How To Work Through And Present What You Now Think


Wednesday, 6.02am

Sheffield, U.K.

The problems are solved, not by giving new information, but by arranging what we have known since long. – Ludwig Wittgenstein

In the last few posts ( 1, 2, 3 ) I’ve talked about ways of collecting information, from the stuff you just write every day to quotes and passages that you note down for later reference.

We’re awash in information, however, so at some point you need to figure out how you’re going to make sense of it all.

But, of course, before you do that you should work out why you might want to do that in the first place.

Are you an artist?

The only right answer to that question is yes, you are.

Whatever you do is an art – it’s something that you pay attention to and work at and refine and improve.

Some arts need physical skills and dexterity and practice and some need you to empty your mind and just flow and others need you to use your mind and create.

And it’s the ones that need you to use your mind that we’re most interested in, the ones that involve thinking and concepts and arguments – the Art of Letters, for example.

Really.. just the art of writing.

If you want to explain something – to yourself or to someone else – you’re going to have to do some writing.

It’s unavoidable, it’s the only way to discover what you think – other than talking it through, of course.

But writing is permanent – you can look back on what you think and that frees you up to think around those thoughts and build on them some more.

Reading and taking notes

One name you will come across sooner or later when you look into this space is Niklas Luhmann, and the place to begin is with two translated essays where Luhmann talks about his method called the zettelkasten, or slip box.

First, Luhmann says, you need to read and take notes, “not excerpts, but condensed reformulations of what has been read.”

The next, and longer essay, is Communicating with slip boxes, which describes his particular setup for doing this work.

How Luhmann’s zettelkasten works

You start by taking notes on slips of paper, half a letter size, or A6.

Luhmann tore full size sheets in half for his system, and used normal paper rather than index cards to keep bulk down.

You then take notes on each slip of paper.

Each note is given an id based on its position rather than content or topic.

Luhmann’s system of numbering is interesting – you simply number notes in order 1,2,3 and so on.

If you later write a note that you think should be next to 1, you give it the code 1a, switching from numbers to letters and go 1b, 1c and so on.

If you later write a note that is related to 1b then you can insert it between 1b and 1c giving it a number of 1c1.

This way, you can simply branch and insert and extend your notes indefinitely.

And then you put your notes in your slip box.

This raises a couple of points for me.

One is that the original content is still important, where does this live?

One place could be in your commonplace book, where you copy out the extract itself, or of course you could have a stack of papers somewhere.

Luhmann tells us to keep a separate slip box of for a bibliographic references, so on the notes you take you can note down the source and then either go to the original or look it up in your commonplace book.

Two more things, then.

Because the slips have a number which you can’t just remember you need an index, a list of keywords and entry points so that you can go into your slip box and get the relevant slips later.

And the other thing you can do is have the slips refer to other slips, so while you might use the index to enter the box, the references to other slips will let you move through your boxes finding related information.

These elements – the notes themselves, a way to refer to each note, an index or register, relationships or links and a bibliography of original sources – are what you need to get started with your zettelkasten, your partner in research.

Thinking in systems

Creating a zettelkasten requires effort, and anything that needs effort will wear us out, so we have to make things as easy for ourselves as possible.

One approach that people like is to go digital – all the tedious numbering and referencing and linking can be done much more easily in an app – and so if we use software the mechanics of maintaining such a system become easier.

But the purpose of the slip box is not to accumulate and manage information – it’s to help us think and we know that thinking is done better when we use a pencil, when we can write and draw and dream and there is still nothing better than paper for that kind of work.

The thing with a system like the zettelkasten is that it needs to be fit for purpose.

Do you have to number everything, for example?

Probably not, as long as you number the main branches so you can get into the right section of your slip box to start searching.

I think perhaps it makes sense to take notes first and leave space for numbering later when you’re trying to work out where to file the notes.

The important thing is not about following a system but making the system work for you.

Thinking in programs

A different way of looking at the collection of slips, or your collection of notes in general, is the program you follow when you use it.

So, your notes and slips may tell you how to work with the notes and slips, how you want to navigate through them.

For example, you could write a slip that tells you which slips to go to next, or has a comment on how two other slips relate to each other.

When you put together these simple elements you’ll find that there are interactions, unexpected links and discoveries.

Reading through your notes, you find a thought that links to a collection that sparks an idea which makes its way into a book.

Pirsig and Lila

Luhmann is famous for this method, but if you are interested in this it’s worth also reading a bit of Lila, by Robert Pirsig, where he describes his approach to research and writing.

He used slips of paper because they were better suited to organize information in small chunks, and provide random access.

Information came in so fast that the first thing was to simply collect it, and when things stopped coming in that was the time to process and organize.

And his approach to organizing is simple, you compare two slips and ask what comes first, and eventually the slips self organize into collections and topics and can be labeled as such.

You can see the overlap with Luhmann – who discarded the idea of labeling by topic in favor of a reference system and there are pros and cons to each.

The fixed reference means that things don’t move and you use your index to go where you need to go while the topics mean you can move things around but you could spent all your time reorganizing your notes rather than working on them.

There are two other things Pirsig talks about – one of which is the idea of a PROGRAM, slips that tell you what to do with the other slips.

The program is data, just like everything else.

The other bit that Pirsig mentions brings together this idea of extracts and notes, with the line, “He left the mountains near Bozeman with boxes full of slips and many notebooks full of quotations…”

Working out your flow

I think perhaps there is a progression, where you move from free form to a more fixed position as your ideas start to firm up.

Take notes, keep original material, keep logs of what you do.

Review what you have and summarize them on slips of paper, get out the core ideas, the thing you want to think about.

You might want to move slips around, put them in a loose order, reshuffle, rearrange, rethink, rewrite.

For example, my first book project, which I still have to edit, was structured entirely on slips of paper – which made it quite easy to write.

This project, the one I am working on right now, started the same way but the posts I’m writing have branched off somewhat, as I discover what I want to write about.

The fact is that pre-determined structures rarely work for all the complexity we experience in real life.

Rather than imposing references on every slip at the start, perhaps we should add them when we’re ready to file stuff and make things easy to do because the harder you make it to work with your system the sooner you will give up.

Making sense and making stuff

Now, what I’ve described in this post is a heavy duty system for making sense of things – it’s the kind of approach that will let you create books and papers throughout your life.

It helped me create 70,000 related words with a minimum of angst when I had a first pass at using it.

But you don’t need to wheel this out for every project you do, there are simpler and quicker tools for conversations and business meetings.

Let’s look at some of those next.


Karthik Suresh

What Happens To You Each Day And What Do You Do Next?


Wednesday, 6.08am

Sheffield, U.K.

The feeling of being interested can act as a kind of neurological signal, directing us to fruitful areas of inquiry. – B. F. Skinner

What does a therapist do?

If you watch Anger Management on Prime, as I do every once in a while, you’ll see Charlie Sheen in his group, and he’s always sat there with a large folder, taking notes.

But what’s he doing, what kind of notes would you take in that situation?

Okay, notes of therapy and consultation are going to be private – but there’s going to be something that interests you, some kind of trail that you’re going to follow as you try and understand what’s going on.

But this isn’t easy, so you have to also watch how you follow, what you do, how you think about the process that you’re following.

