Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards. – Søren Kierkegaard
One of my favourite books is Robert Pirsig’s Zen and the art of motorcycle maintenance.
His other book Lila has never grabbed me in the same way but there is a section in there that I keep going back to again and again.
Pirsig describes the way in which he collects and organises research – using small sheets of paper to record notes and thoughts.
These notes build up over time – he has around eleven thousand of these – and he observes that some interesting things happen.
This piece by piece collection starts to grow, become larger.
Over time, as Pirsig interacts with it, he moves notes around, groups related things and collections start to emerge.
Connections between notes and connections between collections start to build.
The difference between this collection of notes and a diary or journal is the ability for random access – to get to a particular note without having to go through all the other ones first.
This way of collecting information is also called a Zettelkasten or a commonplace book.
The point is that there are many days when what you do is collect information.
But you can’t keep it all in your head – it has to go somewhere else or after a while you’ll be too full to take anything else in.
And some days nothing comes in – which is when you might look at organising the notes you have – seeing if they build up to anything bigger.
This is, I suppose, an act of reflection.
These days the Internet is really a global commonplace book – one that we could read if we wanted to.
And I, like most people, now turn to it first when I have a question.
But it’s possible that we ask the same things in the same way and don’t really end up asking the right things.
For example, if you were an alien just landed on Earth what would your impressions be?
You’d see people rushing about in planes and cars.
You’d see several ways in which societies organise themselves – from schools to armies.
And you’d see humanity go through a range of emotions every day as they coped with whatever happened.
The alien might wonder why we rush about so much, why we spend so much time being unhappy – and really we’d be hard pressed to answer why too – other than it’s always been this way.
But it’s really too hard to predict the future.
All we can do is make decisions about right here and now – decisions that will need to be judged by our future selves.
Brian Tracy has a line that goes something like “What would you do now, knowing what you know.”
Maybe it’s worth trying every once in a while to imagine what you would do if you didn’t know what you now know.
If you had just arrived at Earth from a very long way away would you take an office job and race around the world trying to make people like you and buy from you?
Or would you try and leave the world in a better place for those that come after you?
Or something else?
What would you do?