Just a half-formed argument that has been running in my mind and wanted to share with the group, to see if there was some agreement…
It seems that, in the productivity space these days, there are mostly two approaches to knowledge management: Building a Second Brain (I have taken the training) and the Zettelkasten.
As I’m studying both, and reflecting on Cal Newport’s Deep Work ideas, I’m increasingly thinking both are opposite approaches to knowledge management.
BASB advocates broad collection of snippets, knowledge, clipping, to which you will return and refine if it matters – that’s the idea behind progressive summarisation. There’s the idea – in Tiago Forte’s words – that the “fire hose of information” can and should be tamed; that it’s a boon to be able to access so much relevant content especially on social.
The Zettelkasten advocates parsimonious collection of information, on the contrary, that you will write down in your own words because, in Sonke Ahrens’ words, “writing is the medium of thinking”. It’s a slow approach which requires methodical work and deep thinking.
The more I think about it, the more I view videos about both workflows (contrasting videos by the Zettelkasten guys with people from BASB), the more I believe these two approaches are opposites, and, frankly, the less I think of BASB.
BASB is perfect to quickly produce shallow content, sprinkled with factoids, things you have collected here and there without needing to go deep looking for sources, like a scientist would. (There are several BASB workflows illustrating that). BASB is… a parlour trick; great to impress investors, make speeches, convince crowds.
The Zettelkasten is way, way more work, but it’s scientific in nature. It demands, and promotes deep work and deep thinking. If you want to be serious about your thinking, about being able to integrate conflicting views without prejudice, that’s what you need. And, especially, you won’t get impressed by a cool-sounding quote that might prove empty. You may put it aside, but you have to frame it in your own thinking, which trains the mind to see beyond rhetorical tricks.
The more I look at Forte’s work, the less I’m convinced by the true effectiveness of his method. If you’re serious about knowledge work, I would recommend working on a Zettelkasten.
I don’t know that the two approaches are necessary opposites, or one more valuable than the other. Perhaps they both have their place when used thoughtfully.
However, I agree that the second brain idea (“B”) seems more a response to FOMO than useful. For quite a long time I assiduously clipped articles into DEVONthink with the best intention of reading and commenting on them later. Later has never come. Never will. I just have bins of stuff, and I should probably delete that database except that it has sort of a nostalgic feeling and I’ll keep it around.
OTOH, the other method (“Z”) can be a time waster if it is not focused more or less around topic areas or concerns that matter to the note taker. Random buckets of personal thoughts might be amusing and interesting (or perhaps spark sadness, even) but they are no better than random buckets of snippets or my database of articles I will never re-read despite best intentions.
I’m prattling on, generally in agreement with @anon85228692’s conclusions and underscoring the need, I think, to be purposeful in taking notes. Of course, everyone’s purpose is every one’s purpose.
A quote from my readwise.io review this morning was related to this topic. @LucCogZest covers this in his book Cognitive Productivity: Using Knowledge to Become Profoundly Effective.
Paraphrasing, some products can be produced without the need to develop personally. This involves a transient acquisition of knowledge, held only long enough to produce the product. Information related to the product may be stored externally, but will require research and some amount of relearning if the product is addressed in the future.
On the other hand, developing effectiveness requires deeply delving into the research material. This leads to mental development, an increase in personal effectiveness, and the ability to wield the information as needed, as a tool for thinking, and without revisiting sources and relearning.
There also might be a dichotomy here in types of resources used.
For BASB, it seems secondary sources would be used, sources that someone else has already thought through and interpreted. The product would be primarily an aggregation of other people’s thoughts.
While for Zettelkasten, primary sources would be used, and require the reader to do their own thinking and interpretation of the source material. This leads to a network of notes of ones own thoughts on a subject.
I.e. BASB: going to a restaurant, Zettelkasten: cooking your own meal.
