154: Building a Second Brain, with Tiago Forte

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I know Tiago is an avid Evernote user. I was hoping they’d ask him some questions and have a discussion about particular apps but it feels like Obsidian is cool and Evernote isn’t, so they dodged having to speak about it.

Would have been an interesting discussion.

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One of the weird things about being a Medievalist working in digital space is watching my fellow geeks re-discover the commonplace book.

And getting it rong. First, the commonplace book is a medieval thing, in terms of its birth, that became popular in the Renaissance, a popularity tied closely to the rise of the printing press in Europe.

If you studied Latin in the fifteenth century or the two centuries after, you had a commonplace book, a collection of koinoi topoi. The commonplace book grew directly out of traditional Classical rhetoric. Commonplaces are the memes of rhetoric; they allowed you to mentally sort and “tag” fragments from other authors, to use in your orations. If you look at Hamlet’s “To be or not to be” speech, Shakespeare is drawing on konoi topoi and producing an exercise very like the kind of thing Shakespeare would have been given as an assignment while in grammar school. Shakespeare probably would have kept a commonplace book, at least as a student. Milton kept a commonplace book; several of them, in fact. We still have them.

Also the idea that information was passively accepted in the past; nope.

Annotating books was a thing. You could buy a professionally annotated ms. You could also buy printed books with the annotations of other authorities included in the text. Annotating was so common that there are instances of errors by copyists who mistakenly included an annotation in the body text of the book they were copying. Heck, there are mss. of legal texts where the annotations and commentaries dwarf the tiny fragment of the main text. And then there are the commentaries on the Talmud and Torah. Generations of rabbinical commentary surrounding the base text. The oldest extant version of the Bible in English is in the Book of Lindisfarne, where, in the late 10th century, Aldred wrote cheat-note annotations glossing the Latin text with Old English translations. By the time Samuel Richardson wrote and printed Clarissa, annotating books was so common, that he pre-annotated the book for his readers.

Where the Enlightenment comes in, in terms of the commonplace, is that John Locke, who was one of the generations required to keep a commonplace in school, created a complicated system for tagging and annotating his commonplace books for later access. No one but Locke seems to have successfully used his system, but it did generate a lot of interest in organizing and indexing, above and beyond the original idea of topoi. But by that time, male students were generally expected, and even required, to keep commonplace books, and it was so common that there are many examples in sixteenth 18th century university libraries. As cheap bound paper blank books became easy to obtain, non-students, even women, began keeping them much more commonly

One of the things that got me interested in blogging, back in the day, was the relationship I could see between early blogs and commonplace books, in part inspired by Dori Smith and Tom Negrino’s “backup brain” blog.

I realize that this is only tangentially related to Forte’s main arguments, but I am so weary of the references to the commonplace book as a thing of the Enlightenment, when really, it was already centuries old by then.

It’s one of the reasons that I really think the erasure of humanities/liberal arts education, especially in higher ed, is a bad trend. It’s pretty standard in a sophomore lit survey to teach students what to highlight and annotate, how to annotate, and how to take notes for later use in papers and exams.

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Thank you for sharing this.

Through your blog, I managed to find your reference to John Locke’s book on his system. It is a fantastic “show don’t tell” that there’s been a lot of rediscovering in the last few years related to learning, reading, note taking, etc.

Thank you.

I read Too Much to Know, Managing Scholarly Information before the Modern Age, ISBN: 978-0-300-11251-1, by Ann M. Blair, which is another “show don’t tell” of this rediscovering phase, I think.

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In Tiago’s course, Building a Second Brain (BASB), they have sessions with experienced users of the various tools but they all emphasize that the tool choice is not that important. People use Evernote, Obsidian, Notion, several others. Many capture ideas using a different tool (like Drafts).

(Caveat: I haven’t listened to this episode yet; and I haven’t taken BASB but watched someone else who did. I have his book but haven’t read it yet.)

This was delightful. Thanks for sharing.

Has the purpose or use case of a commonplace book changed over time since its incarnation? Do you have any insight into the evolution of its use?

FYI, Tiago has a 4 part discussion of apps on his YouTube channel.

Tiago Forte - YouTube

Yeah I know. I was just hoping David and Mike would ask him about it and why he chooses it over Obsidian etc.

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Over time, the commonplace book changed from a collection of mostly Classical Latin and Greek “tags” or aphorisms, things that were easy to re-purpose in a speech or written text, to items that were of personal interest to the writer, which, as Forte notes, might be extracts from books, organized reading notes (this is how Thomas Jefferson used his). Increasingly people, particularly women, began to incorporate less academic texts, like poetry, recipes, and prayers. There are loads of pre-1832 commonplace books from both ordinary people as well as historic figures. Earle Havens wrote Commonplace Books: A History of Manuscripts and Printed Books from Antiquity to the Twentieth Century from Yale University Press. It’s a decent survey of the history of the commonplace book.

