Zettelkasten Forum


Why I Am a Bad Correspondent

edited March 24 in Writing

For all of us aspiring writers and Zettelkasten creators, I came across this sobering article on Neal Stephenson's web site:

https://www.nealstephenson.com/why-i-am-a-bad-correspondent.html

I also wondered if it had any application to the proportion of time I spend on this forum compared to writing zettels :wink:

Comments

  • My take:

    • Dilution of attention is a very real and often unacknowledged problem
    • Cal Newport has written extensively about this exact problem (Deep Work, etc)
    • Neal should focus on what brings him joy and provides the most value to the most people
    • "reading is a conversation with the author" is still true, but shouldn't be taken as a literal metaphor – its more like a conversation with one's own rubber duck about the author's ideas

    Interesting observation: Piotr Wozniak (spaced repetition neuroscientist) has spent decades basing his entire life around the process of incremental reading and writing, to the extent that all emails are processed incrementally. During his daily reading sessions he will flip through the various articles and material he has queued up, and interleaved in that are the emails and whatnot that he receives. He will read a few sentences or a paragraph, perhaps make a note, perhaps respond to that one part, and then set a priority for how important he thinks that item (the email) is. Based on that priority it will be shown to him again in a few days, weeks, or months. At that time he will read the next section, perhaps make a note on it, perhaps respond to the person again, and repeat until it is completely processed.

    Because of this a correspondent can send an email, not hear anything for weeks or months, then sporadically receive replies from him in small chunks spread out again over week or months or more.

    But it works for him and he has done a significant amount of research as a result.

    I also wondered if it had any application to the proportion of time I spend on this forum compared to writing zettels :wink:

    I am also guilty of this... :grimace:

  • Although it is not directly related to the topic of correspondence,
    I think the underlying idea of this blog post resonates with my dilemma
    in making choice on how to distribute my attention. I created a
    post in this forum. I am sorry for not continuous sharing the
    thoughts after inputs from you because I am still learning,
    experimenting, and documenting this journey.

    The more effort one puts into one single thing, the higher quality of the
    final product will be. This is something that I know, but I
    suspect that I had deeper thoughts about the ultimate goal of one's
    life.

    If someone does not produce anything to the world other than
    himself, then he will be stressed to survive. The problem is that
    he can produce something that is able to support his very basic
    demanding of survival. If the finished work improves the
    skill-sets and it is a public effort, it will ease some of the
    survival stress out of his mind.

    However, if he has the ultimate goal of exploring new ideas
    across vast different domains other than making visible products,
    this will lead his attentions to scatter other than the narrowed
    domain.

    If someone needs visible products with a high level of quality, the
    strategy with laser-focus is better than exploring and
    documenting new ideas across different domains.

    If someone's meaning of life, i.e. what he values most, is not
    rely on making visible products with a high level of quality, I
    think the laser-focus strategy is not the best way to achieve that.

  • Thanks for sharing. Super intriguing.

  • Perhaps the following quotation from Christina Luo might be of use in the above conversation:

    "Productivity is about managing emotions as much as projects. Yet we often focus on productivity as a tool set more than a mindset. Our proximity to an abundance of information makes us think we’re making progress when we’re merely deciding how to react to stimuli. The means of note-taking, task-making, and time-tracking become ends in themselves as we conflate an app’s efficiency and memory with our own. There’s something paranoid about the way we configure and connect our tools to each other, and eventually back to ourselves."

  • edited March 25

    @jamesrregan, this is a stimulating quote. Where is it from?

    Christina Luo said:
    "Productivity is about managing emotions as much as projects. Yet we often focus on productivity as a toolset more than a mindset. Our proximity to an abundance of information makes us think we’re making progress when we’re merely deciding how to react to stimuli. The means of note-taking, task-making, and time-tracking become ends in themselves as we conflate an app’s efficiency and memory with our own. There’s something paranoid about the way we configure and connect our tools to each other, and eventually back to ourselves."

    This sounds like a description of the collector’s fallacy but not for the usual web clipping, articles, books, podcasts, etc. Luo points directly at "note-taking, task-making, and time-tracking" as equivalent to just collecting - instead of connecting and interacting, "eventually back to ourselves."

    You must engage with your ideas in a meaningful way. Your ongoing interaction is the key to success. It’s not the note the cries out for interaction but the ideas the note presents.

    The definition of progress is one mistake after another. You have to make mistakes to learn and progress. Advice to younger self - strive for mistakes, hunt them down, relish in them, court them. Listen to what they tell you. There is no progressive path that doesn't course the minefield of mistakes.

    It’s a messy business.

    Will Simpson
    I'm a zettelnant.
    Research areas: Attention Horizon, Productive Procrastination, Dzogchen, Non-fiction Creative Writing
    kestrelcreek.com

  • Christina Luo's quote comes from an article called Paranoid Productivity that was published last week by Praxis. A significant part of the article is behind a firewall, but there is enough introductory material on the landing page to point you to the ideas and to the scholarship of Eve Sedgewick)

    https://every.to/praxis/paranoid-productivity-c14ef47b-af8a-4bdc-b475-fd4da8dc6cc2

    Sedgewick's article was eventually published as a chapter in a 2003 book called Touching Feeling. In the book, the chapter she wrote is called "Paranoid Reading and Reparative Reading, or You're So Paranoid You Probably Think This Essay is About You."

    Will, your comment regarding a "messy business" is so true. Although in somewhat of a different context, it's a comment I first read in the work of Andrew Abbott from the University of Chicago. His book, and one of my favorites, Digital Paper: A manual for research and writing with library and Internet materials, is where I first encountered the idea.

  • Thanks, @jamesrregan. My library has Segewick's book on the shelf next to one of my favorite author's David Sedaris. I'm headed to town tomorrow to check it out.

    Will Simpson
    I'm a zettelnant.
    Research areas: Attention Horizon, Productive Procrastination, Dzogchen, Non-fiction Creative Writing
    kestrelcreek.com

  • edited March 26

    There was a pithy comment I saw somewhere recently, perhaps on reddit, that was similar to this that simply said:

    To be productive you must choose to live a productive life

    I think there's two levels at which that can be read:

    1. Shallow: to be productive you must choose to live a life in which you use tools and methods to produce outputs
    2. Deep: to be productive you must choose to live a life in which you commit to building things worth producing

    The second one would provide more engagement which could lead to more disciplined approaches to focused output, aka "productivity."

    The second reading also calls to mind the strategies of Cal Newport and others on focusing on major life works (whatever those may be, including raising a family or career aspirations or anything else) and allowing those to drive us to focus more on ensuring our visions become reality.

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