Each year at high school graduation time, as another freshly-minted generation of teenagers begins adulting, I always reflect on two memories that have stayed with me from my graduation:
- The cringe-worthy pictures of the overly-gelled hair that I sported for much too long. Thanks, Julie Greenspoon for still going to Freshman Homecoming with me!
- The moment when the principal announced that I would be attending Harvard and my precalculus teacher said: “I just didn’t think you were that smart.”
The implication that I had risen past the point of my own incompetence before even getting to college might have insulted some people, but not me. I pride myself on being an overachiever. I never crushed the standardized tests, and I certainly never had a photographic memory. What I had done well, though, was develop a system for learning that I still use today.
The Plan: Get Better Grades, Remember Less Stuff
I realized very early that if I wanted to overachieve, I needed to reduce the number of things I had to remember. Here was my initial plan:
- Take notes that identified the major themes for each subject. If I knew the main ideas for a class, I could always weave in whatever details I could remember.
- Create footnotes to connect ideas from different classes. For example, if I could apply a theme from an English paper on Native Son to a history test about Civil Rights, that meant I had one less fact to remember.
- Use my own shorthand so I could do visual searches for symbols quickly: triangles meant “change,” asterisks identified things to follow-up on, question marks highlighted things I didn’t understand yet.
I couldn’t find any of my original paper notes from school, but I still use that shorthand and make these connections in my business notes today:
At the time, I thought I’d created a competitive advantage. Years later, I discovered this system was called Cornell Notes, and it was invented in the 1950s. (Why hadn’t anyone ever told me about Cornell Notes?)
Some notes about notes
For all the importance we place on education, schools don’t teach us how to learn, and research has confirmed we aren’t very good at it. College freshmen capture only 11% of the major themes covered in lectures, so maybe my “system” gave me a bit of an advantage.
Now technology has made this advantage available to anyone who wants it. I’ve replaced hundreds of binders with bibliographies in the back of each one with Evernote, an app that I live in and for which I am the passionate SVP of Marketing. Instead of inserting footnotes, now I let machine learning alert me to other notes with content related to what I’m working on. I still prefer to write by hand because I find typing leads to transcribing rather than understanding, but instead of searching for my shorthand symbols, optical character recognition finds words in my handwritten notes. Notes were my last daily task to be disrupted by technology, but new pen technologies combine the pen and paper experience with the digital benefits of saving, searching, and sharing.
My approach isn’t for everyone, and part of the reason that there’s no class on learning is that we all do it differently. Richard Branson takes prolific notes on virtually any piece of paper nearby, including menus and napkins. Mark Twain carried a pocket notebook everywhere he went, and Stephen Colbert records his thoughts in Evernote. You’ll have to experiment to discover what works best for you, but some common principles underlie most approaches:
- If you want to achieve something, make a note of it—Students who take notes are seven times more successful than those who don’t, and people with written goals are almost twice as likely to accomplish them. Achieving a few of your goals will quickly erase any embarrassment about carrying around a notebook or pulling out a phone to take a note.
- Revisit and revise—Unfortunately, the human brain is made to forget and approximately 40 percent of what you hear is gone within 20 minutes; two-thirds thirds is gone at the end of one day. Consistently revisiting your ideas allows you to evolve them with new content. You never know where your next big idea will come from, but nothing will come from a lost idea.
- Train your brain—No one I respect has ever judged me for capturing something they said or for being curious. In fact, learning helps you grow brain cells. So experiment to find your way of capturing ideas (mind mapping, outlining, taking photographs, bullets, etc.) and keep doing it.
My note-taking has improved more than my hair has in the last 15 years. Sticking to these fundamentals allowed me to adapt to new needs and continue to do things beyond anyone’s expectations. Today, my goal isn’t retention of facts like it was in school, but instead, to communicate my own ideas. I spend a lot of my day in meetings with tons of data and little time to reflect on them. By listening for what matters, I can capture, organize and synthesize thoughts in real time so that I can connect projects my team is working on to one another, just as I did in my classes. I still take notes in virtually every interaction, but now the purpose is to ensure that I recall what we need to do, not what somebody else already did.
I’m always looking for ways to learn more about how to make the most of my ideas, so please share in the comments below! And if you’re looking for other thoughts, here are some of my favorite self-productivity blogs: