How to remember anything and recall it whenever you need

How to remember anything and recall it whenever you need

The amount of information coming at us every single day is huge, 34Gb (gigabytes) huge. In this, there is over 105,000 words that come our way. For those of us with even the most specialised and narrow focus, how can we possibly remember everything that we want too? Arguably, the internet has removed the need for use of our memories like we used too. A quick Google search turns out information about any idea, person, problem, event or group that we desire. But what happens when we don’t know what question to ask? Or what question we might be asked? What about not putting a conversation on pause whilst we fact check something Google? With the abundance of free information, I believe more than ever, that we need to ability to harness what we need, when we need it. As a bonus, what about using that old school thing – our own memories to remember things?

My answer to these questions has been developing a digital note taking system. Having your own and personalised mini-library with you at all times that you have built not only helps build your own knowledge base but backs you up whenever you might need it. For me, this system relies on the note taking app Evernote primarily due to its tagging feature. Laid out, the whole system in a simple process, looks like this:

  1. Actively consuming and reviewing the information
  2. Recording what was important to memory – this is where Evernote comes in
  3. Categorising and filing the information
  4. Recalling our memories

(Sounds a bit like “learning” subject material back in school!)

Before delving into each of these parts, you might be asking, ‘why Evernote?’ First off and to remove any perception of bias, I have no affiliation, link nor form of compensation from Evernote, I am only interested in finding the tool for the job and pass on what I have learned. So, there are some key traits of Evernote that make it the only tool, that I have found, to enable this:

  • it is quick and easy to write, organise and access your notes
  • it is available on all digital devices and you have it with you at all times i.e. your phone
  • it can be used online and offline (premium) across all these devices
  • has a tagging system and unlimited (almost) tags can be created – notebooks/sections/groups do not provide the same thematic experience
  • tags can be grouped and structured as sub-tags
  • multiple tags can be added to multiple notes at once – themes, author, reference name

At the end of the day, if you find another system that works for you then go for it however I am yet to find an equivalently quick, easy and all pervasive digital platform.

  1. Actively consuming and reviewing the information

I will not harp on the importance of actively reading and engaging with the author as Farnham Street does an excellent job of this already. But what it boils down to is reading (or consuming) as if we are having a conversation with the author. That means thinking about what is being said, determining whether that fits in with our model of the world – are we in agreement, disagreement, deeply energised or astonished – and then, in the case of books, scribbling our thoughts down in the form of ‘marginalia’ when something strikes us. Very soon we have built a dialogue up with the author which we can visualise and relive again.

  1. Recording what is important to memory

The following system is a digitally adapted version of Robert Greene’s/Ryan Holiday’s note taking system. Standing on the shoulders of what these giants have already developed provides reassurance that the system works. However, much the same as Holiday’s disclosure, I will add my own: “to be clear, this is not “my” note taking system”.

“Now to be clear, this is not “my” notecard system. If anything, I use a perverted version of a system taught to me by the genius Robert Greene, when I was his research assistant.”

Ryan Holiday

The trouble with their hard-copy system was that I am often on the move, commuting and living in different locations so I could not have something which required me to lug around a massive case of index cards. Hence the move, towards a digital alternative. Whilst I agree with the idea that writing by hand is more valuable than electronically, it is not always practical.

‘Recording what is important to memory’ in this step refers to two distinct memory banks. We want the raw facts in a personalised digital repository (memory bank 1) but we also want to gain our own comprehension (memory bank 2). The latter is encouraged throughout all steps in this system. In part 1 we are creating an imprint in our memory and with each subsequent stage we are solidifying where that fits within our mental models of the world. This step though, is the real decisive factor in how deep the idea will rest within the web of our brain and as such is the real key to the entire system.

The practice of reviewing, writing out, making comment on and categorising (tagging) what we have marked as important to us is very active. This practice is what helps commit this information to our own memories. What’s more, it is always there for us to access. For example, finding the quote from Sir Isaac Newton about giants shoulders, when he wrote it, where he wrote it and how he was not actually the first person to coin the phrase:

So how do you use Evernote to make this personalised mini-library to help you remember all that you need to and is there to cover for you if you need? It is simple (it needs to be) but has some nuances in how its done. The general process is: creating a note, adding tags, closing the note and getting on with whatever is next!

a. creating a note

All my knowledge related notes are created in one big Knowledge notebook. This keeps all of them together so they are in one place, keeps the rest of my Evernote clutter-free for other note taking e.g. journaling, blog posts or ideas. The note content always includes:

  • a page reference – when grabbing notes from kindle, the kindle export includes these timestamps by default – very handy)
  • enough information for me to grasp the context or interpret it – many times I have been caught out by not knowing or seeing the importance of a quote or idea because I omitted the previous sentence/s
  • my comments or ‘take-on’ what has been said – I typically don’t include quote marks in notes except where I need to emphasise to my future self that this is in fact a quote! I will instead distinguish where I have made comment using ‘//’ to denote that this is not a quote.
  • Include other relevant information where needed such as diagrams, audio or video which helps tell the story

The Titles of notes are a one sentence summary of the note. They are important for you to gain comprehension of what is in the note – lazily copying and pasting a note or a title will not help memory banks 1 or 2, you are better off not creating the note at all. The other importance of the title is to attract your attention later when you have not context for what is included but you are looking for something relevant or thematic. The more specific you are here, the more you will thank yourself later.

b. adding tags

Including numerous tags furthers your comprehension of the note and increases familiarity with your own library. It is the same being able to walk into a library, straight to all the books on Australian animals and knowing which book types will explain both habitat and eating habits. Compare this to having to pace up and down all the aisles flicking through every book you find on Animals and seeing whether they cover your requirements. You become the librarian of your own mini-library – although sometimes asking or strolling (searching generally) is unavoidable.

c. getting on with whatever is next

When you are having a note input session, you are easily able to set up the desktop client to make note creation default with specific tags. See below example where creating a new note for creating my summaries on Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari.

Alternatively, if you are in the go, and pass by a great quote by Lao Tzu (has happened) that you want to add, simply go into the app and create a note. As long as you have your default notebook set to your Knowledge notebook it will save there. Then either quickly add relevant tags or if you’re in a hurry don’t add any and do a batch update for all notes ‘without any tags’ when you have your next summary session.

    “To the mind that is still, the whole universe surrenders” – Lao Tzu

  1. Categorising and filing the information

This is where the real leverage of Evernote comes in – the thematic and fully customisable nature of tags. Tags are what underpin the entire filing system in this process. You will have noticed from the images above that there are some specific conventions which I use. Either take mine or find something that works for you, there are endless possibilities. 

a. types of tags

Different types of tags are important to distinguish one context from another, handling duplicate names and for speed of note tagging. I have the following tag types:

  • general themes – these are the bulk of my tags, this is for any topic area or keyword that strikes you or that you believe is related to a note
  • specific themes – when you wish to deeply investigate a particular topic, very applicable for writing a book, in-depth blog post or interview. Creating a separate notebook for specific research topics means you will have to create duplicate notes – not fun then or later on.
  • author/creator name – who or what was the source of the information – who is it credited too.
  • source – where did the information come from
  • structure – used for structuring tags – merely a null placeholder to enable tag group names

b. naming conventions. 

These are important to distinguish the different types of tags. This prevents you from accidentally including incorrect or tags with the same name but different purpose for example, the book named Range and the general topic of range are differentiated by #Range and range respectively. 

I use the following naming conventions:

*specific theme tag e.g. a book on trees and a section on tree health ‘*Tree1-health’
@source – represents the author/creators name e.g. the person @EdCatmull
#author/creator – represents the title of the source e.g. the book ‘#CreativityInc’
used for structuring tags. This is to allow ‘part c tag structure’ to occur. 

Most importantly, for general themes, there are no prefix’s to the tag name. All these naming conventions seek to make the general themes (most used) distinguishable from the others. 

c. tag structure

Tags can be grouped into other parent tags (simple drag and drop on desktop). This makes a cleaner and more manageable layout for all your tags. This step is not necessary given the naming conventions and only gives extra grunt to the desktop experience. However, it will make browsing and cleansing your tags simpler. Cleansing tags is an important and occasional process of removing redundant and consolidating duplicate tags.

d. searching and locating

Locating your past notes is simple on desktop or mobile. Depending on what you are looking for a combination of tag filtering and search will get you to where you want to go

The ‘card view’ is an excellent way to get a more tactile experience of the information you have available within a particular search or topic. If I want to understand what resonates with me across all the books by Nassim Nicholas Taleb that I have read, then I filter for the relevant tags and switch to card view. This will lay everything out in front of me like I am scanning across some “note cards” on a desk.

