Cognitive Mapping And Strategic Options Development And Analysis (SODA)


Tuesday, 5.42am

Sheffield, U.K.

I had discovered that learning something, no matter how complex, wasn’t hard when I had a reason to want to know it. – Homer Hickam, Rocket Boys

Strategic Options Development and Analysis (SODA) is an approach developed by Colin Eden and Fran Ackermann to help consultants working on complex problems involving social processes – ones that involve people trying to deal with situations.

There is a tendency, especially among engineers, to ignore the people side of things.

We’re more comfortable working on hard problems – designing or creating solutions or trying to work out what software or technology will let us do something.

The world is out there, it’s objective, we can see it, see what’s wrong and fix it – in our view you just need the tools.

When people get involved, however, you have to start worrying about subjective stuff.

What this means is that instead of an objective world where are problems are of the type “how do we get this heavy block from here to there?” we have to worry about what’s in people’s heads – like “how will the position I take on this affect my chances of promotion and should I do the right thing for everyone or the right thing for me?”

Let’s go through some of the points the creators make about why and when and how to use the method.

Why and when to use SODA

SODA is an approach, a set of methods, that will help you manage and facilitate discussions about a situation.

People have to talk things through in order to understand what they think and what they are willing to do.

This is different from going into a room by yourself and collecting lots of data and writing a report.

This is about getting people talking, sharing, exploring their ideas and constructing a story, a narrative that captures what they think.

SODA is a good thing to use to start off a project because you’re starting with a blank sheet of paper rather than a preconceived framework.

It’s the difference between going into a meeting with a slide deck and saying “I’m going to spend the next 40 minutes talking about myself” and opening your notebook and saying “Let’s talk about what’s important to you.”

A lot of people are comfortable with the slide deck, they know they have to just get through it and answer questions and they feel like they’re in charge.

The second is far more scary – you have to know what you’re doing, be comfortable that you can cope with wherever the conversation goes.

But what are you actually doing?

How SODA works

The key thing to understand about a method like SODA is that what you create during the process – the notes, the drawings, the maps – are temporary things.

For example, at the core of the SODA approach is the ability to do an interview with your clients and create a cognitive map.

The interview and initial cognitive map

A cognitive map captures concepts and the links between concepts that the clients have in their heads, it’s simply getting down short sentences and links to other short sentences that capture what they’re saying to you.

If you’re going to do this on paper you just sit down with your client and have a notebook – A4 paper on a clip board is fine.

Start about a third of the way down the page and ask a starter question and note down what’s being said.

Make a few notes before you start connecting the ideas and then explore things further, go where it’s interesting, where the client wants to talk, follow trails and clarify things you don’t understand.

Your job is to interview the client – not with an agenda or a purpose – but in order to help them talk through and understand what they think.

What you’re going to end up with is something messy and with lines everywhere – but that’s ok.

The point is to see and learn and understand, not to make it pretty.

For example, here’s an extract from the way my maps look – there’s nothing neat or even readable about them at this point.


Extend and redraw the map

Once you’ve finished the interview then you need to sit down and write it up, preferably when things are still fresh in your mind.

This act of tidying up the map is an important part of the SODA method, and Eden and Ackermann have developed software to help with the task and you can get a free trial version.

At this stage there are a number of technical points that the creators of SODA suggest you should consider.

First there is the idea that concepts are bipolar, they form a range between two extremes.

The client is somewhere between those two extremes one that concept, which then relates to another, which is different.

For example, let’s take the concept of the attitude of employees who want to work from home.

One extreme that people take is that this is good and productive and saves time on the commute while the other extreme is that people who want to do that are lazy and just want to sit on the sofa while still being paid.

So, you have this concept of attitude to home working that’s then connected to the concept of safety practices at work.

Then you have the idea of trying to reword what you’ve heard in more action-oriented language.

In the sense that rather than simply whining about a subject you try and see where things are moving, where you might start and progress and finish.

What you might also find, during the process of redrawing the map, is that ideas fall into clusters, and you can see them as part of a larger set of ideas.

Discussion and action

What you’re doing is trying to create a structure, a hierarchy, a flow that suggests that you are moving towards a state of doing – a point at which you can agree on what the situation is what you’re going to do about it.

And the way you do that is to sit down and use the maps to have a discussion.