And you can’t do all this in your head, so it makes sense to write it down as you go along.

Write down everything because you can then look at it as a thing in itself, and you can ask yourself what you were doing and whether it worked or not and why you think it did or didn’t.

And then, of course, you write those bits down as well.

Let’s look at a real psychologist’s notes – and fortunately we have some from the influential psychologist B.F Skinner – in his book called Notebooks.

What’s usually most interesting in a collection of someone else’s notes is not the notes themselves but the introduction to the collection – the way in which they are presented and analyzed in the first place.

Some people are interested not just in the fact that there are notes, but in the form of the notes – are they in a bound book or loose notes?

From the introduction it looks like they are on pads, pages that can be pulled apart and rearranged in binders.

There were stacks and piles of notes and they are about “Everything”.

But then he wrote essays on 7x8inch spiral notebooks – hundreds of them.

And there are comments on what they are.

Note taking, we are told, is a technique you can use to “discover what you have to say.”

It’s an exercise, the writer’s mantra – “Nulla dies sine linea” – no day without a line.

The notes hold ideas, suggest analyses and experiments, contain facts and thoughts and plans.

In the world of Skinner, “Note writing is behavior”.

What does that mean?

The act of taking notes is not separate from the business of living – it’s a way of living in itself.

The only reason to take notes is if the behavior of taking notes has a positive effect on your life, if it reinforces and helps you to live better.

If you’re someone who wants to work better with others, to help others, to be useful to others – you have to do more than just present yourself, willing and eager.

We spend too much time in introspection, thinking about ourselves, what we can offer, what we can do.

It’s also easy to stay quiet, to let others talk about what they feel like inside, be someone who listens to their introspective thoughts.

But here’s the thing.

Both they and you are far more influenced by your environment and context than you perhaps realize.

The options you have, the choices open to you, the paths you can travel are to some extent already laid out in front of you, determined by what happened around you and what you have already done.

Skinner talked about this in terms of free will being an illusion, what you do depends on what you have done.

And, I suppose, what you can do, what you are able to do given the situation you are in.

And that seems to fit in with systems thinking and quality and all that kind of stuff – where you start to realize that what matters is not how enthusiastic or driven or motivated or pumped you are – but whether or not the system allows you to do something or not.

The fact is that whatever happens right now is the purpose of everything around you – POSIWID stands for the “purpose of a system is what it does.”

Everything around you works right now in the way it does perfectly because that’s the way the system is.

We have the political leaders we have and the kind of information we have and the kind of technology we have and the kind of relationships we have and the kind of interactions we have and the kind of workplaces we have because that’s the way the world is.

And if you try and change one thing then other things change as well and things move around and settle into whatever the new approach is and people do what they can in that situation as well.

None of which means you shouldn’t try to change things.

The point is that what you can change will depend on the environment you’re in, and so you need to look beyond yourself to your environment, ask questions about that environment and work out what your options are including strategies and tactics to change or replace that environment.

Revolution is always an option too.

The point about your notebook is that it’s a place to try all this out – a place outside your head that lets you hold the information and models and concepts you need to play with, the kind of thoughts you have to manipulate in order to make sense of things and decide what to do.

You need a place for “everything” that life throws at you, you need to be able to put things somewhere.

I find that things come so fast, however, that I fill books and books with notes – a reporter’s notebook, for example, will probably last me a month.

And that feels like I’m going to be swamped with stuff, but that’s okay too, it’s just life.

The point is what do you do next?

For example, I remember a particular incident, decades ago now.

It was in the time of dial up Internet, I recorded everything in my notebooks including the numbers of dial up Internet providers.

At that time you could call a particular number and your modem would connect and give you access to the Internet.

And then broadband came along and we forgot about things like that.

A few years passed, and then one day the broadband broke – we had no Internet – and that’s when you start to realize that information is like electricity, it’s hard to do anything without it these days.

So, I went back to my notebooks, dug out the page with the phone numbers and got us reconnected until things went back to normal.

So, your notebooks are a place to keep stuff you might need later.

The other way they might help is as a tool to help you live better – as mine of material that you can later work.

Some people own silver and gold mines but each of us can create our own mine, a mine full of knowledge and expertise and thoughts and feelings and research and data and facts.

Unlike a physical mine that someone can take from you and work for themselves, these repositories of knowledge, these mines of lines, that you’ve collected over time are personal to you, unique to you – it is the labyrinth of knowledge you have constructed to which only you have the map.

And so we need you to work with us – the people on that chair want to work with that particular therapist and over time, their connection becomes stronger.

And I think that’s what we really want from work and relationships as well, stronger connections over time, a better understanding of each other and where we are so that we can do more.

And that folder seems critical, the notebook seems essential to the process, a way of holding all that, holding what you do every day.

But, of course, once we have the notebooks – the mines – we have to work them.

We have done something today – but what are you going to do the next day?

Let’s look at that process of working what we have in the next post.


Karthik Suresh

How To Get Better At Living Each Day Every Day


Monday, 5.33am

Sheffield, U.K.

I am tomorrow, or some future day, what I establish today. I am today what I established yesterday or some previous day. – James Joyce

Many of us have probably taken the opportunity afforded by this pandemic to reconnect with paper.

Digital is convenient.

When you’re traveling from place to place, commuting to work, it’s easier to keep everything in text files, in the cloud, so you don’t have to carry anything with you.

But when you’re in one place you start to see what’s around you again.

For example, I have a pot of fountain pens in front of me – seven pens in the pot, one that I am using, and a few more in the drawer.

I remember buying those pens, testing the nibs, looking for the smooth, frictionless movement over paper, the controlled flow of ink.

Here’s the thing.

The medium you use channels and constrains what you can do.

How you do something is as important as what you do.

For example, why is so much writing so excruciatingly boring – why did people, and why do they still, think that writing big words and going on for ages is the way to do things.

It probably has to do with the limitations of type setting.

If you write with a pen in a notebook there are no limits to what you can do – you can go in any direction on the page, draw and add text, put circles around text, connect different ideas with lines and arrows and go all around the page if you want to.

Text, on the other hand, is typeset, word processed – and it’s just that much harder to do anything other than write the next word.

And so we are given words – words, words and more words.

Don’t get me wrong – words are important.

It turns out there is an Art of Letters – which I guess is basically writing…

Now, where I am trying to go is continue with an exploration of methods to follow and record information – and today I want to look at the daily logbook.

In my previous post I looked at commonplace books – a way to keep notes and quotes by topic.

Commmonplace books are about content, not about time – but time matters to us as well.

After all, do you think about what you do each day – and how many days you have to do those things?

Your days will pass. Inexorably.

In my case, a few years back I realized that if I worked every day for the next 40 years I would have around 14,600 days available to me, ignoring leap years.

So, on the 15th of July 2017 I started a countdown – every day a small script calculates the number of days left and appends it to the filenames of specific files that I use for daily work.

Today, for example, is day 13,366.

But, being a digital way of looking at things, that number is easy to ignore – it’s just something else that’s there.

So, I’m going to try keeping a logbook for a while.

I already do, really, digitally, but I’m going to move back to paper.

If you want to see what that might look like in ten years time, Austin Kleon’s stack is a good example.

