How good is your memory? How often do you feel like you have a word, phrase or saying on the tip of your tongue, but can’t quite seem to recall it?
Truth-be-told, there isn’t a single human who’s ever existed that hasn’t had this momentary lapse in memory. From the moment we’re just a few years old, we’re expected to get on average of about 1,000 hours of schooling each year. How much of that information do you think you can actively recall at any moment?
In fact, what we tend to remember are bits and pieces of information, consolidated into the deeper parts of our cortex. Most of the decisions, habits, and thoughts we have arisen out of a deeper, intuitive self that guides us throughout our lives.
This means you might not be able to recognize particular facts or studies from a book you read, but the argument it made was convincing enough to guide your future self in a certain direction.
Most of us go through life with what some might describe as a fixed mindset, that we know what we know and are limited in our capabilities based off that knowledge. Quite often we look at people in the history books and refer to the knowledge and wisdom they left for us; all the while always thinking we could never be as successful or smart as that person once was.
No matter the mindset you carry forth, or how much schooling you’ve had, let alone how smart you think you are or are not—there is a common attribute amongst those who left their names in the history books.
It’s not about how confident they were, how smart or lucky they happened to be — rather it’s about a book that they all carried with them.
This book allowed them to become successful at what they did, and in this article, I will outline how you too can be just as capable or incapable of becoming a hero of the history books as anybody else.
The Commonplace Book
Most of what we claim expertise intend to relate to how we spend most of our time. You might remember random tidbits from topics you found interesting in school for example, or a subject you read on frequently. These areas in which we spend a lot of time give us enough information repeatedly to become a subject matter expert. Most people end up knowing a lot about a particular industry, hobby, or passion of theirs. The question then is what is the optimal way to collect, store, and organize information on a variety of topics for easy recall later on?
This has been an age-old problem that was in-fact, solved in the early middle-ages. The invention of something called the commonplace book occurred somewhere around the 15th century. By the 17th century, having such a book was indeed a very common practice and was even taught to all students who passed through Oxford University.
In fact, some of the world’s most influential and smartest minds happened to have a commonplace book. They included people like Thomas Jefferson, Albert Einstein, Napoleon Bonaparte, Benjamin Franklin, Bill Gates among many others. Chances are, they wouldn’t have enabled themselves for such success if they hadn’t created a centralized repository of the knowledge they encountered throughout their lifetime. The human memory is fallible, but an organized system of information can make up for it.
So just what is a Commonplace book? Well, it’s essentially just a compilation of knowledge written down in a single book. It’s different from a diary in that you’re not writing about your experiences, but rather putting together the information you find elsewhere. It’s a notebook where you’d put interesting quotes, thoughts, favorite book passages, general observations, recipes, or other interesting pieces of knowledge you might come across.
“Make your own Bible. Select and collect all the words and sentences that in all your reading have been to you like the blast of trump out of Shakespeare, Seneca, Moses, John, and Paul.”
-Ralph Waldo Emerson
One doesn’t need to have the desire to become the next Bill Gates or Einstein in order to benefit from having a commonplace book though. People from all walks of life have been able to influence history and make their time on earth more effective by simply writing down the information they find most interesting to them.
“It’s not that I’m so smart, it’s just that I stay with problems longer.”
The Knowledge Habit
For many years now, I’ve been an avid Kindle user and have been consistently reading books on a daily basis for many years. After some time, I found myself encountering a slightly amusing issue.
I’d find myself encountering a book recommendation from a podcast or an article that sounded interesting. So I’d go look it up and have been shocked to discover that I had already purchased and read the book years ago.
Coming across a book I already read might seem like a bit of a backward issue to have, but much like this Vice Documentary shows, you can easily find yourself on the extreme end of the side most of us wish to be on. Certainly, reading too many books is no comparison to taking steroids, but just like everything, it can be a self-defeating habit if not utilized properly.
I didn’t just forget the book title, but there were times when even the title nor book cover could trigger any memory of having read the book. The only thing that saved myself from buying the same title over was the Amazon message that I had already purchased it.
