Is Personal Knowledge Management a 'Nerd Snipe'?
my review of Building A Second Brain; datasickness; nerd sniping the highly organized
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It all starts with knowledge, and you have at your disposal an embarrassment of riches.
—Tiago Forte, Building A Second Brain
Over my life I have consumed an immense amount of non-fiction books, tweets, research papers, podcasts, audiobooks, newspaper articles, you name it. And I don’t think that this has necessarily been good for me, let alone virtuous. In particular, it was easy to spend hours a day listening to audiobooks and podcasts while ‘locked down’ in my house in Rochester, or innumerable low-energy hours scrolling Twitter while suffering from insufficient socialization or simply tired. Periods of intense information consumption have at times left me feeling ‘datasick,’ desiring to tune out and touch grass. (s/o Thom Ivy)
I have responded to these periods by: deactivating social media accounts, unsubscribing from email lists, deleting the podcast and YouTube apps off of my phone, etc. These strategies have worked to varying degrees. Although in my experience there’s a tendency towards a ‘conservation of distraction’—you may spend less time on Instagram or listening to podcasts and simply spend more time watching YouTube. To avoid this tendency, it’s important to be intentional and build new habits which allow you to unplug and even—deep breath, exhale—be bored.
Another purported solution to these consumptive tendencies is to build a ‘personal knowledge management’ (PKM) system. An effective PKM system would be designed to enable its owner to develop a healthier, more intentional relationship with information. It would help its user to follow-through on their personal projects and habits, facilitate connections between ideas and create new ones, remember and reference what they’ve read, 10x their writing output, get six-pack abs, and secure a prized seat among the great philosopher-kings of our era (Patrick Collison). I’m clearly having some fun here but if you watched YouTube videos about: Roam Research, zettelkasten, or any number of related productivity tools and products you would be exposed to ideology similar to what I’ve described in this paragraph.
One of the people who has been most successful in building a career around ideas of personal knowledge management is Tiago Forte, creator of the Building a Second Brain (BASB) course and book. Tiago and I have never interacted but we have mutual friends and acquaintances. When he launched the pre-order campaign for his book, I immediately ordered a copy out of solidarity.
Tiago frames his system as enabling people to create a ‘Commonplace book for the digital era’. He believes that his BASB system helps people to shift their, “…relationship with information toward the timeless and the private” and away from the mania of the latest TikTok trend or fleeting twitter take. His book is well-written, a quick read, and served as a great prompt to reflect on my relationship with information and the systems I use to structure my personal projects.
Context: I have been using the note-taking application Roam Research on-and-off since 2020. The ideas in Tiago’s book were somewhat familiar to me already through various blogs I had read, videos I had watched, and, an adjacent book, How to Take Smart Notes. A hyper-condensed version of my notes from this book are at the end of this review.
Addressing Criticisms and Problems with Personal Knowledge Management
Tiago’s system and, his book in particular, are designed to proactively address common failure-modes and critiques of personal knowledge management. A certain subculture on the internet loves to promote these ‘productivity’ tools and systems and others critique and clown their founders and evangelists.
Common failure modes and critiques:
these tools only produce the illusion of productivity
these tools justify endless consumption, procrastination, and useless organization of notes
users tend to create overly complex systems that are not valuable in practice
“If you need to find information again in the future, why not just Google it?”
“no one who is impressive and successful uses a system like this in any meaningful way, please stop trying to tell me about the guy who invented zettelkasten”
users of these products spend immense energy trying to find the best tools and plug-ins as a way to avoid doing meaningful work, hopping from app from app and tribe to tribe
Tiago Forte addresses all of these criticisms and even advances some of them himself throughout the book. However, before we dig into a few of these, there’s a glaring meta-question…
If these systems are so helpful and I’ve been building my own for awhile, how did my ‘second brain’ help me to write this blog post?
I read this book on my Kindle Paper White and the notes automatically exported into a note in Roam Research called ‘Building a Second Brain (highlights)’ via Readwise. Earlier this week I spent two, somewhat distracted hours curating these highlights and turning them into my own little personal heuristics, takeaways, and reflections. During that process, I noticed that a majority of highlights were not valuable at all. I added the condensed version into its own page, ‘Building A Second Brain,’ which I then browsed through today as I created an outline for this post.