Thanks for your insights, @anon41602260 and @JohnAtl ; I think you hit the nail on the head. BASB is well-suited (broadly speaking) for remixing, where the Zettelkasten is geared more towards original production.
I’m leaning way more towards the Zettelkasten, as you can guess, since a point made by Ahrens (IIRC) really stayed with me: do you want to understand fewer books, but remember them, or just skim through a vast majority of content you’ll forget anyway? The latter seems like a waste of time.
I completely agree with the fact that notes “work” if you engage with them on a regular basis. But hopefully, since you have already digested the material in your Zettelkasten for your own way of thinking, it makes it easier.
Backlinks feature in Dynalist is not available across all platforms – apparently just the browser version for now. Since the Dynalist crew started fiddling with Obsidian, they haven’t been updating all the Dynalist clients. Backlinks where it does work is buggy, unreliable, and intermittent.
I’m not sure if I agree with your description of either system exactly.
The way I read BASB (B) is that you should in fact collect a vast array of stuff but that you should ALSO integrate it and evaluate it’s usefulness over time in your situation. How often and what form the re-evaluation takes place is the real subject at issue IMO. You shudl also see the “top” layer as a list of possibles and only delve further when needed.
I have only partially delved into the Zettelkasten (Z) system but it strikes me initially as insular and limiting. It appears to be so focused on minutia that it prevents a deep appreciation of the interconnectedness of many different tasks, interests, areas of study and so on. By forcing you to focus so tightly on a specific thing you can easily miss innovative and new ideas that might be better because you ignore them because you can’t see a use for it now.
B seems to me to be more well rounded, more like a real human thinks and more adaptable to a number of different approaches for implementation. I would argue that the videos you see of the B system in action are the surface users or are using it in a demo mode way in the video. Those who implement that sort of second brain in real life over all their life areas are highly unlikely to produce a video of the thing because it’s too personal and private. A real B system will contain large amounts of proprietary and privileged information.
Z seems to me in the demos and what I have read to be fine for organizing a very tiny fragment of overall knowledge. I see Z as a decent system for a Phd thesis project but that it will fall apart in managing a whole life. Again though, I’ve only slightly delved into the Z system.
Just as a side point: What if you are someone who reads hundreds of books and can remember many bits but would like to have a few more pointers as to when and exactly which book it was in?
For example: I’ve read something like 20+ books on animal breeding performance, EBV, EPD and genetic calculations. Sometimes I can’t remember which specific book had the details of which particular equation or set of equations. So I pull out or pull up on Kindle the 5-7 that I know contain equations and look. I’ve actually started adding notes in my DEVONThink database about what equations are in which books so I can get there faster. I don’t need come up with new equations, I need to find the current set of possibles based on the latest research or the industry standards and THEN I need to pick which one I will implement to solve the specific problem I am working on. In the B system I have developed a rich crosslinked set of tools that I can search to find which one I need for this new problem. Until I know the problem I don’t need to have delved in detail into the possible solutions or how they work or even all the data I need to use them but I DO need to know that they exist somewhere. In the Z system I would have to have already fleshed out all the possible uses of this tool and crosslinked exactly when I would use it and how it would get used. Since I may never get a problem where I need that tool to me the time spent on creating that sort of deep detailed information base is wasted. What I DO need is a way to know that such tools exist and where I can find them.
This is true, but Tiago Forte regularly advocates just-in-time organisation, learning and production. You refine and delve further into what interests you. You can use BASB with a more diligent review process, but it’s not designed that way; it’s designed for you to dig into what you need to dig, and package that for later possible reuse. (Which is, to be fair, a smart habit to have. If you have produced something, it’s worth spending a few extra moments for potential saving of time later.)
