Preface: I originally published this post to my blog on June 8th 2022. I am posting it here in case some of the ideas are useful to other EAs. It has been lightly edited to fit the context of the EA Forum.


Epistemic Status: A personal reflection on my continued journey toward effective learning.

I enjoy the process of seeking out information and improving my knowledge. It is fun to "go down the rabbit hole" on any given topic, and I agree with Richard Feynman when he said that things become more interesting the more you learn about them. This is a consequence of having the trait of curiosity. I have met a few hundred people in my life, and while that gives me some sense as to how different people's perspectives are, I admit that I find it hard to imagine what it would be like to live without curiosity. Would it just be a matter of unquestioningly accepting how the universe is? For people without curiosity, did they experience wonder as kids, only to have it crushed out of them by the tragic events of their lives?

I don't know the answers to the above questions, and while my curiosity might lead me to want to investigate their answers, learning information is hard — and historically I haven't done much with the information I currently know.

I want to propose a simple, three-tiered framework for how my journey to better process new information has changed over time:

  • Tier 1. Seeking Information
  • Tier 2. Taking Smart Notes
  • Tier 3. Learning Through Writing

Let's discuss the first tier:
 

Tier 1. Seeking Information: Locating sources, passively reading them, and updating my worldview — holding everything in memory

This is the obvious strategy. I knew that if I wanted more information, I had to find it, and I reasoned that the more information I had, the better my overall picture of the world would be.

This sounds great.

But the world is very complicated. It is full of divergent opinions. People have cognitive biases, they misrepresent data (intentionally or otherwise), and their questionable motives often lead to intentionally misleading information being published. Critical thinking and reasoning skills are a must when navigating this polluted information landscape. There are various resources which aim to improve these skills: LessWrong is a great start, and Julia Galef's excellent book, The Scout Mindset, is another.

I only recently encountered these resources. Before that, I was driven by my interest (and later education) in Science, because it is unparalleled in its effectiveness at cutting through the darkness of uncertainty. Science produces results. Although bias can exist, time and peer review typically (but not always) snuffs it out. Overall, the idea of testing our ideas against Nature is a powerful one —  possibly Humanity’s most powerful. This makes information gained through good science very interesting to me. It is a ready-made treasure trove of ideas waiting for me to explore.

However, today I am not arguing for or against Science being valuable. Instead, I am interested in exploring how my method of learning effectively has changed.

At some point I realized that blindly following interesting threads of information to see where they lead is inefficient. There may be a more effective use of my limited time.

This leads us to...
 

Tier 2. Taking Smart Notes using a Knowledge Management Engine

Passively reading a text might be fun, but to recall information usefully, you have to take notes. However, like most people, I had to learn that I had been taking notes wrong my whole life. Luckily, there was a better way. 

My friends mentioned the book How To Take Smart Notes, and how it was pivotal to their lives. I found the book so compelling that I even gave a speech about it at one of my Toastmasters clubs. From there, I learned about Obsidian.md, which is a software tool for managing notes. Using this tool, I started my first "Personal Knowledge Engine", using the Zettelkasten Method (German for 'slip box').

Ali Abdaal's video does a great job of summarizing the key ideas of Taking Smart Notes. Here are a few key excerpts:

  1. Capture Ideas Immediately, because "brains are for having ideas, not storing them." - Ali Abdaal
  2. Connect concepts by relation, not by categories. Your brain is a neural network — a web — and we can mimic its structure in our notes.
  3. Instead of thinking in terms of "fields'' of study, think in terms of ideas. It’s better to make a note about a raw idea, and link to it inside of other notes.

Here is what my note collection looked like after several months:

Above: Obsidian's graph view does a great job of showing the relation between ideas. Grouping ideas in this way helps generate new insights by allowing you to follow the threads of thought that logically connect each idea. The coloured nodes are notes, and they are linked to each other like a Wiki.

Taking notes using this method has drastically improved my ability to recall information. For the first time, I am actually able to remember what I read for longer than a month, and use it to generate new insights. The system works well, and it creates a natural kind of spaced repetition. I rediscover useful concepts as I create new notes, which helps my information recall even when physically away from my references.

When I read books, I at least try and take useful notes. Over time, this mindfulness improved my ability to sift through text for meaning. Because books are filled with argumentation, analysis, and sourcing, they are great for exploring all angles of an issue. However, this means that it takes longer to extract their key ideas. By creating smart notes, extracting pure ideas is now my primary reason for reading; summarizing is slowly becoming a practiced skill.