To start your logbook, buy a day to a page diary and at the end of the day or first thing the next day note down brief points about what happened the previous day.

A logbook is different from a diary or a journal, really, because what’s important to record are the facts – what happened, where you went, who you met.

A diary or journal may record more – your feelings, reflections, angst.

Whether you go with the brief jottings of a log or the longer entries of a diary, the point is to prompt you – to remind you of what happened so that your brain can pull up the memories that matter.

In fact, you should probably separate the two, because a logbook can help point you to when you did something – a chronological index of your life.

For example, for the second half of this year I’ve been experimenting with drafting content for book projects in these posts.

It means that I can weave together the thinking about what I want to write and the actual content, hoping that it will work its way through in the editing process.

The writing is easy, the editing, so far, has been less so – I need to work out how to get into it.

When you’re working through an idea, what matters really is the idea before and the idea after – and if ideas split and go off in different directions.

Corralling all these ideas might seem difficult, if you’re going down a narrow path it should be straightforward, but it’s less so when you start to wander off the trail or when the landscape opens up.

Still, you have to take things one day at a time and what I’m realizing is that keeping a log of where you’ve been helps you look back quickly and see the whole picture without having to go through the details.

For example, I could go through my blog to remind myself about what I’ve written, but wouldn’t it be much faster to page through the logbook?

We think of diaries as ways to schedule our lives, but if you really want to do creative work what you have to do is leave great, gaping holes in your calendar.

Leave time to fill with the work that matters to you, not the tasks you have to do.

If you spend each day doing something that matters – then over a lifetime you will have tens of thousands of things that you’ve done.

Isn’t that worth logging?

But, of course, you have to have something to log in the first place.

And that comes down to the work you do every day – the stuff you capture in your daily notebook.

Let’s look at that next.


Karthik Suresh

How To Keep A Commonplace Book Using John Locke’s Method


Sunday, 6.20am

Sheffield, U.K.

The business of Education, in respect of knowledge, is not, as I think, to perfect a learner in all or any one of the sciences; but to give his mind that disposition and those habits that may enable him to attain any part of knowledge he shall stand in need of in the future course of his life. – John Locke

Ever since the printing press was invented people have worried about being overwhelmed by a deluge of information.

Making sense of it all, gaining understanding, organizing and recalling it when needed – these were the concerns of intellectuals in the centuries following the widespread availability of books.

A commonplace book is one solution to this problem.

How do you read?

If you’re anything like me, there is information everywhere you turn.

From the results of google searches to the increasing availability of digitized books and open access papers, there is a huge quantity of information out there and it’s increasing all the time.

One way of dealing with this is to give up – give the algorithms the power to select what you should read.

The algorithms are there to serve you, to give you what you want – but will they give you what you need or more of what they think you prefer?

Sometimes you have to follow a trail to discover what you need to learn, and that means going from source to source and having your own means of recording, organizing, accessing and recalling information.

But, with so many different sources, how do you do this?

John Locke and his commonplace book

John Locke was an English physician and philosopher who published a method in French of indexing and keeping commonplace books in 1685 that lasted for the next few centuries.

In 1706, this method was published in English as A new method of making common-place-books after his death.

The brief document sets out Locke’s method, which starts by telling you to first just read through a book.

If you find something interesting that you want to extract later, mark the page on a piece of paper, but don’t stop the flow of your reading.

You should only starting thinking about extracting and copying out passages on the second reading and, even then, copy only the things that are new, that add something to your knowledge rather than sentences that sound good but say little.

In other words, create a filter for material right at the beginning, try and record only what is really worth having to hand later or you risk simply being overwhelmed with material once again.

I think this is good advice but not easy to follow – but I suppose you could make it a habit.

The writer Ryan Holiday, as an alternative, talks about marginalia, underlining books and writing in the margins.

This is not something you can do with an online book or a website.

You could screenshot the page or copy the text into a file but again, the ease of recording increases the amount of stuff you have.

Whatever approach you take, the thing to recognize is that your first job is not to accumulate but to filter, to select what is worth keeping rather than keeping everything.

The next, and probably most unique thing, about Locke’s method is his index.

The index is created on two facing pages and you write out the letters of the alphabet subdivided by the vowels, A and then A,E,I,O,U and so on.

It’s easier to see this in the image from the book below.


A couple of interesting points, Locke suggests missing out K, Y and W because you can use C, I and U and Q only needs one line because it’s always followed by U.

Locke’s advice is to keep a bound commonplace book and so the next element is to number the pages.

Then, you start making notes.

Say you come across a passage you like and want to record, the first thing to do is select the topic this relates to, what Locke calls a “Head”.

The thing about this head is to choose something that will lead you to the right section of your book later.

For example, I find that whenever I read a Terry Pratchett book there are passages I’d like to copy out later.

I could select from his series and use the topic “Discworld” or stick with the author’s last name and go with “Pratchett”.

Choose a way of grouping subjects that works for you and stick with it.

Taking Pratchett as an example, then, as your first entry, choose the first set of blank facing pages and write the head “Pratchett” on the left, before the margin.

Then make your notes after the margin.

This way, you’ll always be able to easily skim the heads and see where passages start.

Here’s an example from Locke.


Then you record where the section is in the Index by using a combination of the first letter and first vowel.

In Pratchett’s case, this means you would add the page number to the line PA in the index.

Then, you use these two facing pages to record all the topics that start with the combination of first letter P and first vowel A, such as Painting, Palaces and Plans.

When you finish a set of facing pages then you continue that particular combination on the next free set, and record the page number of the next starting point on the previous set and vice versa.

This way, you can go through the book by topic following the page numbers or jump to a particular point by looking in the index.

If you’ve come to the end of a facing set and the immediate next two pages are blank, you just turn over and carry on, noting a “V” for the continuation.

So, what this method does is give you a way to read widely and copy your material into your book by topic, while also providing a fairly compact indexing system that balances ease of recording with the effort needed to skim and find the material you want by topic.

But, will it work for you?

E.M. Forster and his commonplace book

The English fiction writer. E.M. Forster started keeping a commonplace book in 1925, at the age of 46.

He started doing this when he inherited a 12 inch by 8 inch bound book with around 400 pages that had been bought in 1804 by John Jebb, a rector who was going to use it as a commonplace book.

Jebb only used 18 pages or so and bequeathed it on until eventually it came to Forster, who recorded that he was now continuing it on October 21st, 1925.

Now, what’s interesting is that Jebb had created the indexing method using Locke’s system as described above but Forster doesn’t seem to have been aware of how to use it.

On his first page, we are told, he made three general entries “Commonplace”, “Isolation”, “Resentment”.

That already breaks the indexing approach set out by Locke and Forster clearly already hated “this awful arrangement by topics”.

Forster instead just wrote although he started the first word of the entry in the margin, like Jebb did, but let go of the topic structure.

Jebb, on the other hand, apparently didn’t make much use of the index, while Forster listed 196 entries by subject.

Forster, it seems, used his book not just to record material he wanted to recall later but also observations and thoughts – and made use of the blank pages and the freedom they provided to put boxes around sentences, put content side by side, draw connections between them, add color and use text styles for emphasis.

