless, it serves as a brilliant example of what this method makes possible.As I reviewed these two notes together, I considered the book from a new angle. When I had started reading the book, I determined that it was merely a “how to” book, and that what I would gain from it would be a methodology. I considered the second two-thirds of the book (more on this below) as mere filler, an excuse to generate a substantial enough body of work to justify publishing the book. But the concept of telling a good story, which I use in my work through creating presentations to persuade internal and external audiences, makes contrast really important to me, and it caused me to read this book at a much deeper level. Now I understood taking “smart notes” not to be an exercise in efficiently recording what I read or heard or wanted to do, but as an exercise of creativity.The important point is that effective note-taking has to cover topics that relate to how you work, and what you are interested in. Philosophical and Scientific Underpinnings of the BookThe first part of the book describe technique. The remainder is a meditation on thinking and creativity, the folly of society’s approach to teaching analysis and insight. The book argues that conventional wisdom does not instill the skill needed to create insight effectively. Schools and universities, Ahrens points out, do not teach how to generate and organize notes cross-topically, "despite the radical change in our understanding on how our memory and learning works."Here it becomes obvious that the book isn't about taking notes. It is about how to generate ideas. To illustrate the problem, Ahrens describes how writing a paper is taught in a university setting: first decide on a topic, then do research, then think about it, then write it, last edit it. The flaws are first operational: it is very difficult to determine the timing of how long this will take. He cites several studies in which students fail miserably due to the planning fallacy. They estimate a project will take x time, but in reality it takes 2x or 3x time. In the world of business it is equally true: people chronically underestimate how long it will take to create a blog post, build a dashboard, or close a sales deal. Humans, it turns out, are disastrous at estimating how long it takes to complete a project. A second, strategic problem emerges, in that once we start researching, we discover a new idea that causes us to think about it in a new way, requiring more research. Or conversely, the idea we started with turns out not to be worth pursuing. He argues instead that you should allow your content to be created from your notes, bottoms up, based on the patterns and insights between them. It is prevalent and errant thinking that we should develop ideas top down.  The key difference between typical note taking and this method is that it is an intentional way to engage with what we are experiencing in the world, becauseWriting notes and sorting them into the slip-box is nothing other than an attempt to understand the wider meaning of something. The slip-box forces us to ask numerous elaborating questions: What does it mean? How does it connect to ... ? What is the difference between...? What is it similar to?It is through this elaboration that our brains benefit from contrasting ideas to one another, establishing meaning and retention of knowledge.  The failure of top-down creation is true also of launching a business or creating a marketing plan. Through the consistent use of such note-taking, the development of your paper, or your presentation, or your strategic plan, in a way writes itself. Smart-notes as a methodology generate a higher rate throughput of insights. How I've moved from archiving to smart note-takingFor most of my history of note-taking, notes have been things I want to remember. And that is an important kind of note. There are two categories of items I want to remember: 1.     Archival information – who said what in meetings, what happened yesterday, etc, and2.     Action items -  tasks I want to complete later. Such notes are what David Allen’s system of GTD so effectively captured. Both of these are about not forgetting, not about thinking. They have their place, but what I’ve gotten the most value out of How to Take Smart Notes is recognizing the need for notes for idea generation as a third category. Note-Taking as ArchivingIn a meeting, person A says X, which sounds important, so I write it down. Person B says Y, and that sounds important to, so I write that down. My notebooks tend to be filled with this kind of note.Generally, my process of managing notes does not include a mechanism for reviewing the notes I took to do something with them. Sometimes, it is like taking a picture: "This is a nice moment, I would like to remember it." And as with the photos on my phone, they just stay there forever: rarely reviewed and not used for any purpose. Other times, I am taking notes just in case something arises if I need it later. I save the receipt for the donation, itself a “note,” in case the IRS audits me. I record what people said in the meeting in case there is a dispute later.There is a role for archiving. We need reference material: highlights, events, tax documents, etc. But it is intellectually expensive: only a small percentage of notes are ever reviewed, causing the time spent for most of the note taking to be a waste of time. Without an intentional way to capture the meaning of events that transpire, ideas flow by in a Twitter-like stream rarely to be utilized. But the approach that Ahrens argues for is about re-thinking how we use notes, and redesigning our daily workflow to ensure we are capturing what is meaningful and interesting, not just what happened. How to Take Smart Notes provides a solution on what to do with the conversations, articles and books I read, and experiences I have. They can become available for new connections that will help me learn to be a better professional, a better human, and to generate insights that will solve the problems of the day. Following Luhmann's approach is a system that takes getting used to. Most digital note-taking software doesn't accommodate it easily, because most software is organized as a hierarchy, which lends itself to archiving. My experience with these systems generally results in putting information in and rarely getting it out. Connections and insights don't occur this way. Digital Tools for “Smart Notes”I use Roam Research, a new concept of note taking software that is “folder-less.” It relies on bi-directional linking perfect for the connection between distinct but related ideas required of this system. For most people, renovating the daily workflow to change how notes are taken isn’t desirable. But there are simple ways to integrate some of the workflow. Simply writing about what a conversation, or article, or book meant to you instead of quoting it in your note taking app would make a huge difference. Using Evernote or One Note and tagging notes with keywords that matter would be a significant improvement over not doing so. The important point is that consistently taking notes in a systematic way that works for you will lead to a much higher volume of insights that you can use to advance your work, whether it is marketing, writing, gardening, or finance. Luhmann's system that Ahrens describes is comprehensive and possible to implement with modern tools. A modification of his system can work well too. Summary and ImplicationsIf I were to summarize the key value that Ahrens proposes, it is to review your notes. If nothing else, take notes, and review them. He quotes Luhmann: I always have a slip of paper at hand, on which I note down the ideas of certain pages. On the backside I write down the bibliographic details. After finishing the book I go through my notes and think how these notes might be relevant for already written notes in the slip-box. It means that I always read with an eye towards possible connections in the slip-box.It isn't that Luhmann's system must be followed "correctly" in order to produce insights that become writing (or whatever). What’s required is to accept that insight flows from learning, that learning happens through contrast and elaboration, and that we need a way to find relevant information that occurs through our learning process. All of us are capable of generating important insights and putting them into the world to help others through writing, art, new businesses, and the way we carry out our jobs. We need a system to collect ideas and generate insight in order for that to happen. Moving towards Luhmann's system, imperfectly, has taken my generation of insight and implementation of lessons learned to a new level of productivity with insight and creativity.




I help leaders and teams achieve clarity and alignment so they can reach their potential


Sign up for my newsletter and I will send you a Life Review and Planning Guide to help you create a better future.

© King Strategic Consulting, LLC 2023