The Death of Socrates (Detail), Jacques-Louis David, 1787
Life boils down to just two things: experience and information.
Experience is what happens in your brain. The slippery chill of diving into a swimming pool. The bittersweet taste of chocolate ice cream on your tongue. Those are experiences.
Information is the breadcrumb trail left behind by experience. The photograph of you by the pool. The chocolate stain on your shirt. Information points back to previous experiences, and, if we choose to act on it, guides us toward the future.
Take writing, for example. The rush of ideas, the mental blocks, the struggle for meaning—it’s all an experience. The words on the page, stark and cold, are the information left behind by the experience of writing.
The purpose of writing is not to store facts for later. Well, it can be, if you’re writing down an address or phone number. But the purpose of writing down ideas is to document a thought process. When you go back and read what you wrote before, you are transported back to that experience of thought. You are able to pick up where you left off, and continue whatever journey you had embarked upon.
Writing down ideas is not about saving information; it’s about time travel.
I began by writing this idea as a note in Evernote about 8 or 9 months ago. Since that time, my daughter was born, I went on paternity leave, I changed 10,000 diapers, I came back to work, I did a couple of projects, I went on vacation, and I came back from vacation…a lot of stuff happened. But when I revisited this writing today, I was able to transport myself right back to what I was thinking when I started it so many months ago. I remember the ideas bouncing around in my head as I rode my bike home that day in the half-light of dusk. I remember what it felt like, sitting on the couch with my laptop after dinner, feet on the coffee table. I remember the melancholic vibration between my ears as the ideas took shape. All this burst forth onto the stage of my consciousness as I re-read the visual descriptions that open the piece. Writing down ideas is not about saving information; it’s about time travel.
You could say the same about taking notes. In school, we learn that it’s virtuous to take notes. Somehow it helps you learn, or something. But why? Sure, you might get down a few facts and figures that could be useful if you have to write a paper, but couldn’t you just Google it? The thing is, the real reason to take notes is not to capture facts and figures. It’s much more important to leave enough information behind that you can transport yourself back to the frame of mind you were in during the experience of learning something. You can rekindle any ideas that might have been sparked as you watched the lecture or presentation. You can return to the experience and make something from it.
The author’s sketch notes from ConFab 2016
In my case, I do sketch notes exclusively now. It’s not because I’m a fancy designer and want to show off my drawing skills, which are rather primitive. No. I do sketch notes because I’ve found that doodling while people talk leaves behind much richer information that allows me to transport myself back to the experience more effectively. Drawing and writing together activate more of the receptive/intuitive/creative parts of my brain, which actually makes the experience itself richer. So when, months later, I transport myself back to the experience of the conference or class through the medium of information, I can see the past world in higher resolution.
Thomas Edison famously captured and collected his ideas in some five million pages of notes over the course of his life. Was he a megalomaniacal narcissist, obsessed with documenting his own brilliance? Perhaps. But I think he was more interested in time travel. He knew that the spark of an idea is the most transcendent experience in the world, and he wanted to leave himself some information so he could find his way back.
You can live life as a one-way street—time rushing senselessly forward as experiences fade behind you. But technology—beginning with the written word and evolving to the machine-aided capture and organization tools of today—gives you another option. Collecting, developing, and revisiting information expands your creative potential because you can draw from the sum total of your life, not just the fleeting thoughts of the moment. You can live life as a complete whole and create from the full depths of your well.