The next step would be to see if there’s anything in my existing notes that would be valuable for this review. Evangelist YouTubers would have you believe that this would allow me to quickly find some game-changing anecdote or idea. My ‘second brain’ should be a bulwark against recency bias—allowing me to rediscover relevant ideas that wouldn’t naturally bubble up into my subconscious as I write this piece.
Since it’s a book review, I mostly just looked to see if there’s anything relevant for a couple keywords: Tiago Forte, Note-taking, Roam Research, productivity…I only found one real relevant note, which was a critique of the PKM ideology from Sasha Chapin. I forgot that Sasha had written his piece and that I had read it and taken a few notes:
This note was purely taken as a bit. Taking a note on Sasha’s note about why you shouldn’t have a note-taking system…Never underestimate how the course of my life has been and will be impacted by my desire to commit to a bit.
This note is not particularly helpful. I don’t even know if the points without quotes were reformulations of Sasha’s ideas or my own. But damn, Sasha, “Shun the useless adoption of the aesthetic of the useful. When something can be like work or like play, never make it work.” When I get home from this coffee shop I’m going to hang that on my wall and put a second copy in my shoebox full of striking phrases.
I do think that Tiago effectively addresses all of Sasha’s criticisms throughout the book. He mentions several times that the second brain can be viewed as a kind of mirror. You may create notes for things you think you should be interested in and relevant to hypothetical projects (‘T-Shirt Drop Shipping Business,’ ‘Rebuild Website with Python’…) but you will find that unless you have a genuine interest or actionable plan, those pages or folders will not accumulate new notes. In this way, his system provides evidence of the gap between your professed aspirations and how you genuinely spend your time and mental energy. Although, a simple journaling practice would achieve similar results. You just flip through your journal from 2017 and see that some of the problems you were writing about then still linger in your life.
Tiago doesn’t share any anecdotes of artists that Sasha particularly loves using Obsidian or Roam Research, or any tool like that. But he does reference how Octavia Butler partially attributed her creative success to her note-taking habit. The habits of other successful creatives are used to further bolster the argument that note-taking systems similar to Building a Second Brain are valuable.
Don’t leave your home without a notebook, paper scraps, something to write with. Don’t walk into the world without your eyes and ears focused and open. Don’t make excuses about what you don’t have or what you would do if you did, use that energy to 'find a way, make a way.
Tiago’s system is heavily focused on creation and having a project-based orientation to note-taking and, more importantly, curation. The two key acronyms of his system are PARA and CODE. PARA stands for Projects, Areas, Resources, and Archive. He advocates for people to mostly take specific notes associated with projects—has a start date, deadline, etc—because these notes are more likely to be actionable. Areas may be something like ‘Garden,’ ‘Consulting Expenses,’ or ‘Seeking Tribe’—slightly more prone to justifying endless information consumption, organization, and procrastination. Resources and archive are intended to be places for you to move notes associated with completed projects or deprecated areas of responsibility. In the extreme, I imagine someone coming home after getting fired and putting their ‘<company name>’ note in archive, or getting dumped and doing similarly with their ‘<exes name>’ note.
CODE stands for Capture, Organize, Distill, and Express. This process is likewise meant to drive people towards creation. He encourages his readers to share their half-baked ideas and ask themselves, “What is the smallest version of this I can produce to get useful feedback from others?” To strive to produce and not believe in the prophesied future productivity gains that will come soon™, after you’ve paid your dues to the cult of personal knowledge management, “…if you can’t point to some kind of output or result you’ve produced, it’s questionable whether you’ve been productive at all”. Tiago emphasizes that completed projects are the most valuable resources in any ‘second brain’, as the process of distillation and synthesis cuts away the irrelevant noise—much like my experience turning my books highlights into a blog outline.
The last chapter of the book ‘The Path of Self-Expression” was particularly good. There’s a tendency for non-fiction books to burnout and become repetitive. To be honest, I had low expectations as I read the first few paragraphs. However, it had several lines that I think will be beneficial for his readers “…I’ve noticed that it is never a person’s toolset that constrains their potential, it’s their mindset.”