Now this couldn’t be further from the truth. The Zettelkasten relies especially on interconnectedness and advocates a “bottom-up” organisation, where you don’t categorise, but instead rely on emergent structure (which, in that regard, it could appear as relying on the same underlying principle of bottom-up organisation as BASB). The Zettelkasten works because you link things together above all; if you had to choose between principles in the method, this would probably be the most important one (this is what creates the “conversational” aspect of the Zettelkasten). On the Zettelkasten.de forum, some people even mix their fiction writing with philosophical and scientific notes in the same system. You cannot get more interdisciplinary than that
Also, the Zettelkasten’s refinement process is designed in a way that fights confirmation bias, and encourages foray into unknown territory. In my experience, it’s actually saving me a ton of time because it avoids rehashing the same ideas approached with ever so slight differences of form, which are not meaningful in the end in my system. What is meaningful in my system? My words, how I have distilled the knowledge and how I make it grow for myself – I don’t need to tread the same ground again and again.
This is exactly why the Zettelkasten advocates to document sources. (And I would say the method answers exactly your use case.) The equations you use often – or references to those sets – could amount to individual Zettels, all grouped under a structure note. What you describe in your example is not at all, as far as I understand, how the Zettelkasten works. You are certainly not supposed to figure out everything in advance, since it’s designed as a production and emergent tool. As with BASB, in this precise case, you would just create Zettels as you go, and figure out answers to problems. The difference in this precise case being the degree of refinement and the conscious effort of cross linking, which is an investment for future development of ideas.
(However, indeed, the Zettelkasten is not a “total life management system” – it’s not designed to hold minutiae like train tickets for an event the way BASB encompasses everything. It’s a knowledge management system only.)
Zettlekasten is simply nothing more than a technique for taking notes, with linkages between notes, or between notes and an index or bibliography, that are either added mechanically to each note “card” or added digitally in the latter-day approaches. Zettelkasten does not produce insight on its own.
All the mystical, epistemic, whoo-hah published in recent years layered on top of that technique have nothing to do with the technique.
It would be much more interesting if the discussion topic was “how can I expand my ability to learn, reason, and gain insight”. That the core issue, and it is not something that note cards or software can solve.
I believe that, for me, a system that supports capturing vast amounts of tiny bits of info with a decent searching system allows me to free my mind to explore options. Part of that may be that I’ve never been a specialist. I am not an expert at anything but rather have wide ranging interests. I believe a key factor in success is how to extract and apply useful information from seemingly disparate fields of study. That innovation comes not from experts in the field but from those who are forced to deal with a problem from a different mindset or starting point or with different tools. All too often the experts only see solutions based on what they are taught and ignore possible solutions that are completely outside their realm of study. I will grant that in many cases the solutions brought up by novices or taken from a totally different field may be inapplicable but shaking up your thinking is always a good thing IMO.
I’ll give a concrete example: LEAN and AGILE systems have basically come out of manufacturing widgets. Yet there is a great book on how to apply those same ideas in a farming environment. Lean Farming
It took someone with a smattering of knowledge in both to see a possible application and then apply it. Orthodox practitioners of either discipline would never think to try something from such a far away field of endeavor.
Holistic Management and MIG are ways to look at pastoral farming through the lens of nature and adapt with modern tools. Holistic Management started on the farm but is now being applied in investing and household management, areas that are far outside the original scope of Allan Savory’s books and teachings.
Yes. That is the beauty of defining models, then applying them to other fields.
For example, the size of cells are constrained by their volume and surface area, and the ability to transport enough nutrients in, and wastes out. Turns out this biological model also applies to slums, where supply and waste removal are constrained by access to the area, thus the “organism” is limited in its ability to flourish.
Deming was a living god to operations people in Japan, and the Deming Prize has cemented his reputation there over the last half century. I took the last class he taught at NYU before he died, and probably a third of that large survey class consisted of Japanese students sent to NYU for their MBAs by their companies; everyone from Japan wanted to have the aura surrounding being able to say they’d taken a class with the man.
EXACTLY!!! That is the key to not being a specialist. How can I apply this totally unrelated bit of knowledge to this application and wouldn’t that be cool. THAT is the intersection between intelligence, vision, fantasy and science.