It’s also a notebook for thinking, not just a record of material.

Know the rules so you can break them

I thought this was an interesting example of how thought flows through the ages.

You have words and thoughts from 1685 that affect how a book is structured in 1804 which is then picked up and used and changed all the way until its last entry on November 11th, 1968.

Forster’s book was in use for nearly 164 years and the ideas in use for 283 years.

The book was eventually published as Commonplace book by E.M. Forster, edited by Philip Gardner.

My first response, on seeing the index, was unease – it seems regimented and organized, the opposite of what I do naturally.

It seems Forster shared that view.

Then again, maybe it’s because I am not organized that I have piles of paper, notebook after notebook with material that is not organized and accessible.

The thing with material locked in a rigid, sequential structure like a notebook is that, as Robert Pirsig writes in Lila, “when any distribution is locked into a rigid sequential format it develops Joes that dictate what new changes will be allowed and what will not, and that rigidity is deadly.”

But, that has to do with locking away your ability to think, but not about recording the original material in an accessible way.

And original material has to do with what you read and what you think.

So, how would I use a commonplace book now?

I would start with a single notebook for recording notes from what I read and my own thoughts.

I would create the index and try to follow a topic structure for the material that I was copying down exactly.

For general notes, I would just write daily, letting the material flow, a little like a scientific notebook or any other daily record of work.

I think it would also make sense to have a topic list somewhere, perhaps on a couple of pages on their own.

The thing that Locke’s structure allows you to do is hack the sequential, bound notebook to create a more fluid was to access what you want by using the indexing structure.

Which means you can then benefit from the most powerful aspect of the bound notebook – which is that there is no filing, you can simply put it on a shelf and start a new one.

I find that when I come across loose sheets of paper I struggle to keep them – they’re messy and unfiled and it seems easier to throw them out.

Throwing out a book is much harder – especially a book with material you want to remember and that has been indexed in a way that makes that possible and easy.

Now, here’s the takeaway.

Locke’s method is just that – a method that worked for him and that he put down.

Over the years, that method was used and transmitted and forgotten and rediscovered and used in unintended ways.

The beauty of the Internet is that you can find all that out there.

But you have to thread the pieces together, make sense of things in a way that works for you.

And then you need to adapt that method to your circumstances, to the things that interest you and that you want to study, building on the suggestions of people that had similar problems before you came along.

And if you do that maybe you’ll also have a way of working that will make life easier for you for decades.

After all, Forster started his book at the age of 46 and then kept on going for 43 years.

How long are you planning to keep learning?

For me, that’s hopefully only going to happen when I stop living.


Karthik Suresh

How To Build Your Listening Tracking And Trailing Skills


Saturday, 6.39am

Sheffield, U.K.

I was no longer following a trail. I was learning to follow myself. – Aspen Matis, Girl in the Woods: A Memoir

Tracking, I learned a few days back, is when you go into the woods and go where you want to go, laying down signs for others to follow.

An arrow, for example, says go this way and you make one by laying three sticks on the ground.

Two crossed sticks mean not this way.

And then you have signs for split up, obstacle ahead, left and right turns and gone home.

When you’ve put down the tracks someone else can follow what you’ve done, or you can walk it yourself and see if it’s clear or confusing or if you need more signs.

And it actually gets hard very quickly, you can forget where your own tracks were laid, you can confuse yourself with the directions and when you try and follow anyone else’s tracks you often come to a point where they just disappear or run out or you come across someone else’s tracks and follow their route instead not realizing you’ve changed direction altogether.

Now this, I think, has a resonance with the way memory works.

This talk by Lara Boyd, which you can skim with the transcript here says that the brain has three ways of learning.

Short-term learning has to do with chemical signaling – your neurons communicate and become active and this helps you remember stuff now.

A little bit like laying down those tracking markers, go this way and not that.

Then, to support longer term memory, the brain starts altering its structure, making those connections and actions permanent.

If you have enough kids tramping their way down those trails, eventually you will stamp down a path, perhaps a new one.

And then finally, the brain can change its function to support your learning, with areas becoming bigger and more specialized.

And that happens in the woods as generations of walkers and children make some parts of the wood fill with trails and hideaways and play there often while other parts of the wood stay hidden and unseen for longer.

What can this tell us about what happens when we want to understand a situation?

Start with short-term learning

All too often we expect to go into a situation and come out with a long-term answer in next to no time.

We need to let go of this idea and starting thinking about a longer-term involvement in the process.

The first few times you enter a situation and ask questions and take notes, all you’re doing is following a path through the woods, setting down notes as markers.

As you start to see a trail emerging, a path that others follow even if they don’t know it you now have something to work with.

Work with the underlying structure, not against it

You may be an expert in what you do – and let’s say you provide consultancy services.

Almost every consultant will come in with an “expert” mindset – they know what to do and will come up with a plan and impose it on the situation and things will work.

But things usually don’t.

And that’s because what worked for you somewhere else, at a different time, with different people – worked because it was then and there and with them.

Now is different – it always is.

And you need to see what is happening now before you can really work out how you can help – how your expertise can contribute in this situation.

Learn to adapt your methods

The thing that matters is process – how you work through the specifics of the situation with the tools you have to gain a better understanding of what needs to be done.

Now, to some people, all this will seem horribly imprecise – tell me what to do, they will say, and I will do it.

But be clear – just what do you mean.

I think this is what I mean.

The real world is messy, full of detail, full of confusion and angst and feelings and worries and hopes and dreams and ambition and hate and friction and dissent and power and politics and ignorance and contempt and narcissism and a belief in one’s own superiority and intellect.

You can’t abstract away from that.

It’s a mess and you have to realize that if you want to deal with the real world you are going to have to get involved, you are going to have to participate in it to understand it and to work with it.

This is the basis of anthropology – participation – and of action research – where the researcher gets involved in what’s going on.

If you want to understand something, if you want to change something – you can’t do it at a distance, you have to get your boots on and walk into the middle of everything.

And hope you don’t get lost.

How do you know when it’s working?

There are three things that you need to watch out for.

The first is whether your methods work for you, are the process you are using for data collection and meaning making ones that work with the way you work and are you comfortable with them?

For example, some people are rigorous and logical and hard working – they will take notes but also be disciplined about keeping indexes of what is where.

I find that a difficult task to do – I prefer methods where structure emerges naturally rather than having to maintain a structure because that seems like it’s hard work.

The second is whether your methods work for others – can you communicate and collaborate usefully with other people.

Here, clarity and speed matter – the more complex your material and the longer it takes to get then the less your chances of actually being able to do what you want to do.

The final thing is whether, when you’re done, you have peace of mind – you know that what you’ve done is what you wanted to do and the results are good.

We need more detail, please.

One of the challenges we face when trying to talk through something with someone else is that it’s hard to understand something unless you know it already.

If you have read Zen and the art of motorcycle maintenance you’ll know what I mean.

What I’m trying to do is work towards an approach that will help us navigate the vast, unmapped, constantly shifting terrain of individual and group minds.

It’s more than method, but we have to start with method, with procedure, with something that has worked, at some time, for some person.

So, over the next few posts, I’m going to try and be focused and practical and deconstruct methods of collecting and processing information, covering things like commonplace books, logbooks, diaries, journals, sketch notes, zettelkastens, concept maps, holons and so on.