When searching for a specific item or quote from somewhere but can’t remember much about it, take advantage of the search functionality as well:

This should be enough detail for you to duplicate what I do (I think you’ll love it) or forge your own digital note library.

I am not here to convince you that a digital solution is for everyone but for those that it works for, it is certainly possible and very practical. You can have it with you anywhere, has all the knowledge of interest to you contained and does not require you to carry anything around with you. It is continually evolving and improving as the database of knowledge becomes larger and you discover more about the world. It is like having your own mini-library with you at all times. 

As always, feel free to ask any questions about the post. Also let me know how you go about remembering information you consume.

The Unfalsifiable World - what do layers have to do with it?

The Unfalsifiable World - what do layers have to do with it?

Science is continually evolving. We are finding out more about ourselves and the universe every day. Some of this evolution builds on what is already known, it layers and iterates on a theory. Another evolution may wipe out an entire theory as its true nature is proven to not ‘fit’ in. Undoubtedly, there must be theories, applicable to our daily lives that we take for granted as being true that simply aren’t. However, where a core truth has been taken as ‘what it is’, then layers have been built on top. What happens as we continue to develop layers upon layers of theories and claims which are actually false or worse, not falsifiable? There are only ever increasing layers being laid on top. To further complicate matters, terminology or definitions of core truths can differ between different fields and sectors — a matter for another time. This layering is conditioning the way we think, it sets the paradigm for what we know and intuit every day, right or wrong. 

This layering has been going on forever and it looks like it will continue forever more, even if only because we love of a good story. Things being falsifiable should keep pushing us in the right direction. However, given how omnipresent some systems are now, proving one false might have further reaching implications than what is manageable. Recall here the idea that sub-prime loans (and the many layered mechanisms on top of them) were seen as a good way to give people access to a nice home and stimulate the economy — then information caught up and the 2007–08 Global Financial Crisis struck. It seems then that as this layering continues to happen faster, the focus needs to be shifted (but not dropped) from preventing its happening to minimising collateral consequences from these inevitable events.

Implications are so large because institutions with far reaching interests may have fundamental flaws in their systems, falsification of which creates a sweeping chain reaction. So in trying to prevent some of existential threats (climate, AI, nuclear, economic meltdown) which face us today, which in part stem from some false layering, we need to allow iterating to occur without socialising the downside nationally and globally.
Given all of this, it seems smaller might provide some answers. Smaller does not socialise critical consequences, it does not bring us down with its system. It also allows for more abrupt direction changes, a nimbler approach to rectifying a problem when its identified. Opportunity for rectification means there is also less chance to put efforts into covering up the elephant in the room. We can turn the rudder of the barge rather than on the supertanker because the supertanker knows as much as the barge does about the exact direction to take — not much (or maybe less if you consider the elephant). More smaller nodes shooting off in different directions, none quite right, but each iteration getting closer. In Skin in the Game, Nassim Taleb calls this the ‘bias-variance trade-off’. He explains:

“…you often get better results making some type of ‘errors’, as when you aim slightly away from the target when shooting. I have shown in Antifragile that making some types of errors is the most rational thing to do, as, when the errors are of little costs, it leads to gains and discoveries.”

If the smaller fails, and fail they will as a matter of evolving, the damage and collateral is contained to that locale and discoveries are made. In order to achieve some of the benefits of the large, smaller needs to collaborate and build accountable partnerships, focus on leveraging technology and above-all seek to improve it’s community. To me at least, this seems more ‘win-win’ than the ‘winner take all’ (whether up or down) that currently exists.

How does it feel to hold back?

How does it feel to hold back?

Holding back from serving what you make
because you need to add another ingredient,
because more should try it,
because more should see it,
because of what critics will say,
because you’re not good enough,
because you will run out of ideas,
because this is your best idea,
because its not perfect,
because you will fault,
because it might land out of bounds,
because it’s not the way to do it,
because you might be proven wrong,
is nothing but the sure fire way to be wrong. 

