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

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