You’ve got the structure in front of you and now you can follow it, revisit the ideas, mark up things that work or don’t work and refine and redraw the maps.

The point about the approach is that rather than trying to keep all this in your head you’ve made it visible, you’ve created a map on paper that tries to capture the map in the client’s head and so it’s easier to talk about it and see if it makes sense or not.

Does it help?

The point about approaches like SODA is that you can’t really say whether they work or not – the question is whether they help you in the situations you face given the type of person and consultant you are.

People who crave order and structure may find that the free-form and blank page style initially scary and daunting.

Later, perhaps, when they’re doing the mapping, they might find it easier and more fun to do.

But, like the other tools that I’m going to go through, it’s not easy to do because you need to understand some theory, develop some craft skills and get some real-life experience messing up.

You have to pass your own test – which is whether you feel like you helped your client or not.

But the good thing is if you keep at it, you’ll work out a way that works for you.

But before we look at that, we need to consider another way to approach complex situations in the next post.


Karthik Suresh

These Principles Are Vital If You Want To Listen To And Understand A Situation


Monday, 5.13am

Sheffield, U.K.

The first law of fighting evil is that it can’t stand the light. Even the Nazis went to extreme lengths to hide and disguise what they were doing to the Jews. When you shine the spotlight of publicity on evil it generally shrivels and dies. – Barry Clemson

Have you ever listened to a short interview on the news and been utterly dissatisfied by what happened?

The reporter asked questions that presented an opinion rather than starting a line of inquiry and the person being interviewed ignored everything and responded with the party line.

This is a game of verbal table tennis and the objective is to win points or at the very least, draw.

The interviews I like, on the other hand, tend to happen in long-form podcasts, discussions that take place over a couple of hours but, of course, we don’t all have many spare hours so we try and cram things into less time.

And that doesn’t really help, because time matters.

As do a few other things, some of which were explained by Barry Clemson and Allenna Leonard in a 1984 book on management cybernetics.

Clemson has listed the 22 laws here and I want to pick out four of them, and then two more that are relevant as we learn how to listen to others and better understand situations.

So, here goes.

The darkness principle

When you first enter a new situation, everything is dark – you know nothing about what’s going on.

As you listen to the people involved in the situation and ask questions, you start to see things, they shed a little light on what is going on.

Now, what’s clear is that you can’t know everything, understand the system completely.

You have to accept that some of it will remain in darkness, if only because you haven’t yet turned the light on that area.

Understanding this is important because it keeps you humble – you come to conclusions based on what you know so far and stay open to the possibility that new information may need you to revisit and even revise your opinions.

Of course, to shine a light as fully as possible, you must be willing to take your time.

Relaxation time

When you disturb a system – like throwing a pebble into a pond or brushing against a spider web – you set off vibrations, oscillations, waves.

These take time to settle.

You can’t force this, it follows its own schedule, its own timing sequence.

You can see this with children – if they’re in the middle of doing something and you want them to do something else how do you begin?

Perhaps you go in and tell them to stop what they’re doing immediately.

If they’re having fun you’ll get an immediate response, a negative, angry one.

How many of us have the patience to let the child finish before interrupting and escalating the situation?

Has that ever made things better?

If you want to stabilize a system what you need to realize is that the time that it takes for the system to relax has to be less than the average time between disturbing events.

In other words, wait till the child has finished and then start to say your piece.

It takes longer in the short term but if you interrupt before the child has finished and is relaxed, is ready to hear you, then you’ll simply push them again and they’ll stay angry and upset for longer – for the long term.

It’s the same when you’re interviewing someone and trying to explore an area – take your time, let the person talk about things until they’re done, until they’re tailing off or repeating themselves and then move on – give them time to answer before you disturb the situation with your next question.

Because what you’re trying to do is understand as much as you can or, at the very least, enough.

Requisite variety

How do you know when enough is enough?

That’s where requisite variety comes in.

Imagine you’re trying to pick up a stretcher with a person on it.

There are four handles.

Can you carry the person safely if you pick up only two?

How about three?

If you don’t get all four the stretcher is unbalanced and you could drop and hurt the patient.

Now imagine a more complex shape, one like the image above perhaps.

If this shape were a board, where would you hold it to lift it and stop whatever is on the board rolling off?

