Last month’s habit was “read a lot”, which was pretty self-explanatory. This month it’s the rather more cryptic “Organise lessons learned for future application”, and to be honest it took me a while to even get to the bottom of what that meant. The basic theory is that when you read something, hear something or see something inspiring or insightful, what normally happens is you think “that’s great, I can really apply that to my life” but then forget about it and that knowledge or insight is lost, sometimes forever. In order to avoid losing all that useful inspiration, the idea is that you keep something called a ‘Commonplace book’.
Throughout history great individuals have kept a Commonplace book: Marcus Aurelius, Napoleon, Thomas Jefferson and Bill Gates. According to author Ryan Holiday a Commonplace book is “A central resource or depository for ideas, quotes, anecdotes, observations and information you come across during your life and didactic pursuits” (didactic pursuits? Tell me what those are without google and win a prize). So whenever you come across something that you think you might be able to learn from in the future, be it an interesting passage in a book, or an inspiring quote or a lightbulb idea that you’ve had yourself – you write it down and revisit it at your leisure, often reading over them again and again through the years. Holiday suggests categorising your notes, giving example headings such as; Life, Death, Animals, Books, Narrative Fallacy and about half a dozen more. Those sounded a bit too specific for me as a rank amateur, so I decided to start out without headings and let the content suggest some to me once it started to grow.
The original article also stated that the physical act of writing down the things you want to record is important, and that just keeping a Google Doc doesn’t carry the same sort of affect. But I didn’t fancy carrying a notebook around everywhere I went, so decided on a compromise; I downloaded ‘Evernote’ (a really great app that allows you to record and categorise text, take or upload photos or videos, search for keywords in your notes, set favourites and even share with other people) as well as a beautifully bound notebook for me to transfer them into at my leisure; thereby not technically breaking the rules m’lord.
On the face of it I thought this was definitely something I could get on board with. It’s like a list, right? Those of you who read the introductory blog of this series (or anyone who has ever met me) will know I’m a fan of lists. I jumped right in! I made a list of things that I want to achieve at work but that are too nebulous to ever make it onto my “actual” to do list. I made a list of things I need to do outside of work (book a dentist appointment, buy some glasses). I made a list of books that I wanted to get around to reading. But after the first week I sat down with my beautiful notebook to review and transcribe what I’d recorded and… hang on a sec. This didn’t feel quite as creative or inspiring as I thought it was meant to. When I originally started researching this habit it sounded quite, well, pretentious (sorry, but come on – “narrative fallacy”?!). I had images of myself hand decorating a shoe box and spending entire weekends painstakingly writing out my favourite quotes to pop in the box – presumably so that I could then trot them out at dinner parties like some annoying reject from University Challenge. I’d managed to transform it into some giant list making scheme. Oops. Back to the drawing board…
I resolved to give it another try, recording not lists but more organic encounters with things I found interesting or inspiring. Or didactic. Note how I still don’t know the meaning of that word (and am stubbornly refusing to look it up out of principle…). The point was to capture wisdom, not facts. Sadly even with my newfound determination to step away from the lists, I still encountered some difficulties. Namely that you can’t exactly go around trying to purposely hunt out inspiration whilst also doing the same things you normally do every day. I couldn’t set myself a target “Today I’m going to encounter 5 things inspiring enough to go in my Commonplace book”. There was a week where my entries were distinctly uninspiring! The best I managed one day was hearing an interview on the radio where someone said “control your controllables” which I quickly wrote down before realising that, whilst a tidy soundbite, it wasn’t much more than that. I was thus far failing to be convinced of the benefits of this habit.
Luckily, and before I could throw in the towel, I coincidentally happened to finish the (fiction) book that I was reading, and (having continued a goal from last months blog to read more non-fiction) started reading “Sapiens: A brief history of humankind” by Yuval Noah Harari, something I’d been meaning to read for a while. I both loved it and also found lots of things contained in it that I wanted to write in my Commonplace book. Three days later I attended a two-day conference, and again heard some really useful insights that I wanted to record. The day after that I had a coffee with someone in my industry who knows a lot about techniques I’m not that well versed on, and I picked up new ideas as a result. I actually started to need sub-headings in my Commonplace book, and was gaining a collection of inspirations I was actually quite proud of. The main reason for this change in fortune was because I learnt that if all I was doing was going from my house, to my office, home again, without enabling myself to encounter new texts, people or situations – then of course I wasn’t going to be inspired or really be able to utilise a Commonplace book. But if I went out of my “comfort zone” in both a literal and metaphorical sense, then suddenly I couldn’t write quickly enough.
In summary, I can see that for someone who works in a creative industry such as journalism, art, creative design etc. a Commonplace book could prove essential. If your livelihood depends on being inspired then you certainly don’t want to be losing inspiration when you find it. And despite a few false starts, I can also agree that even for those of us who don’t work in those areas, having a Commonplace book can be a useful idea; if nothing else as a red flag. If you have a Commonplace book and you aren’t writing anything in it, then guess what? You need to get out there. Inspiration won’t come and find you, you need to go and find it – and the best place to look for it is in the unexpected adventures, the roads less travelled, the opportunities grabbed. Say yes to things, even if they may not make that much sense to you. You can’t get inspired by the things you already know. So I guess I would actually adjust this habit slightly. For me it wasn’t about the habit of recording inspiring things, but giving yourself the best chance possible to encounter inspiration in the first place.
Next up on the road-test is “get up early”, which – as mother to a 6 year old and a 1 year old I feel a bit aggrieved about as sleep is hard enough to come by as it is thank-you-very-much, but hey ho. The price of science!