I think I also want to look at analog versus digital and the pros and cons of each.

I want to take an approach that looks at the models behind these methods and takes a critical approach to them.

Because there is no one best method – there is what works for you in the situations you face.

Think about it like going on a hike.

You have to decide what to carry with you.

But to do that you first need to know what’s available out there.

Let’s go shopping for supplies in the next few posts.


Karthik Suresh

How To See The Forest As The Forest


Friday, 5.51am

Sheffield, U.K.

In a forest of a hundred thousand trees, no two leaves are alike. And no two journeys along the same path are alike. – Paulo Coelho

I remember how much I loved my first laboratory notebook.

We got them for a biology class, and we went for a walk and stopped to draw a flower – a Vinca rosea – a name and experience I remember three decades later.

Those of us who rely on taking notes to make sense of things probably got the habit way back in school.

A famous note-taker is Richard Branson, the billionaire founder of the Virgin group.

In his book, Screw it, let’s do it, he has this passage:

“I have always written everything down in school notebooks. It started when I found reading and writing hard at school and, to make up for that, built up a very good long-term memory. Now I jot down key words in my notebooks and later, if I need to, I find a note and I can recall entire conversations. This has stood me in very good stead more than once when I have needed to prove something. But it’s not just conversations – I also jot down my own thoughts. Anything I see and hear can spark an idea in me. I note it down at once and often look back through old notebooks to gain fresh ideas or to see what I might have missed. I would advise young people starting out in life to keep a notebook with them. It’s a good habit to get into.”

John McPhee writes for the New Yorker and in this interview on The Open Notebook talks about his approach to taking notes.

“I’m just listening. Tons of stuff streams by, and I’m obviously not using 100 percent of it, but I do use a tape recorder if I have to. I never try to remember later what they said. There have been writers writing non-fiction who claim that they went home at night and wrote it down. I don’t do that. I scribble constantly. If I’m climbing up the North Cascades, I have a notebook in my hand, trying to keep my balance, and I’m scribbling, scribbling, because I much prefer to scribble in the notebooks than to transcribe endless tape.

But if you have 15 Appalachian geologists of the first rank standing around some outcrop, arguing about exotic terrains in Vermont, the language is unbelievable. I take out a tape recorder and put it on the outcrop. And then I go through the whole process with the thing with the foot treadle and all that to type up the taped stuff. But my first go is a notebook.”

And for an insight into how Tim Ferriss takes notes read this post.

Now, in my last post I said I’d look at how some people took notes but really you can find tons of stuff on famous people on the Internet – it’s full of stuff like this.

So, there are a couple of directions I could go in.

First, there’s less well-known stuff, like books on how to keep science notes and laboratory books.

Then there is a more interesting digression into the combination of sketching and writing and snippets.

And then there is stuff I was reading about yesterday around Taoism and the lessons it might have for all this.

So bear with me as I work through some of these ideas in this post and try and get somewhere useful.

Let’s start with forests

Yesterday I helped with a cubs event – the thing organized by the Scouts and we had a tracking exercise in the woods.

This activity, for those of you who don’t know what it is, involves running through the woods putting down tracks – using bits of wood to make an arrow showing which way to go, that sort of thing.

So, you’re in the forest, there are the normal, well trodden paths, and these kids are laying down tracks for others to follow, which meander along and then cut across the undergrowth, go around obstacles, double back on themselves, go in loops.

In one situation, the kids laying the tracks came back on their own original tracks and confused themselves, so they turned their arrows around to point the way they were going now – which probably led to no end of confusion for the other groups involved.

But what can we learn from this situation?

The Uncarved Block

This image of a forest where we are laying down tracks as we find a path through is at the heart of Pu – the uncarved block.

In the Tao of Pooh, by Benjamin Hoff, we’re introduced to the principles of Tao through the medium of Winnie the Pooh.

The image above is supposed to represent Pu in simplified Chinese – and my apologies in advance if I’m off the mark with my brushwork.

But the point of this is explained by Hoff in this passage.

“The essence of the principle of the Uncarved Block is that things in their original simplicity contain their own natural power, power that is easily spoiled and lost when that simplicity is changed.”

The forest in front of you is in its natural state – and the further you try and abstract away from that natural state the more you might miss the point of the whole thing.

Which is to make your way through the forest and lay down your tracks.

Let me contrast all the stuff you’ve read so far with something from the book Rational analysis for a problematic world which has a section on the strategic choice approach.

It turns out that the world has uncertainties, and you can look at them as uncertainties in the environment, uncertainties on values and uncertainties on related decisions.

These can be represented, according to the author, John Friend, as UE, UV and UR for short.

You could… but why?

Well, anyway, what happens next is that you can start to organize this stuff, using structures and techniques for analysis.

Eventually you can build quite complex mathematical models that let you manipulate variables and see what’s happening.

At this point, however, you’ve lost 95% of the people out there, who can no longer follow your reasoning.

They got bored with the structuring and don’t know whether they can trust the math.

Do you have to have all this complexity to understand what’s going on in that forest?

Where’s the fun in all this?

If we go back to Hoff, he has this to say.

“When you discard arrogance, complexity, and a few other things that get in the way, sooner or later you will discover that simple, childlike and mysterious secret known to those of the Uncarved Block: Life is Fun.”

So, this is why I am going on about learning how to listen and how to listen with a notebook in your hand.

It’s because the people who use notebooks do it because it helps them have fun – they discover new things, they come up with ideas or learn about possibilities, and they find out more about each other and what makes us tick.

That listening and learning process breaks down the barriers built from assumptions and expectations and prejudices – it’s hard to hold onto an incorrect point of view once you’ve seen what’s really in front of you.

And in our notebooks we can get down what we see – we can jot down notes, we can draw sketches, we can record data, write down possibilities – those pages help us collect and remember and are silent, supportive companions as we head into the forest to find our way.

But as we do that we need to get better at laying down tracks.

As I learned from the kids doing it yesterday you can blunder around and confuse yourself and others very quickly.

But, if you do it a few times, you will get better and be able to lay down complex trails that go to interesting places and help others to follow along as well.

So, in the next post, let’s talk about making tracks, now that we’ve learned that the thing to do is start by finding the forest and seeing it for what it is – natural and in its original state.

Let’s leave behind abstractions and theories and start to learn to listen and see things as they really are.


Karthik Suresh

How To Use Your Notebook To Help You Make Sense Of Things


Thursday, 5.44am

Sheffield, U.K.

I can’t predict how reading habits will change. But I will say that the greatest loss is the paper archive – no more a great stack of manuscripts, letters, and notebooks from a writer’s life, but only a tiny pile of disks, little plastic cookies where once were calligraphic marvels. – Paul Theroux

In my last post I said I would start looking at specific cases and instances that call for listening skills to see what approaches work and what has changed over time.

The approaches you take probably depend on where you are in your career and what you think is important right now.

The thing to notice is that time changes things – even your point of view and for me the biggest change in thinking happens when you move from being a student to being adrift in the world of work.

Jumping in at the deep end

You learn reading and writing at school, and judging from the way my kids react to the process, it’s not the most exciting thing around.