We have explored seeking information and taking good notes, but there is a further tier to reach. If I want to improve my recall, information parsing, and the usefulness of the entire enterprise, I would have to eventually turn my notes into something public.

 

Tier 3: "Ideas unshared are worthless": Information has to be published in order to be useful to others.

Recently, I realized that although I was making notes, I wasn't publishing anything. Information that felt obvious to me might still be to useful to others, especially if I wanted people to understand my thoughts. Therefore, my attention finally shifted toward how I could create something useful from what I was discovering.

On June 8th, I discovered Holden Karnofsky's brilliant post Learning by Writing. It advocates investigating new ideas through briefly researching them, then writing a tentative worldview on the topic, then updating it as new information is learned. Instead of trying to search an entire topic before creating a work, and thus never writing anything, you write an initial hypothesis based on available information. This hypothesis is then scrutinized in an attempt to refute or modify it. As the author’s thought process is transparent, the reader benefits from seeing how ideas are updated incrementally. This is a more realistic picture of how knowledge is refined, and lets the author start writing right away.

This seems to solve the problem of endlessly seeking in a Tier 1 pattern, without having anything to show for it. It also focuses the search toward finding information to answer specific questions, allowing the notes generated in Tier 2 to be employed as part of the writing process. Writing specifically to answer key questions requires obtaining a holistic picture of a topic, focusing on arguments for and against something. It mandates staying focused and seeking only relevant information.

What strikes me is that the method could be useful right away. Part of the reason I haven't written many posts is because I have ideas sitting around as drafts, but I don't feel they're good enough yet to publish. On the other hand, done is better than perfect. It certainly didn't occur to me that I could publish what I knew about something so far, while publicly acknowledging that my views were likely to update with more information — and that doing this was okay! Rather than holding myself to some unrealistic standard of perfection, I'll learn more quickly by trying out Holden's method.

Let this post mark my desire to switch into Tier 3. This post itself is me "writing my stream of consciousness, however imperfect", rather than aiming for perfection. I'd like to write posts more often, and have it reflect the growth of my ideas and knowledge over time. I want to share what I learn, and there is no better time to start than now.

 

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4 comments, sorted by Click to highlight new comments since: Today at 2:46 PM

I'm a bit unsure of how/where to engage with the overall framework as a "framework," since I'm unclear a bit on its falsifiable claims about the world or disputable recommendations, but I think I would push back against the idea of trying to simply sponge up knowledge in most contexts: I think that is a very science-y mindset, which certainly isn't bad, but the vast majority of knowledge is extrinsically valuable. Having a mindset which treats much knowledge as intrinsically valuable might be helpful for motivational and other purposes, but it comes with drawbacks: you have to prioritize the knowledge you focus on, and doing that probably requires integrating your framework here into a broader, non-linear cycle of "collect information, identify options, weigh tradeoffs/goals, take action, collect information, ..."

So, perhaps I don't necessarily disagree with the framework--and I recognize that you might already understand what I'm about to say--but I think that trying to use/evaluate this framework outside of a broader decision-making/goal-pursuing process might not be highly effective. Still, as my own posts have suggested, I definitely don't oppose collecting, organizing, and sharing knowledge.

Hi Harrison!

Thank you for taking the time to comment! I agree with your thoughtful assessment: my 'framework' is certainly not rigorous, nor useful to others aside from helping me think about how my approach has progressed. As my post is more a personal reflection, I think 'framework' is too generous as a description.

I appreciate you sharing a counter perspective. I agree that if note linking PKM is used at all, the inline links need to be obviously relevant to the idea and structure of the note.

As a peer review system, it is useful that the forum optimizes for a higher standard of rigor than my post offers. I feel challenged me to write more carefully and thoroughly in the future.

Looking back at my comment, I probably came off much more pessimistic/critical than I intended to, especially since I wasn't trying to evaluate both the positives and negatives of your post (and since it was your first post); I simply wanted to inject a few lines of thought that most shifted my thinking on this topic a while ago. 

Moving forward, I wouldn't want you to be overly cautious/slow in writing on the forum; definitely don't take my thoughts as condemnation of your writing!

As pushback on using personal knowledge management systems like Obsidian, I found this article to be an interesting read: https://www.otherlife.co/pkm/ 

Despite being a long-time advocate of structured reality, research, and argument graphing for collaboration, I share a lot of sentiment with that article when it comes to personal "knowledge" management: you need to learn to prioritize certain things, etc. etc. Also, many things like Roam/Obsidian (IIRC) don't emphasize semantic links, as opposed to just "these things have a link," which I think helps to clutter things more than organize or codify knowledge.