Zettelkasten Forum


Lessons learned from processing Team of Rivals

Background

My research area is machine learning. My first zettel was 02/23/2020 and most of them focus on my research area or research in general. Throughout my life I have read many books, but I remember little about them. For instance, I say books like "The Double Helix" or "The Art of Learning" made a big impact on me, but outside of a few anecdotes, I remember nothing. More than that, I have no notes to go back and refer to. My plan this year was to change this and systematically process any book I read.

The first book happened to be "Team of Rivals". My first zettel was on 02/06/2021. At the time I had approximately 430 zettels.

The Process

I know little about Lincoln or the Civil War outside of what I remember from high school. Everything was new and everything seemed notable. As I read the book, I kept a notebook of fleeting notes. These were just page numbers with brief descriptions of what I found interesting. Later I went through the notebook and turned each fleeting note into a zettel.

I eventually became overwhelmed by the amount of information I was processing. Since this was just a hobby, something I did on top of my research, job, and family, the whole process took a protracted amount of time. Nearly six months passed between the time I read the first page and I processed the final note. From the time I entered the first note (02/06/2021), I added 252 notes to my Zettelkasten, 138 from this book.

Mistakes

No Plan

If reading is searching, I had no idea what I was searching for when I started. In hindsight I was interested in things like, examples of leadership, causes of the Civil War, history of racism, and great stories. If I had started with those things in mind, reading and processing would have been more productive.

Started Processing Too Early

Halfway through the book, I started processing fleeting notes. I think it was a mistake to start this early, especially given my lack of knowledge of the subject. I probably skipped over information that was related to later parts of the text. I likely missed relationships between information from the first half and the second half. Splitting my time between reading and processing meant I never had the whole text in mind before taking notes.

No Triage of Fleeting Notes

During processing, I went through my fleeting notes sequentially. For each note, I immediately started transforming it into a zettel. I never questioned whether it was worth translating. Towards the end I realized a fleeting note should just be treated as something potentially of interest. There is no obligation to keep it.

No Organization of Fleeting Notes

Since I processed the notes sequentially, I never took the step to look at them as a whole. I missed the opportunity to group notes and develop initial connections. It also made it difficult to synthesize information by relating several notes from different parts of the text into a new insight.

My Tags are a Mess

I tagged every single note with '#history'. Doubt that tag is going to be of much use. I chose not to tag notes specifically about Lincoln with a tag '#lincoln' because I thought I could just search for his name. Every single note contains a citation to the book with Lincoln in the title, so that doesn't work.

Future

I am nearly finished reading a biography of George Washington and ready to start processing the fleeting notes. I'm hoping that I have learned something from this first attempt and the process will be smoother and more productive.

Comments

  • @boxcariii

    That is a story well worth sharing - thank you for doing so. Lots of good learnings for you and I hope for others as well. I certainly appreciated reading what you shared.

  • @boxcariii said:
    Nearly six months passed between the time I read the first page and I processed the final note. From the time I entered the first note (02/06/2021), I added 252 notes to my Zettelkasten, 138 from this book.

    I've nothing but good things about "Team of Rivals." This is quite an accomplishment. This kind of depth and immersion in a book is hard to come by. Great post. Please keep us in the loop as you venture into the life of George Washington. I can recommend Paul McCartney: The Biography - by Philip Norman. It's more recent history but fascinating.

    Mistakes

    This is how we all learn the best lessons and the ones that are stickiest come from mistakes. Yet, most of the time, we hate mistakes and wish we didn't make them. Isn't it great that we don't always get what we wish for? Shouldn't we wish for more mistakes?

    No Plan

    If reading is searching, I had no idea what I was searching for when I started. In hindsight I was interested in things like, examples of leadership, causes of the Civil War, history of racism, and great stories. If I had started with those things in mind, reading and processing would have been more productive.

    Yeah, sometimes. But finding your way can be 84% of the fun!

    Started Processing Too Early

    Halfway through the book, I started processing fleeting notes. I think it was a mistake to start this early, especially given my lack of knowledge of the subject. I probably skipped over information that was related to later parts of the text. I likely missed relationships between information from the first half and the second half. Splitting my time between reading and processing meant I never had the whole text in mind before taking notes.

    Processing close to the reading can be either good timing for remembering the context and being more fully attuned to the book OR a huge interruption in 'flow.' Zettelkasting almost becomes a distraction.

    No Triage of Fleeting Notes

    During processing, I went through my fleeting notes sequentially. For each note, I immediately started transforming it into a zettel. I never questioned whether it was worth translating. Towards the end I realized a fleeting note should just be treated as something potentially of interest. There is no obligation to keep it.

    It took me a long time to realize this too. Notes aren't precious. Ideas are.

    No Organization of Fleeting Notes

    Since I processed the notes sequentially, I never took the step to look at them as a whole. I missed the opportunity to group notes and develop initial connections. It also made it difficult to synthesize information by relating several notes from different parts of the text into a new insight.

    You might look at the forum discussion Extracting ideas from texts, my epiphany. There are other strategies besides chronological note-taking.

    My Tags are a Mess

    I tagged every single note with '#history'. Doubt that tag is going to be of much use. I chose not to tag notes specifically about Lincoln with a tag '#lincoln' because I thought I could just search for his name. Every single note contains a citation to the book with Lincoln in the title, so that doesn't work.

    You're approaching 1000 notes, and I predict you'll depend less and less on tags and more and more on full-text search.

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

  • Forgot to mention: I'd recommend to read at least one very easy introduction for any topic that you try to understand. Many issues of knowledge work I encounter are just unnecessary information overload due to lack of basic and very accessable knowledge.

    I am a Zettler

  • edited June 11

    @boxcariii I start off each book by writing down the author's goal and my own goal in reading this book. You get the author's goal through the title, book description, table of contents, and introduction.

    Then I usually stick to just taking notes that are geared towards the main point the author is trying to communicate, which in this case is "What made Abraham Lincoln a political genius?". One example that I get just from reading the book's description is he had extraordinary ability to be empathetic. That is a concept you could abstract from this one scenario and apply to different contexts, e.g. current political leaders.

    I've seen it reported that the current American president is the same way (e.g. is a good listener and develops relations across the isle). Say he doesn't get his political agenda passed this year, then that would make a good comparison/case study. You find out that Lincoln had trait X, Y, Z and Biden only had X, Y. Then you can create a note about that and link it to the note you created earlier on the role of empathy in politics.

    I typically only stray from taking these types of notes if I come across a very compelling concept in a book, which does happen. Otherwise you are most likely better off learning about the causes of racism and history of the civil war from a book that is specifically geared towards those topics.

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