Zettelkasten Forum


Zettelkasten as a Superset of the Feynman Technique

Hello!

I was reading through Effective Notetaking by Dr. Fiona McPherson today and had one of those moments where a note fell out that immediately connected to some other notes from other places, which ultimately snowballed into me writing a blog post based on the idea.

I've not shared much in this community before because I felt like I haven't had too much to say - but I've done plenty of reading along with everyone. As this post was both related to things I've been thinking about recently and directly related to the subject of the forum, I thought I might share it - and see if I can get any feedback!

Cheers

Comments

  • Thanks for the post, @sjm ! It is well written.

    I agree with most of what you say, but I will chime in on one particular refrain in your post. I have recently come to realize that there was a big stumbling block for me that held back my progress. I, too, used to write the notes for myself.

    It seems obvious that the note is for ourselves, if only in the limited sense that you will never show your Zettelkasten to someone else, and in the sense that the notes reflect a particular mix of interests that is very you. However, there is another sense in which your notes should be written for others. Let me explain.

    Imagine that you are a specialist in, say, Quantum Mechanics, and you give two talks on consecutive days on some amazing new discovery you just made: one to some class in high school and the other to other QM experts at a conference. You will choose very different words. When talking to experts, you will completely skip mentioning things that you and your listeners both know really well.

    Let's take that analogy further by adding a third audience: just you yourself, or perhaps your future self. For things you are deeply familiar with, what you write might be very abbreviated: just as you skipped a lot in the experts talk because of shared knowledge, you will skip a lot because of your shared knowledge with yourself, and this sharing is here 100%.

    In my own notes, I often ended up with very brief notes on topics I knew well. The words of the note were all in my head. This dilutes the effect, reduces what you term "Externalized Understanding".

    Luhmann wrote notes that were in a good enough form to be copied into a paper he was writing. He had finished thinking enough and writing enough for an external audience. Even Feynman talks about only understanding something when he can give an introductory lecture on the topic: again for an audience that is not just him. He used to say "Don't fool yourself, and you are the easiest person in the world to fool". Me, I was fooling myself with those oh-so-barebones notes. I started afresh (copied old notes to a different folder), and now write in full sentences that should be intelligible to others.

    Sorry for the long post, but I do feel my note taking has improved much through this change, and wanted to share.

    Best,
    Abhijit

  • I am creating my ZK partly for my own benefit and partly for the benefit of my kids and grandkids (I will be 71 this year, so there is a fair number of both now). So my zettels tend to be a bit "chatty" or at least, conversational. @sfast commented on that and it is purposeful. I enjoy writing my zettels in that manner - with an audience in mind. And since some of the audience is quite young, it should be readable by pretty much anyone.

  • Sam, your post here and there are a tonic for soothing zettelkasting aches and pains.

    Self Explanations

    Reframing ideas and creating self-explanations, explaining the ideas to your future self is a vital part of zettelkasting.

    I love this "Your Zettelkasten notes are little atomic Feynman Technique experiences."

    Fiona McPherson, in Effective Notetaking, calls self-explanations - "the extension or clarification of main ideas through explanations, examples, or information about attributes."

    Developing Context

    Build knowledge by linking ideas that you are onboarding to your ZK and what you already know by examining the context of the knowledge in your ZK.

    Linking to one of your existing notes is defining a context for your new note - the new knowledge - to exist in. Each link should include a semantic trigger to describe the purpose of the link, and in this way the knowledge is connected both in your notes and in your head with things you already know.

    All this means work. Hard work sometimes triggers a meteor storm in the mind, and sometimes the work is more like a lukewarm shower, okay, but nothing too exciting. The work is the same, but our feeling towards it vary.

    But as Andy Matuschak says, "If you want to really understand an idea, you have to grapple with it." A Greco-Roman wrestling match between you and your ZK.

    Sam, your blog post has me thinking about just how personal a zettelkasten is? There is a notion in the coding universe that advocates "working with the garage door up." A public ZK would be less personal, and I wonder what value both the writer and reader gain.

    Will Simpson
    “Read Poetry, Listen to Good Music, and Get Exercise”
    kestrelcreek.com

  • @sjm

    I enjoyed your post. One of its best attributes was its "pithiness" (if that is even a word). It was like 3 or 4 zettels long, which makes reading and comprehending fairly straight forward. (I guess I'm too much like my grandkids, who want everything in short communication bites). I'd guess that your post benefited from your practice of writing zettels.

    I have a technique that I use when reading short to medium length articles. I find people tend to develop concepts in a 3 or 4-step fashion, such as:

    a. Introducing a concept.
    b. Expanding on or giving examples of or further developing the concept.
    c. Drawing a conclusion.

    To write an article, the author might layer several such cycles:

    1. xx
      a.
      b.
      c.
    2. xx
      a.
      b.
      c.
      d.
    3. xx
      a.
      b.
      c.