Holding only a few won’t do – you have to pick it up on all the points that matter, the ones that affect the balance and stability of the whole.

You won’t know what these areas are – the ones that matter – until you come across them as you explore the darkness and you will only find them all if you give yourself time – time to as questions and follow trails and discover them in the darkness.

But still, how will you know that you’ve got it all?

Multiple perspectives

That’s where you need to talk to more than one person.

As you carry out an exploration with more people involved in the situation you start to see things from more than one point of view.

And what then matters is how consistent the models you are coming up with are with these points of view, are you able to see commonalities or not?

Or perhaps the same thing can be expressed in more than one way – and those ways can be incompatible because of underlying fundamental differences in how people see the world.

And that’s ok – that’s what happens in the real world.

People disagree on things.

What matters is what happens next.

Surface and hidden meaning

This principle is not one of the 22 articulated by Clemson but it comes out in the quote from him above.

As I explored his website I came across his autobiographical fragment on the Mississippi Freedom Summer, the summer of 1964.

It’s harrowing reading, bravery, following a story of non-violent action in a society that had practiced violence against others for a century without fear of reprisal.

And it tells you a bit about surface and hidden meaning.

On the surface, you have the overt display of power, a police force that has sticks and horses and believes that one part of humanity is worth less, deserves less than another.

And that police force is drawn from that part of humanity which benefits from oppressing the other.

But what we have learned over time is that no police force can control a citizenry unless the citizens agree to work with the police.

Unless there is an overwhelming, unchecked abuse of power – which we also see, of course, in many parts of the world.

But, in the world Clemson is describing, you see what’s happening in a section where this power, this control, this superiority that one race seek to display and show on the surface also conceals fear and anxiety.

There’s an incident with an old farmer who seems “hysterically afraid” – worried that Clemson and his friends are “communist agitators here to destroy the Mississippi way of life.”

That’s not very different from now.

Every government is afraid – so afraid that they have to respond to or crack down on the light.

Whether it’s the developing nations, India or China with the challenges of their borders and minority populations or rich nations like the US and the countries of Europe, we live in a world where we cannot trust what’s on the surface because there is too much leaking out about the murky depths underneath.

Each of us has to choose how we act, whether we stand up publicly for the things we believe in or if we make better choices, through what we buy and do to reward those who do better.

It’s complicated and difficult so you need to have ways of understanding what you are really trying to do.

Bi Polar Constructs

In my last post I wrote about nodes and connections, concepts and links that you explore and that works pretty well most of the time.

The one refinement I have come across is George Kelly’s Personal Construct Theory which Eden and Ackermann talk about in their work on strategy and SODA – Strategic options development and analysis.

And this is the idea that what people think – their theories of how things work – are built from constructs.

Constructs can often lie on a range, they are similar ideas, but on either end of two poles, two opposites ways of being.

For example, take societies.

All societies are similar in that they are groups of people but you can have a racist society at one extreme and a multi-cultural one at the other.

No society is entirely one or the other of these, the sum total of the approaches and views of the people in that society will lie somewhere in between the two extremes.

And where they are leads to other points, where the construct is different from or leads to another point.

Like a multi cultural society faced by terrorist activity or a racist society where the oppressed section of that society decide they don’t really want to be oppressed any longer.

Now, of course, there aren’t simple solutions and it takes time to sort things out and understand what is going on and come to a compromise.

And the changes that happen on the way may not be for the better.

But they could… if you took the time to listen and understand.

Making sense of it all

If you were able to make sense of it all.

In the next couple of posts I’m going to explore two particular methods, one a top-down approach and the other a bottom-up one to see if they can help

Until then,


Karthik Suresh

How Searching For Knowledge Lets Structure Emerge And Vice Versa


Sunday, 6.50am

Sheffield, U.K.

There are three rules for writing a novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are. – W. Somerset Maugham

The question of what comes first can be paralyzing.

Where do you begin, how do you start, where’s the entry point?

I’m 38,000 odd words through this second book project and I think I’ve lost my place.

But that’s ok, it just means I have to take some time and think through what I’m trying to do again.

Start anywhere, but start

The thing I’ve learned over many years, many days of beginning with a blank sheet of paper is that you can start anywhere.

The trick is to start.

In fact, you can trick yourself into starting by doing something that’s a warm up.