The ability to listen and take notes is not innate – we have to learn it and, importantly, teachers need to model how to do it.

Think back to the way in which you were taught in school or, for that matter, the way you would present or teach something now.

Can you see that there was an underlying structure, a curriculum that the teacher followed when giving you information?

What happened what that structure was revealed class by class, as the teacher introduced ideas, followed arguments and showed you the territory of thinking that covered the subject.

The same thing happens when you listen to a lecture now, a TED talk or a company presentation.

What’s happening is revelation, revealing what is already there set out in some kind of structure.

But when you start working those structures no longer exist in that kind of way – no one has been kind enough to map the territory for you.

For example, think back to the first time you went to speak with a client along with your boss.

You were heading into uncharted territory, even if you didn’t know it then.

No one else had had the conversation you were about to have, no one else had mapped the thoughts that would be expressed in the way they would expressed when you had your meeting.

You were about to discover something new.

And the tool that you should always bring, the one thing that will help you with this journey of discovery, is your notebook.

Capturing what is being said

As far back as I can remember notebooks and paper and pencils and pens have fascinated me – an obsession I share with many people.

I am typing this on a computer and computers are amazing and I think they are your friends.

For example, I have been writing in this blog for around three and a half years, regularly writing since 2017.

I have a writing process – first I write three or so paragraphs of freewriting, anything that’s on my mind just to loosen my mental machinery.

Then I write this post.

Later in the day, I jot down a quick journal entry that thinks through what’s happened and ideas around the writing and what might come next.

I write everything in text files on a computer running Linux, which makes it trivial for me to tell you that I have written 901,455 words by running a script.

You can’t do that with a notebook – but you don’t have to and there are things you can’t do as easily on a computer as you can in a notebook.

And in many ways that blank sheet has its own kind of magic.

Let’s focus on the kind of listening you have to do in a client relationship.

Bring an image to mind of a lawyer or counselor.

They’re sat there, aren’t they, with a pad of paper?

What do they do with that, what do they jot down – what are they trying to achieve?

To understand, see and act

Do you remember what it was like to move from school to your first job?

You went from taking notes on stuff that was taught in school to taking notes on the things you had to do – the tasks you were asked to complete as part of your work and instructions on how to do them.

You were still studying, but it was training on the job instead.

But then, do you remember the first meeting you had where you were trying to figure out what to do, what the problem was, what steps you needed to take.

Think about this carefully – was there a point where you first experienced truly deep water, of thought, where there was no bottom and no certainty?

Those moments are significant, because they end with you heading back towards the safety of shore, towards being told the answer, being told what to do, or learning to stay afloat in that unsupported space, to get comfortable with not knowing what to do.


I learned, during my first experience of that kind of meeting, that your life jacket was your ability to take notes.

I was fortunate in that the people I worked with modeled what good note-taking looked like – they wrote things down furiously and referred to them and captured actions and were extremely good at understanding what was going on.

And so I copied what I saw them do – learn to write fast, write down what you hear, write down as much as possible.

The first distinction you start to make in your notes is what is background and what is an action.

Things you have to do are embedded within the torrent of notes you take over time.

And as you probably already know – it is a torrent.

You will fill notebook after notebook, easily.

I know, for example, that I can fill a standard reporter’s notebook in around 20 days – a book to a month.

That piles up quickly – but what’s the point of all this?

What are you trying to do?

Record the past in its entirety? Surely that’s an impossible and pointless task?

Seeing what you pay attention to

The thing is, your notes aren’t really about recording everything.

They’re really about paying attention – about what you pay attention to.

Life comes at you in this unceasing rush – there’s data and information everywhere you turn.

But what matters is what matters to you and the people you’re working with.

And that’s what your notebook is doing, it’s helping you filter everything out there to the things that matter to those of you in the situation right now.

When someone talks to you they’re telling you about things that they think are important to know.

So you jot those down, write down as much of what you’re hearing as they speak.

As you jot things down you’ll see connections – the things before will relate to the things after.

You’ll see relationships and missing bits – which will lead you to ask questions that will lead to answers which will lead to you writing down more notes.

And at the end of your session you will have a few pages of notes and a better understanding and something to look back on later – something that captures points your memory has simply let float away and something that captures things you have to do next.

Now, all this might seem really very basic.

What I’m saying to you is that you should take notes.

Well, actually what I’m saying is that if you want to be a professional then you must take notes.

If you’re early on in your career then you should never turn up to a meeting without your notebook.

Quite frankly, if you’re later on in your career and turn up without a notebook, I’m not sure you should be in the meeting.

Speaking for myself the ability to take notes – to be the person that remembers what was said, what was meant and what must be done – gives you an advantage.

You have a better chance at recognizing what must be done next.

But do others see it this way as well – perhaps in the next post I might look at a few other people and see what they say about this business of taking notes.

That might be interesting, to some of us anyway, before we move on to what happens next after you’ve captured what you’ve heard and seen.


Karthik Suresh

What Are The Steps To Take To Fill In The Story In Front Of You


Wednesday, 5.33am

Sheffield, U.K.

It’s like everyone tells a story about themselves inside their own head. Always. All the time. That story makes you what you are. We build ourselves out of that story. – Patrick Rothfuss, The Name of the Wind

In the last post in this Listen book project I looked at tools for taking notes in order to understand a situation and start to work towards creating methods for doing this effectively in the situations we face.

A field that has much to offer when it comes to understanding how this is done is ethnography – the branch of anthropology that studies a people, society and culture from their point of view.

At the heart of an ethnograpic study is fieldwork – you must go out and immerse yourself in the society you are studying, become a part of it and try to experience it as they do, while remembering that you are also there are an observer and must eventually describe what is going on.

These two roles can be tricky to manage.

And that’s because your ability to use tools and methods will first depend on the environment you’re entering.

Your environment determines your options

Let’s look at some situations where you might need to listen carefully to make sense of what’s going on.

Your children or other family members might be distraught, wanting something or worrying about something.

You might be preparing for a sales meeting with a prospect you really want to land.

You may be dating someone from another culture and this are about to experience your first family festival.

You’re researching inner city gang culture and have arranged a meeting with a leading local gangster.

In some of these situations you’re not going to be able to bring along a notebook or a computer.

People will think you’re rude if you stop in the middle of festivities to take notes on what’s going on.

Or your gang member will have conditions on what you can record or say because they don’t trust you yet.

In these situations all you can take away is what you see and hear and remember in your head.

In many other situations, however, it is helpful and even expected for you to take notes and even co-create a record of what is going on.

For example, when my children were young and were really upset about something I found that trying to talk to them through the flood of tears didn’t really work.

Instead I would start drawing pictures of what had happened – something we called “drawing a story” and use that to talk through the situation.

But before we look at co-creation let’s look at how an ethnographer might go about entering and listening to what is going on.

What should you notice and when?

In their book Writing Ethnographic Fieldnotes, by Robert M. Emerson, Rachel I. Fretz and Linda L. Shaw, the authors describe the kinds of things you should be jotting down as soon as possible.

The model below tries to describe the approach they’re recommending.


The first thing you have to do is tune into your sense impressions, see what is there for what it is and rely on all your senses for information.

