Zettelkasten as a coping mechanism (or: why I abdicate the zettelkasten method)
The zettelkasten method is supposed to help you structure knowledge in a meaningful way. 'Meaningful' in this context means that the insights you get from your notes are enmeshed in a network of other thoughts (notes). You create a somewhat natural system of thoughts analogous to how your brain works when it connects neurons (notes) with synapses (links).
Some on this site claim that the zettelkasten would be antifragile. This, in itself, is true in so far as you look at the zettelkasten as a standalone system.
However, having a world-view that is quite related to that of Nassim Taleb (the guy who wrote Antifragile), I came to realize over the past weeks that the zettelkasten actually does not make you, personally, more antifragile. If at all, it will keep you in a fragile state, and in the worst case it might just make you more prone to falling for the traps of modern fragilista life.
A lot of people seem to be drawn to the zettelkasten method because they want to handle the flood of information, as it were. While individual preferences and adaptions may exist, there generally seem to be two groups of people who use the zettelkasten (one can be in both groups or in either one of them).
One group are people in academia that need to write texts for professional purposes (in other words, those who unironically call themselves knowledge workers).
The other group are those that use the benefits of the zettelkasten to further develop their knowledge into their hobby horses, be it history (as was the case with me), literature or something else. At one point, we all came to the conclusion that even if you take notes, there is little order in them and there is no way you can remember everything forever. A zettelkasten will give you a sense of order, a 'second brain' that you can communicate with.
However, this order is clearly just a pseudo-order and it only exists within the realm of whatever tool you are using for your zettelkasten management. The pseudo-order might even transfer into a coherent text, like an article that you will write based on your zettelkasten notes.
The zettelkasten does not help you in becoming a more self-reliant person though. What seemed particularly promising to me was the dialogue-style interaction I would have with my zettelkasten, and don't get me wrong, I often did have exactly that dialogue. It was better than what I had before (which was e.g. spaced repetition). But it did not help me in becoming less dependent on the overwhelming monolith that we call the "information age" or whatever fancy word you prefer for what we all struggle with.
I really do believe that the overwhelming amount of books, videos, websites (again: information) does need to be reduced somehow, and I do agree that if you for some reason see yourself forced to deal with all that (as a 'knowledge worker'), the zettelkasten is probably the best method there is.
But in the end, for me it comes down to this: I want to live a life that is truly antifragile, in the sense that I am less dependent on 'the system', for lack of a better word. For me this has meant no internet at home for the past 1.5 years and little exposure to the news cycle, less dependence on city infrastructure and large-scale technology overall. Modernity causes fragilistas, as Taleb calls them, to rule the world. Whoever has recognized this and wants to live a life based on not becoming a fragilista may find himself in a Catch 22 using the zettelkasten, having to spend potentially hours every day micro-managing his thoughts in interaction with a machine. After the initial excitement was over, it just made me feel like a wanna-be craftsman telling myself that I am actually doing something creative or meaningful like carving a statue or building a house, while in reality I was just using a coping mechanism for the problems of modern life.
In a sane world, you would only be reading books that are likely to be meaningful to you. The amount of books whose content you can somewhat coherently memorize over a longer period of time would be relatively high, maybe between 50-100 books depending on your age and brains. You might also take some notes or write a short summary about its most important ideas, just to be on the safe side if you quickly want to recap its contents after a while.
In general though, your brain itself would be a perfectly good filter for what wisdom gained by a book is worth preserving. If you act upon the insights gained from the book, that would be a natural case of antifragility in action, too, because antifragility is based on doing instead of thinking.
However, many potential zettelkasten users are probably trapped in exactly the opposite kind of lifestyle, working in the generally toxic environment of academia or other 'intellectual' or 'scientific' professions that require you to be deeply involved with the ever mind-numbing forces of modernity. You have to come up with deeply elaborate schemes of training your mind in order to make it in an ever more complex system that bit by bit shapes you psychologically into becoming a cog in a wheel, albeit a highly qualified one. This deprives you of your autonomy, both psychologically and physically, even if you can minimize the physical effects through exercise (which again is just a cope mechanism).
The actual solution to dealing with modern life/information overload/knowledge work/whatever you want to call it, is not to structure your information intake into specific parts, or to take smart notes. Nor is it to use a zettelkasten. The actual solution is to take in less information. Just don't read books. Don't consume news or article or anything. For a while. Don't be in places where you are surrounded by screens and billboards.
Finally, after you have been able to detox your brain from all the surrounding information noise (which might take a while), pick up some book and just read it.
With a clear mind that is not scattered by distractions or notions about having to somehow process what you are reading, you are going to get so much more out of it than with any kind of external knowledge management tool.
Just like you probably still remember many of the earliest children stories that were read to you by your parents when your mind was still fresh, you should aim for this freshness. Sure, our minds are not a blank slate at any point in time, but looking at the obvious decreasing attention spans and psychologic impacts of desensitization (both emotionally and cognitively) on people these days, your primary goal should not be to process your thoughts through some filter like the zettelkasten in order to get a presentable, sellable result. Your aim should be innate clarity of mind.
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