Bob Dylan didn’t let any of these excuses stop him from serving up ‘Like a Rolling Stone’ to Newtown Folk Festival in 1965. Imagine if he hadn’t. Think openly, create your best and serve it up before it goes cold. 

What not to pack

What not to pack

Don’t bring yesterday’s luggage with you. It will only weigh you down. Leave it checked in where it belongs.

All that was not unpacked yesterday stays there.
Don’t be compelled to try stuffing today’s items in where there looks to be space. No amount of repacking or jumping on top will help to zip it up.

Start anew each day, with an empty bag, packing the one thing that you will be most appreciative for when you arrive at the end of today. If it becomes light, you can always add more.

Religion or not?

Religion or not?

I was baptised and confirmed a Roman Catholic. This was the family tradition. We attended mass every Sunday and additionally for special occasions. Once confirmed in my third grade, the aspiration for moving into the senior part of my Catholic primary school was to become an alter server and so I did. Since then, an increasing distance has grown between religion and me. I suspect, more a sign of our times than personal.

In our age of choice, we are also given the opportunity to make our own changes in tradition and spirituality. I set out on this piece with a clear disclaimer of my own ignorance. This choice has only been given relatively limited energy so far. The journey of finding which camp I will prefer to sit at by the fire continues on.

It seems the argument for religion, beyond that of blind belief, relates to history. The fact that it has history. Understandably, we don’t really know if it is true, we don’t really know if there is something beyond. As goes the usual rebuttal of science, there is no proof, no evidence and it only represents the all too human interpretation of it’s scribes. Whilst so, the fact that it has persisted so long, concurrently with the successful evolution of its followers or Creator (whichever your camp), is remarkable. This credibility of time shows it has proven itself aligned with not just survival but varying degrees of progress.

For me, blindly following anything without question causes a pang – not that it can actually be escaped, that is our nature. But where I see another advantage in religion is that it provides people a credible shortcut to a way of life. People don’t need to exert energy to set the trajectory and establish irreducible and comprehensive decision frameworks. Paramount here are altruistic boundary conditions premised on respect for others and their beliefs. A shortcut, in this increasingly time poor world, must be of benefit.

An inherent problem of any written tradition is of literal interpretation. This can be likened to a pursuit of purity. When the disciples of a religion (or sometimes constitution) decide that something in the world has gone awry and the only way to make amends is to return to the texts literal prescription, is only prescription for disaster. First off, literal is never literal and secondly the actual is (likely) lost. Literal interpretation of a text written thousands of years ago is no different than prescribing to those watching a movie, to rewind it to the start, when they get to the end credits – this behaviour is as relevant as the VHS cassette tapes it served. Literal interpretation of text in a bygone era only serves to cause devastation. The actual on the other hand sees the divine move to a more humanistic quality. The actual is relevant and relatable. It is only achieved through revision, sermon and feedback.

Where my interest now lies is understanding how religion has evolved with humanity. In Christianity’s case, for example, beyond the delays inscribing of scripture, there have been numerous additions, interpretations and redactions along its path. This could be part argued as its evolution with us. In a similar vain for how Judaism requires not literal interpretation of the written Torah but a Rabbi’s interpretation through the spoken word. This allows for blending and morphing of interpretation or complete new tangents. For any religion to be able to evolve is integral for a world where technology is galloping away from culture. As we give chase, blinkers on, which bars will be the collateral knocked from the hurdles we encounter?
Key questions to guide here: Have we identified and tossed enough skeletons from the closet? How subject to pure interpretation is it and at what impact?

Beyond this is understanding what would replace that which is thrown away. In finding credible replacements, how we could, and whether we need to, disconnect the essence of religion from a new value system – such as Sam Harris’ Moral Landscape. Mimetics and the Hegelian notion of the Weltgeist, world spirit, resonate here. I will digest more from Harris, Richard Dawkins, Dalai Lama XIV and other thinkers in this realm.

My current position rests, influenced by upbringing and my logic of others’ reasoning, that there is likely gold in the pan. It’s not so much in a religion but in the idea of religious tradition. History, current relevance and in-built virtue seem most important. Before falling either side of the fence, I want to spend more time exploring. What I believe is that any dogmatic or purist religious approach needs to hurriedly evolve. A compete discarding may be impossible both practically and biologically anyway.