For example, in a business context you can get a feel for culture – you’ll face different approaches if you are in a boardroom filled with suits than if you’re in a plantroom talking to operators.

What’s around you has a huge impact on what is happening.

With your children, for example, before you react to what they do you should probably tune into how tired they are, how late in the day it is, whether it’s before or after school.

All these things will affect how resilient they are and how much or little it will take for them to get upset about something.

From a cultural context are you entering a quiet, sober affair or is it a noisy, joyful thing?

Now, it’s worth focusing this on situations where you are trying to work with someone else or a team of others – perhaps you’re trying to do business together or work on a strategy to solve an issue you are facing.

What you’re going to do is focus on events and happenings – the flux of every day life that the people in face in the situation that you’re jointly exploring.

For example, if you sell digital commerce solutions you want to explore what they’re doing and facing when it comes to online sales.

And that means talking through their experience, the events they remember and how they see things as happening.

Now, if you spend all your time talking you’ll miss something important – which is what they see as important.

What you want to do is get the people involved to pick out what they see as crucial.

For example, if you’re trying to sell your solution you may spend most of your time talking about technology and features and benefits.

But the important thing you’d have learned, if you had encouraged others to tell you what they saw as important, might have been that the people who control the budget are not at the table and you really need to persuade them that you can guarantee payback within a year.

And here’s the crux of the skill you need to have to listen – you have to let people tell you what they see as important but you might have to infer it from what you see them seeing, what they talk about and how they seem to feel about it.

The questions you ask and the connections you make will help you make sense of what’s going on – they will help you see what kind of meaning the people involved are making of their situation.

Now, why is this crucial.

It’s because no one cares what you think – they’re immersed in their own worlds thinking what they think.

If you want to work with them or understand them better you have to start with where they are, not where you are.

You have to truly see things from their point of view.

Making a change

Now, when you are at a point where you are able to appreciate someone else’s world from their point of view – that is when you can add your own perspective to the picture.

For example, if your child is upset and you tell them what to do you’ll be astonished to find that you haven’t helped at all.

Instead, encourage them to talk to you – listen to them describe what’s in their minds and what’s upsetting them.

Listen without interrupting, except to ask questions and don’t deny their feelings by saying things like, “That’s not the case now, is it?”

You’ll find that the process of talking with you and seeing that you are really listening will help to calm them down and then eventually, when they’ve got everything off their chest, that’s when you might be in a position where you can add what you think, make suggestions that they could consider for how to move forward.

This process is no different when you’re dealing with adults – bar perhaps the crying and tantrums.

Although those can happen as well.

The point is that before people will be ready to listen to what you have to say they first need to know that you care.

And one way of caring is to give people the time to talk through things with you, to get it clear in their own heads how they think and feel about something.

If you listen to them then they will, eventually, be ready to listen to you.

Now, I’ve spent a lot of time so far in this series of posts talking in general terms about listening and how important it is.

For this to be useful I think we need to look at a number of specific cases and the kinds of issues you might face, and I’ll need to draw on my own experiences over time.

Let’s look at some of those situations over the next few posts.


Karthik Suresh

How To Help Your Brain Cope With Managing Information And Complexity


Tuesday, 5.42am

Sheffield, U.K.

The two offices of memory are collection and distribution. – Samuel Johnson

I came across a book called Mental models: Towards a cognitive science of language, inference and consciousness by P. N. Johnson-Laird that makes a few interesting points about the way we think.

The first point has to do with the way in which we see the world.

As human beings we build internal models of what is out there in the real world and then we manipulate these models in our minds to figure out what might happen before we make a decision.

One example is your model of a TV set.

In your head, perhaps you think of a TV as a box with a remote and menus to select the things you want to watch.

If you’re more technically minded, however, perhaps you understand how liquid crystals work and the way in which they affect polarized light and how they are arranged in a modern display.

You don’t need to have a model in your head of how liquid crystal displays work in order to operate your TV – you just need a model of how the remote and TV interact.

Many of us take this process of modeling and reasoning for granted – it just works.

Johnson-Laird’s book tries to look at this in more detail, digging into the computational structure of thinking.

At times, however, it feels like he is trying to understand how to work a TV by starting with the chemistry of how you build a TV – and I’m not sure that is as helpful as you might think.

Not for you and me trying to think more clearly, anyway.

You don’t necessarily need to understand the grammar and semantics of language to express yourself and understand something.

What gets in the way, assuming you can read and write, are the limits of how much you can hold in your memory.

Johnson-Laird suggests that the limits of working memory is the main obstacle we face and what we need to do is increase those limits, but seems to discount tools that can help you do that.

Which seems odd – after all, the most powerful tool we have for increasing our memory is the humble pencil.

The thing that lets us write stuff down.

Once we have something on paper we no longer need to hold it in memory, we’ve freed up space to think about other things.

It’s the equivalent of RAM and a hard disk in computer terms – we store stuff on paper so that our brains can take in more stuff.

For a few thousand years we’ve used writing as a way to increase our memory capacity but the actual processing is still done just in the brain – we haven’t increased capacity there at all.

Which is where computers come in.

There are a few places where they increase our capacity for thinking.

The first big benefit is in mathematical modeling – they’re perfect for creating models that involve numbers.

If you learn how to build effective spreadsheet models, for example, you can do things like scenario analysis and work out what might happen under a range of conditions.

The next benefit is that you can use them to represent what you do in your brain when you listen and understand – but in a more easily retrievable way.

You may have heard of the memory palace technique – where if you want to remember many things you think about them in specific locations, combining the memory of the thing with a spatial memory to bind it more closely in your brain.

Over the last few years I’ve spent more and more time taking digital notes – sketchnotes, concept maps, cognitive maps and so on.

And what’s become clear as I do this is that being able to take notes in a way that spreads out all over the page makes it easier to remember what’s going on because you have the geography of the thinking working for you in addition to the words that represent the thinking.

For example, here are some notes I took while listening to a conference.


They’re not necessarily useful in themselves to anyone else but me – but they’re an extension of working memory.

All the things in there are things that I would have to either strain to remember or accept as forgotten over time.

And that brings us to the third benefit of using tools to think which is that we can take something like the picture above and express it in a form that we can talk about with others.

Johnson-Laird talks about this as a “procedure” and there are overlaps with what Peter Checkland called a holon, “a set of activities connected together in such a way that the connected set makes a purposeful whole.”

I like the idea of using a programming approach to lay this out – a set of statements connected in a flow like in the example below.


What I’ve described in this post is an emerging way of working with situations that I use.

It’s very me-specific, based on tools that I like using, flows that work for me and in situations that I face.

It’s contingent on my context.

You may need or prefer or use different tools but the map above is one way to ask questions about how you do what you do.

For example, an alternative to the concept map picture I’ve put above is to use a Zettelkasten – a slip box full of notes.

Niklas Luhmann is the sociologist who made this famous – but historians of his material wish that he had put dates on them, because they can’t easily work out what order he wrote stuff down.

The modern equivalent – a blog or wiki – is different because it is time-stamped, but of course they are also different because they’re not just for taking notes but also for presenting thoughts… but that’s going to take us down a different track.

Now, as I continue to work on my Listen book project I need to see if I can use the methods I use to make sense of the methods suggested by others in other disciplines to make sense of situations.