This made me realize how great our brain is at forgetting stuff. There’s been a slew of research on what researchers now call the this the forgetting curve. They’ve demonstrated that within an hour, people generally forget 50% of the information presented to them, and within 24 hours, have forgotten an average of 70%.
This made me ask myself how I could limit this forgetting curve and more readily remember and apply the knowledge I had obtained when I needed it most.
Learning to Remember
There are numerous methods of learning and memorization, but unfortunately, the one we’re often taught the most is rote memorization, which is simply repeating something enough times until it’s drilled into your memory. This happens to be the worst memorization technique ever invented, but I discovered there are quite a few alternatives.
One such alternative is what’s referred to as Spaced Repetition. Chances are, you’ve already done this when you mixed up flash cards and shuffled them around in a random order. It turns out, this is actually a pretty good way to remember information, and with the help of advancements in technology, there now exists tools known as Spaced Repetition Software or SRS for short.
Programs like Anki and Quizlet both serve as virtual flash cards which are based on the science of forgetting. Essentially they serve the card when you’re just about to forget it. It turns out recalling something before it’s about to go poof actually increases your recall of that information.
This has led me to create a very minimal daily habit of running through just 10 flash cards a day inside of Anki but with surprising results.
I’ve crafted a collection of various card decks to help me memorize:
- Short Stories
- Alexa Commands
- Alfred Workflow Commands
- Custom Mac Snippets (via Alfred)
- Phonetic Alphabet
- Spanish Phrases
The beauty of Anki, in particular, is that it’s a desktop app that doesn’t need internet and still syncs your progress across all your devices. With a small daily habit, you can greatly expand your knowledge amongst any topic.
Skim Reading your Book Highlights
A much longer form of SRS is part of my weekly Maintenance Day routine. On that day I do a bunch of review and organization related tasks for the week that went by and the one to come.
A small part of that happens to be picking out the highlights from a book I read and simply reviewing it in a matter of minutes.
The basic principle here is that I’ll copy my Kindle highlights for each book I read into a Notebook in Evernote. Then every week on my Maintenance Day I’ll pick out a random book to re-read my highlights from.
If you use a Kindle, then anything you highlight is accessible through kindle.amazon.com online, and this method makes it easy to view or even copy your notes elsewhere.
The only thing that will make this work though is if you set up a habit to manually copy your highlights over whenever you’re finished reading a book. In my case, I’ve now delegated this task to my assistant to do on a bi-weekly basis.
The value of doing all this lies in the weekly task on my Maintenance Day to peruse my list of books in Evernote and review the highlights and notes from the book. Typically this only takes a few minutes and has enhanced value if you first take the time to ask yourself what the biggest obstacles and problems you’re going through in your life as a way of picking the book you want to re-review.
I view books as a mentor, and the value that mentors and advisors provide that books don’t is relevant knowledge to your specific situation. We quite often read books that aren’t entirely relevant to ourselves in the present moment, making it easier to forget the knowledge we read. I like to think of this as my way of maintaining a personal advisor through the knowledge of all the books I’ve ever read.
Recalling to Remember
Having a Commonplace book used to be a popular method of gathering and retaining knowledge everywhere. Somewhere along the line, it fell out of popularity, but the principle has never been more important.
We can’t possibly remember everything we come across, but by maintaining an organized external brain of that information, we can keep ourselves afloat and make better decisions through times of crisis, depression, break-up, or whatever other problem comes our way.
The most important mentor we can have is the one we can be to ourselves. True, mentors exist to help us see the blind spots in ourselves we cannot see, but a true philosopher of knowledge is one who constantly looks at his or her own life to look at the ways in which it can be improved.
If we consume too much knowledge, we’re unlikely to remember what we need the most. It’s only by finding the right ratio of knowledge consumption and recall can we optimize our chances for whatever success it is we’re striving for.
“The unexamined life is not worth living.
This post has not been revised since publication.