For example, when I write, I always begin with three paragraphs of anything, whatever is in my head, whatever comes to mind even if it’s complete nonsense.

It’s like oiling the gears and getting the mechanism to move by hand – it’s the thing you do before you get going.

And then the first words start and flow and trickle their way onto the page.

Follow an idea where it goes

Once you have something, anything, you can develop that idea.

Now, imagine if you will, a blank page.

You’ve put down an idea and drawn a circle around it – it’s something to start with.

That idea leads to another one, or it leads to a fact or a point or a description of something that happened.

You write that down, somewhere near the first point and draw a line to connect them.

And then you keep going, perhaps that second point goes in the direction of a third point.

But it also sparks the creation of a fourth, which in turn sparks two more, one of which happens to be connected to the third.

What I find is that when you do this, you end up with a collection of related ideas.

You will have all done this kind of thing – perhaps even named it and done it intentionally.

If you’re brainstorming, or mind-mapping or concept mapping – then you’re doing something with nuggets of information and lines of connection, perhaps labeled.

A structure will eventually emerge

When you take the time to get those ideas down then inevitably a structure emerges from that mass of material.

It always happens – it’s the nature of things.

Or, at least, it’s in the nature of human beings to notice patterns and regularities.

So we look around at random masses of dirt and see valleys and hills and mountains and plateaus and volcanoes.

We see geography – we tell the story of the land and come up with words that describe the thing we see – and that’s what we do when we see the once blank page filled with notes – we see patterns and structure that we can express using other words.

The structure is not something that exists yet anywhere else but in your mind – it’s what you see when you see what you’ve done – but if you capture the structure, draw it out, now you have something that can guide you as you explore the terrain further.

Structure or a whole?

A structure is one thing – you can create a structure if you list a table of contents or create a hierarchy.

Your structure creates a form for your ideas – and that’s good – you’ve now got shape.

This is what John McPhee writes about, how all his publications have an underlying form or shape or structure underpinning them, a drawing or diagram that helps him put things in their place.

But you can make a structure out of a couple of twigs on the ground, but do they make a whole as well?

I suppose the point I’m trying to drive towards is the difference between scaffolding and a skeleton.

Scaffolding helps you put up a house but then you take it away and that’s it done.

You build the house out of bricks and cement and glass, those are the components that you place and connect, like you do with nodes and lines.

But you’re then left with a house – a single word that captures the whole structure, made up of walls and a roof and windows – more words that describe the structure.

The reason I think this distinction is important is because you can have structure without having a whole and that’s usually going to result in a problem at some point.

I think this is most obvious in how-to books, how to become more successful, how to do well at something, that sort of stuff.

They will have a structure, a framework, something that they promise will give you a result – if you do everything they ask you to do.

The thing that you will realize is that their structure is incomplete – it often covers much of what is necessary but not all of what is needed.

It’s like the 80/20 rule – that works in many situations.

You can get most of the way there if you do the most important things.

But there are many cases where you have to do all of the things that matter to make things work.

In your house, for example, you need a roof and walls and windows and doors and the other things that make up a house.

If you stopped with 80% you wouldn’t have a home – you’d have an unfinished project.

100% of what is necessary matters in this case.

I need to revisit my models

At this point, this many words into my project, I’m realizing that my structure is a little rickety – I need to go back to the plans and figure out what is going on, figure out the main parts and get some order into the process.

At the same time this period of reflection, this post itself, is helping make sense of what I need to do next.

One of which is making clear what is and what isn’t possible when you’re trying to understand a situation by listening to others and I want to pull that together in a model, perhaps in the next post.

Until then,


Karthik Suresh

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.

Update 25 Sept 2020 I’ve realized after trying to file a set of notes that the numbering system is actually very convenient and lean – but you have to stop relying on memory to remember the numbering approach.

That’s because there are two ways to start working on something.

Either it’s something completely new.

You check your main index of subjects – the list of top level numbers – and if there isn’t one there that fits what you’re about to write you start a new number.

For example, if you’ve got 10 subjects so far and you’re about to start a new note on computing – a new subject – you’re going to start with 11.

If you’ve continuing work on something you’ve already done some work on – then the first thing you do is go and find the most relevant note or notes in your slip box and take a look at them.

Your next note will continue or branch off from one of these – and your numbering is easy from then on.

End of update

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

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