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Actually I think we all could use a refresher course in the difference between highlights, annotations and notes. To me they are 3 distinct things but I am often reminded that people often consider them all the saem thing. Which can lead to some “interesting” arguments until we realize we’re speaking a different language.

My personal commonplace book, or PKM or second brain or whatever term you want to use is actually called Oogie_Adversaria :wink: The Oogie is so all the things that are my personal edit and work with often types fo files sort to the same place in my file system.

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Personally, I consider highlighting and underlining as performing the same purpose; I prefer underlining, but I suspect that’s more about visual differences than methodology. I do not underline swathes of text.

By annotating I mean an actual note that’s a phrase or more in length. As a subset of underlining, I also gloss texts. Either as a short marginal label (think tags), or as glosses in a linguistic sense, where I am translating or parsing the words.

I also, in both analog and digital texts, use stickie notes or flags.

I always thought Steven Johnson did a passable job on this (although he does fall into the enlightenment trap you point out!), as explored here. His book on innovation explores this a bit more and connects them to software like Devonthink.

I think I’ve heard him say that he prefers software that has been around for a while. He has described Evernote as a mature product that just needs to continue what it is doing to suit his purposes.

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I’d agree. Both are to save or identify the original author’s words in their original location.

For me annotations are quick restatements typically short or something like flags or markers for places I want to revisit. I use the word annotations for all those things.

Notes to me are more my own arguments or discussions or beliefs generated by the highlights and short annotations I made in the original.

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I couldn’t agree more! I was blessed to have a deep liberal arts education for which I’m grateful.

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Having listened to Tiago talk through the topic of apps, I would say he is an Evernote user because that’s what he started with and has seen no reason to change. He seems to have a very utilitarian perspective regarding apps and if a specific app does what you need it to do, in this case Evernote, then why change?

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Something that struck me listening to this episode is that Tiago, @MacSparky and @mikeschmitz all seem to have a similar, fairly narrow concept of how and why to take notes on books. The bit that really raised my eyebrows was when they said taking notes on the book should only add 5-10% to the time you spent reading it, but as the podcast went on this singe point of view on notetaking came up in other ways as well. The emphasis on distilling and only capturing a small number of concepts that would be most useful to future you, for instance.

That’s a great approach for the kind of work the three of them do, reading productivity/philosophy type books with an eye to incorporating ideas into their own systems (and their future writing/podcasting on the subject). However, there are lots of other reasons to take notes and some of those are going to demand very different techniques. For instance, when I’ve taken notes on detailed technical subjects it takes far longer and captures much more. As part of my ongoing career change I’ve been reading books on whitewater rafting and I’m sure that my notetaking on the river hydraulics chapter took much longer than it would have just reading the chapter straight through.

That’s not even touching on the fact that all this seems to be very focused on taking notes on books and other written material, as opposed to in-person learning, or notes to document what you’ve done and how, or factual notes for future reference (for stuff that’s not available via Google), etc.

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I agree. I was a long time Evernote user, first for my personal use and later at work. I captured everything that I thought might be useful. At work that included manuals, configuration files, notes from support tickets, network diagrams, vendor contacts, etc. Before I retired I moved everything into a EN business account and tagged and cross referenced everything for my successor.

I now use Google Keep/Drive but still save anything that I find interesting or think I might need. Storage is cheap and Evernote/Google search is excellent.

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I think you hit the nail on the head there. But it’s not just books, notes can be very broad. Looking at my Obsidian vault about half are not book or article notes but stuff that might be useful someday. Some are how to do things I may only need to do once or twice in a decade. Some are just thougts quotes, or nispiration I refer to regularly. I’ve got a bunch right now that are code snippets, algorithms, notes on UI design and similar things.

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Honestly, I wish I could find a good resource about the various techniques of how to take good notes, especially how to take notes from speakers / audio, other than “write down whatever resonates with you”.

I feel like normally people are supposed to learn this stuff in high school. But my high school specified a particular method of note-taking, the taking of notes was graded by the English department, and thus rather than allow the students to do their own - and possibly fail - most teachers just put the notes up on an overhead projector so that we could copy them down.

And most of what I’m finding out there currently for methodology is the BASB / “write down what resonates with you”. As @ChrisUpchurch mentioned that’s great, for a particular type of resource. But if I’m listening to a super-smart speaker, where I actually want to be able to reference the subject / content of the talk at a later date, that doesn’t feel like enough.

Maybe this is just me feeling inadequate to the task. Anybody have any tips? (And tagging @Bmosbacker as I know he’s an academic :slight_smile: )

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