    The 1,2,3 sequence is usually a logical progression and sometimes it might also follow the a,b,c pattern shown above. Here the sub-cycles are 1 level deep. Sometimes you get sub-cycles two levels deep, (not sure I've seen more than that, but there are a few people posting on this forum who are certainly capable of doing that).

    I don't know if any of the above makes sense, but I didn't make it up, I just observed it. This came about years ago, when I was highlighting ideas that I liked in handwritten notes and then in pdf files. At some point, I decided I'd use different colours to highlight different concepts, then I realized I could use a sequence of colours (in my case, yellow, green, orange, sometimes cyan, and on the very odd occasion red) to show a progression of ideas (the red is employed when the cycle ends with a "super-expression" of the original concept). Using the colour sequence made the patterns really clear.

    So what? Nothing, in particular. The form of your post just reminded me of the above. It must be an expression of how people naturally write articles, or maybe it simply reflects how I like to break them down into bite-size, consumable sections, to improve my understanding. However, this approach is a good one to use when analyzing and then condensing an article, with the intent of producing one or a few zettels.

    Dare I ask, but did you start with a few zettels and then expand on them to write your post? The post seems to reflect that kind of origin.

  • @amahabal

    Thanks for the post, @sjm ! It is well written.

    Thank you! That's appreciated - I've been working on my technical writing at work,
    and then trying to apply it out of that work context. I think it's starting to have an effect on both my zettelkasten writing and my public writing - which is exciting!

    It seems obvious that the note is for ourselves, if only in the limited sense that you will never show your Zettelkasten to someone else, and in the sense that the notes reflect a particular mix of interests that is very you. However, there is another sense in which your notes should be written for others.

    I totally agree that this can go "too far" - your example of ultimately losing the property of "Externalised Understanding" is a scary one - and one that I can see happening.

    I can see a value in writing in a voice which would be appropriate for someone else, without the intent of ever showing it to anyone else.

    I sometimes think in terms of 'note smells', which is derived from the idea of the code smell. I'm a software developer, so this leap made sense to me.

    If I notice that I'm skipping explanations entirely, I definitely see that as a smell. Equally, if there's lots of references to a concept but no notes or writing about that concept, I see that as a smell too. I think this is one way which I combat the tendency for too much brevity.

    The trick of ensuring you can copy notes into new contexts that you mention is also a good one - I try to make it so that I can read a note and understand it by itself, even if it requires some slight repetition of things which are explained more fully in links. This always feels like a delicate balance that I've sometimes gotten wrong one way or another, but it's never been too much of a problem I'm glad to say.


    @Will said:

    Sam, your blog post has me thinking about just how personal a zettelkasten is? There is a notion in the coding universe that advocates "working with the garage door up." A public ZK would be less personal, and I wonder what value both the writer and reader gain.

    I've seen others share their zettelkasten online and automatically, and I'm kind of fascinated by the concept. I've experimented with it myself a few times, but it's never become a core part of my practice. I've both tried marking parts of my zettelkasten as private and sharing everything else, and having a separate 'garden' where I placed things purposefully.

    I'm not certain - it's a little hazy, but I think that I've found that for me at least putting things public needs more work and consideration. Not only are there personal things in my zettelkasten which I wouldn't like to share, but also I feel I need to write differently when it's going public. This may be a glitch in my thinking, but I've not been able to get over it!


    @GeoEng51 said:

    I enjoyed your post. One of its best attributes was its "pithiness" (if that is even a word). It was like 3 or 4 zettels long, which makes reading and comprehending fairly straight forward. (I guess I'm too much like my grandkids, who want everything in short communication bites). I'd guess that your post benefited from your practice of writing zettels.

    I think I have found benefit in writing zettels. As I mentioned above, I've also been
    doing more technical writing at work which tends to benefit from keeping it short and plain. I think I've found a good feedback loop in both that work and the zettelkasten which exercises keeping things pithy.

    The form of your post just reminded me of the above. It must be an expression of how people naturally write articles, or maybe it simply reflects how I like to break them down into bite-size, consumable sections, to improve my understanding. However, this approach is a good one to use when analyzing and then condensing an article, with the intent of producing one or a few zettels.

    Dare I ask, but did you start with a few zettels and then expand on them to write your post? The post seems to reflect that kind of origin.

    I find that I start without the progression you defined, writing in more disorganised chunks. For me the writing process is recognising this after the ideas are out and then 'sifting' the writing until the ideas align.

    I did start with a few zettels in a structure note, and formed a loop of writing a paragraph or so based on a zettel, sometimes writing without a related zettel when an idea came, then creating a zettel and linking it - and sometimes finding a new zettel to add to the writing. This was a nice short one - I'm still very much learning how to write with the zettelkasten and not just think with it, so it's been a good experience over-all.

  • Bavor, Sir. You are on the path of finding the unity of knowledge (work). :)

    I agree with the intimate connection between those two views on learning.

    I am a Zettler

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