What has age got to do with success?

What has age got to do with success?

The headlines are insistent, the average age of founders in the fastest-growing new start ups is about 45. Why? Leverage.

A riff on what what is at their disposal:

  • more nodes, whether connected or not (yet). Solving complex problems requires analogous thinking.
  • networks. They have more people that they know that they can call on.
  • credibility. They have and are seen to have done more. Age related skepticism does not enter into the picture.
  • models. The have ground more of the stone of life – they have been through it before. They have developed models from which to operate in the world, whether they know it or not.
  • perception of time. Age puts them more in touch with to hearing the ticking clock of life. Both energising and allows them to care less about what others think.
  • themselves. The above contributes to the journey of knowing them. As Socrates stated, “to know thyself is the beginning of wisdom”. And so the cycle continues.

Rather than deflating those, that have not yet reached this milestone, this is intended to be motivating. Get at it. Try different things. Delve deep where it resonates. Be curious about everything. Look for parallels. Remember the ticking clock.

Who are we?

Who are we?

“Ziggy Startdust, Thin White Duke or Tin Machine, which was the best?” As though there is a definitive answer. The highest selling, the most expressive, the most unexpected, the most lyrical, the [fill in desired attribute/s]? Regardless, why does it even matter? But that’s just it, it does matter for us but not as we know it.

Even more remarkable than being able to find the truth in this question is how we will answer it. Given the question, there would be a bucket of us who would blurt out our preference: those that will wait for others to take their choice before choosing the same, those that will wait for others to take their choice before choosing another, those that will state they like them all on their own merits, those who can’t decide, those who will state that they have no idea what the question even refers and so on. Regardless of which bucket we fit, the heart of the question appears deeply ironic.

Without being able to ask him, I believe the question would not have concerned David Bowie, who saw all of them as himself and part of his artistic journey. He was renown for both who he was, who he is but mostly who he will be. Those around him don’t percieve him as who he was last time they caught up but who he might be tomorrow.

Personalities like David Bowie who are able to reinvent themselves as the need arises should inspire us to do the same. The who that we are is what has got us here. Most importantly, it has built our connections and the networks that we have around us. Here is why we are so scared of moving outside of what our identity is. What we neglect to realise is here is only now and does not need to be what is next. Next need only be what we want to make of it when it becomes now and not be shackled to consistency with the past.

Socially, we are destined to act with and to seek out consistency. Consistency makes our worlds more predictable… and survivable. Anecdotally, my reservation to pursue an interest or acting differently because it is not ‘who I am’ can be grinding. The subtle shaming in the “I didn’t know you were that type” comments hammer in the pickets around how we see ourselves. A more encouraging and curious take in place of these comments is needed.

What here neglects to realise is that we have more to lose by not taking a plunge at reinvention now – time. There are sufficient constraints to keep us on the path without adding self-synthesised external perceptions as one. We have moved beyond the suitably static roles of hunter gatherers to the dynamically immediate and connected. The here and the now. In all that we will see progress in technology, science and culture over our lives why not give our self the same opportunity. “The precise person you are now is fleeting, just like all the other people you’ve been” David Epstein writes in his book Range, “[it] feels like the most unexpected result, but it’s also the most well documented”.

Taking full artistic liberty of the cliche ‘change is the only constant’ – evolution is the only constant. Gripping too tightly onto here when next becomes now, due to some silly pickets, goes against the will of time.

After all, here is only projected and pickets can be plucked out.

What we owe to the universe

What we owe to the universe

One of my favourite desserts growing up was Airplane Jelly. They nailed their marketing, at least for the kids. The first time I saw the Airplane Jelly Tiger Moth undertaking some aeronautical mastery I was hooked. I was very quick to conclude that the jelly being advertised was the reason the plane could do what it did. At least my all too human causation desire working well! So, I had to try it.

The enjoyment of the jelly was not just limited to eating a bowl following dinner but everything needed to get it to the table. Clicking the perforations of the Yellow Tiger Moth box, learning to boil and pour the kettle, knowing when the crystals had fully dissolved, sampling liquified jelly from the mixing fork, not lettting the glad-wrap double over before it had covered the bowl and pulling something out of the fridge which had transformed into something else were all part of the satisfaction. Eating the jelly was only a small part of having it.