And perhaps the starting point there is to look once again at ethnographic field notes in the next post.


Karthik Suresh

Do You Have To Understand Everything About A Situation Before Acting?


Monday, 5.42am

Sheffield, U.K.

There comes a stage, however, as the system becomes larger and larger, when the reception of all the information is impossible by reason of its sheer bulk. Either the recording channels cannot carry all the information, or the observer, presented with it all, is overwhelmed. When this occurs, what is he to do? The answer is clear: he must give up any ambition to know the whole system. His aim must be to achieve a partial knowledge that, though partial over the whole, is none the less complete within itself, and is sufficient for his ultimate practical purpose – W. Ross Ashby

Many of the comments I see on social media relating to Systems Thinking talk about something called Viable Systems.

I’ve come across this a few times and found it quite hard to get to grips with, so I’m going to spend a little time working through what’s out there to see if it makes sense this time.

The reason for doing this is to see if it’s a useful way to think about the situations we face all the time – the everyday choices, both big and small that we have to deal with.

And the place to start, it seems, is with Ross Ashby.

Understanding variety

It’s pretty obvious that there are a lot of things out there in the world – and there are a lot of ways they can be.

What does that mean?

Take a lightbulb, for example.

From one point of view, a light in your house can be in one of two states – it’s on or off.

The day before yesterday, the bulb in my dining room was off – but that was because it was broken.

That’s a third state.

I replaced the bulb, but the new one was broken as well – for some reason I had carefully stored the last broken one in its box, presumably so I could order a new one but had forgotten to do that.

A fourth state.

I replaced the bulb, a halogen one with an LED – so a different type of bulb.

A fifth state.

Yesterday, the bulb didn’t work again, and that was because the power had gone off.

A sixth state.

In this example you see something that initially looks simple – something where you believe you can understand everything about it starting to increase in complexity, increase in the possible states it can take.

A state, really, is a particular situation, something that is possible.

And if a lightbulb can be in so many states just think about everything else in life – just how many variations are possible in the way things could be.

This is variety – and Ashby’s argument is that if you really want to be able to deal with something you have to be able to deal with its variety.

And that’s something your brain is designed to do, it will figure out how to survive when the lightbulb fails without going through an existential crisis.

We’re looking for the main things, not the one thing

Now, we just can’t deal with everything out there, every fact, every bit of information – we’d simply explode.

And so our brains are very good at doing to things – filtering out stuff that doesn’t seem to matter and focusing on stuff that does.

In the wording of systems thinking in this area you have attenuators and amplifiers.

I’m going to stay away from the jargon, actually, because it doesn’t really help apart from giving your new words for things you already know happen.

Essentially, in any given situation, you have to get your head around what are the main things.

Now that’s easy if your situation is a point – a dot, a single thing.

For example, if you’re playing basketball and you have to take a free throw – there’s nothing in that moment except you and the basket and how you take the shot.

Shortly after, things will explode in complexity, but at that moment the world stops and waits for you to get done.

But most situations are more like the shape in the picture above, all blobby and with bits poking out everywhere.

And if you want to do something that involves working with that kind of shape you can’t focus on just one bit, you need to understand it in all its messy complexity.

And how much of that you need to do depends on what you’re trying to do.

As the quote that starts this post explains you need to know enough to do what you want to do.


I said some of this was obvious.

So, where do we go wrong?

Understanding regulation and control

Warren Buffett wrote that a management that always makes the numbers will at some point be tempted to make up the numbers.

What does that mean?

The way we monitor things these days is through numbers – the number of sales, the number of calories, the amount of billable time on a client.

That’s because we have learned what numbers do – we need profit to be positive, we need to take in fewer calories than we need a day to lose weight.

In Ashby’s mathematical treatment you look at this from the view of set theory.

There a set of things that can happen.

And for each of those things there’s a set of responses you can take.

The responses you take result in outcomes – that can be good or bad or near or far from a desired value.

For example, there’s a virus going around at the moment.

You could choose to go to a party or you could choose to stay at home.

In one case you could meet friends and have a great time and maybe catch the virus.

Or you could stay home, be safe from the virus and maybe get pushed out of your friends group because you aren’t engaging.

What happens will depend on what you do.

Unless you have a peek into the future.

Understanding requisite variety

Now, this is where things get a little hazy so you might want to consult original sources for exact definitions but here’s my take on this right now.

Doing something and then waiting to see what happens is a very good and scientific and experimental approach but it’s useless with people.

People don’t do things in the same way all the time, they act with purpose and don’t follow the rules of physics in the way that balls dropping from a height do.

With people you can try and make a call on what they will do in a situation.

In the virus example above, if you think your friends will stop talking to you because you don’t do stuff with them, then perhaps they aren’t very good friends – but maybe you need them because of the situation you’re in more than you fear getting ill.

Or, in an organization change project, you need to think about what different people will do to get your plan approved – how the board will think, how managers will react, what IT will say, what facilities will say.

If you want to come up with a plan that has a chance of working you’ll need to engage with the main players and understand how they will respond and then work out what will work in that situation.

Still seems obvious right?

But how many times do people start with a single message or get given a target and then set off hell-bent on achieving that target without really understanding the system they are operating in, the complexity of their environment?

Don’t you see that happening again and again?

Then again, you can’t understand everything, maybe you just need to focus on the next thing, but try and get ahead of the information.

Use your eyes and ears

Later on in Ashby’s paper on Requisite variety and its implications for the control of complex systems he puts aside the math and starts talking sense.

You’ve seen those bugs that are programmed to move around and when they bump into something move backwards and forwards until they bump their way away from the obstacle and head off.

In the real world if the obstacle is a tiger and you repeatedly bump into it your odds of surviving that encounter go down dramatically.

Which is why if you can see and hear the danger before you bump into it you have a chance to climb a tree or run away.

When it comes to your life and your business what this means is you need to look beyond what is immediately in front of you.

For example, you can look at your bathroom scales every day and see the weight changing, perhaps in the wrong direction.

But if you want to control that what you have to do is focus on what causes the change in weight, where you take in and burn energy rather than what the result is in weight.

Rather than focus on the thing, look at what causes the thing in the first place – use information to your advantage.

And here’s the point that I think I’m getting to after some time.

The way for you to get ahead of things is through the better use of information, through the better use of understanding.

If you have a behavior that is affecting your life you can try stopping that behavior or stop the things that give rise to the behavior.

Like snacking.

You could decide to have fewer snacks, and then you get stressed and the crisp packets get attacked.

Or you could avoid buying crisps at all and then you reach for fruit as a stress-reliever instead.

Or instead of doing a huge amount of work evaluating a possible software solution and then finding that IT will not approve it – you work with IT in the first place to find out what kinds of things they will approve and then decide the best way to respond.

Which might include doing things like outsourcing the task if you can’t get it done internally.

Here’s the takeaway.

Computers may be able to collect and process all the data out there but they still find it hard to deal with variety, to deal with patterns of complexity.

But your brain is designed to do just that.

Together you’re stronger.

So maybe it’s time for us to have a look at how we can use technology and computers to help us understand complex situations better.

Maybe that’s the thing for the next post.


Karthik Suresh