I never became the master of the skies that I thought the ad promised but being part of the transformation from crunchy, pale pink crystals in a box to a deep red, gellatinous dessert taught me a lot about how things change. The neurologist, Professor Steven Novella describes everyone having “3 pounds of a grey jelly sitting inside our skull”. This jelly is made up of about 100 million neurons and a tonne of other supporting cells to modulate them. It comes together as an organ that can think, that can feel, that forms consciousness and the whole world around us. It is the most complicated organ in our bodies and thing in our known universe. And we all have it.

We owe it to ourselves to do what we can to guide the transformation of our own bit of jelly. Shifting it from a small collection of unordered nodes to a deep web of interwoven strands is to have it.

And if not for ourselves then for the universe.

Learning to write

Learning to write

Not overly inspired to write but forcing the action to build the habit. Not just dedicating a block of time in the day but for imprinting the muscle memory. Lack of inspiration seemed to stem from rigidity of the agenda. Setting out to pursue a set path of what is next seemed to misalign with what the creative side wanted to pursue now. You then realise that if you had to talk about it with someone, there would not be a problem. You may have a few double backs, some silences, others may even encourage the train of thought along, but you will get out what you have to say.

There is no reason writing should be any different but we pull back, we compromise, we overthink, we plan to implement rather than act to develop. I am a big fan of Seth Godin who emphasises we should  “Write like you talk, everyday“. So herein lies my third core driver for #30daysofwriting and that is develop an authentic voice, to encourage the creative machine, to develop the muscle and stop hiding behind the talk. In summary, it is to write better.

Supplementry to this, I am a visual person and will also use this opportunity to create visual models to help explain ideas. See Exhibit A.

Exhibit A: Learning Cycle

I will sign this next day off with the spoken word of Seth Godin, so well put that it could easily be mistaken for writing that has gone through multiple drafts:

“Improving your work is a hundred times easier than getting a guarantee that your work will be fine. So, do bad work. Do it often, do it generously, and then work to improve it. That’s how you learned how to walk. It’s how you learned how to talk. It’s how you learn how to do everything that matters to you. But now suddenly you’re waiting for a guarantee. It doesn’t work that way. It’s so easy now to blog every day. So easy now to put up a video. So easy now to put your work into the world. And if you’re willing to do it poorly, then you could probably learn how to do it better.”

Entering the jungle

Entering the jungle

Taking a step further into the jungle of reason is better than looking at it from within the comfort of the Land Cruiser. Taking logic into the public domain, forces the hand to open the door of the door of the vehicle and step out. By this, I mean pushing one or more iterations along our own logic framework. What we are writing may not be any more right or wrong but at least it can go beyond the fleeting stage. Who knows, maybe we will be lucky enough to encounter a tiger along the way.

In my first post I mentioned ‘skin’ as one of the reasons I started writing this blog. Skin, here refers to two things. It is the outer shell and also an extremely durable organ which is quick to let us know when we encounter something dangerous. Breaking down the barriers of our outer shell sounds counterintuitive but gives opportunity for us to show some scar tissue from the past. The process of healing some of these battle wounds is tough and comes back to the vulnerability journey that I am trying to lean into. There is a healing that comes from finding the battle scars of our past and exposing them. Sure, there are those best kept to our closest people but there are many more that are not. Reinvigorating the dead skin makes us more receptive to be more connected to those around us.

My second motion for skin, if we are lucky enough to spread beyond our ‘safe circles’, are the innveitable claw swipes. Different from scar tissue, a thicker skin makes us more able to tackle the adversisty around us. We can glide past the brush which would previously have caused us to bleed. Without sounding like a broken record, ‘Skin in the Game‘ means “how much of your neck you are putting on the line”.

It is a lot easier to keep what we ‘know’ to be true to ourselves. Only just harder is to throw them against the wall in fleeting conversations. Writing them for the public to see takes them from fleeting to forming. Our greatest ideas may be completely wrong when we take them out of the cone of silence of our own heads – all for the better.

Putting our ideas out into the world makes us accountable to them. We need to have the courage to be honest about them with ourselves and then with others.

Be curious, be thoughtful, be courageous and write.