And Tiago’s final assault on the idea that Building a Second Brain should be associated with the PKM failure modes of endless content consumption and accumulation of information:
It is all too easy to default to collecting more and more content without regard to whether it is useful or beneficial to us. This is indiscriminate consumption of information, treating every meme and random post on social media as if it was just as important as the most profound piece of wisdom. It is driven by fear—the fear of missing out on some crucial fact, idea, or story that everyone is talking about. The paradox of hoarding is that no matter how much we collect and accumulate, it’s never enough. The lens of scarcity also tells us that the information we already have must not be very valuable, compelling us to keep searching externally for what’s missing inside.
‘Do you really need to do more research before you start that project? Or are you just afraid of rejection, missing out, and death?’
Nerd Sniping with Personal Knowledge Management
So do I recommend reading Building a Second Brain or more broadly diving into the world of ‘personal knowledge management,’ ‘zettelkasten,’ and ‘tools for networked thought’?
Like with all prescriptions, it depends on who you are and what problem you’re trying to solve. Tiago claims “‘Being organized’ isn’t a personality trait you’re born with, nor is it merely a matter of finding the right apps or tools.” I don’t totally disagree with this. To do so would be to believe I have a strong, defensible model of the boundaries between what qualities result from nature versus nurture. Which I don’t. Or I could, well aktually, believe that there will be a future tool which utilizes a combination of augmented reality, machine learning, and direct-brain interfaces to bring order to the lives of the least conscientious people alive—a man-made horror beyond my comprehension.
Instead I only somewhat disagree. I think there’s at least two ‘types of guy’ who should steer clear of most or all PKM. The first: if you are already particularly organized and productive, then I believe that many of these tools will be a time-suck on your life. Personal knowledge management, at least in certain forms, seems to be a kind of ‘nerd snipe’.
Nerd sniping typically refers to when someone asks their engineer friends technical questions that pique their interest. Their friend will then stop whatever they were doing and immediately begin working to help them to find a solution to their problem. This was popularized by this XKCD comic:
Please avoid nerd sniping your friends and loved ones, especially when it will be inconvenient for them!
I have friends who are highly productive and use these systems. For example, my friend Bram, who develops his own open source tools for Obsidian, built Stenography—software that automatically turns code into human readable documentation, and reads and writes more than I do. The productivity of Bram and a few other friends is partially what convinces me to try to rework my habits and use these kinds of systems (and spend more focused hours on my personal projects).
What do they know that I don’t??
That caveat aside, a lot of PKM is a nerd snipe for highly organized people. PKM evangelists, particularly on YouTube, promise it will deliver a lot of ambiguous, compounding value by more effectively organizing people’s lives and allowing them to turn a little extra effort now into great rewards in the future. A highly organized person, particularly one who is quite systematic, could easily get sucked into spending dozens of hours building an intricate system and hundreds of hours following through on their complex processes for little real value. They didn’t actually have a problem that this kind of system solves, their existing more minimalist ‘systems’ were effective.
The other kind of person who should not bother with this type of system is a mature adult, in or past their late 20s, who is extremely low in conscientiousness. Someone who struggles to keep their calendar up-to-date or whose computer desktop is littered with every file they downloaded in the last six months. Even Tiago’s simplified system is not going to be something that this type of person will realistically follow through on, at least not in a way that will be uniquely valuable and sustainable.
The kind of person described above would would probably be better off just writing 1-3 tasks on a notecard every day and seeing if they can complete them, or even consistently write them down. Simple but not easy! It’s not clear that these type of tools are even particularly valuable for me, as a moderate-high conscientiousness person (heuristic: I woke up at 5 am and went to the gym several days this week).
Overall, I would bet that the overlap between "person who can manage this kind of system” and “person who has a problem this type of system solves” is smaller than we might want to believe. I would like to believe that Tiago is right and that [almost] anyone can benefit from his system. That being organized isn’t a personality but a set of transformative habits and practices. There are people for who that’s certainly true. I just also know a lot of people who I would comfortably bet would not benefit from BASB, let alone the kind of PKM that Tiago likewise critiques.
Building A Second Brain will be mostly helpful for someone who can: follow through on a system, get back to it quickly when they don’t, and can benefit from further organizing their lives and research. There will be a lot of people who purchase Tiago’s book and course who will not succeed in implementing his system, although hopefully they’ll learn something in the process. Others I’m sure will genuinely benefit. I would also bet that relatively conscientious people are more likely to read the book or complete his course. Tiago has almost certainly saved many of these students from fear-driven information hoarding. Similarly, I hope this piece helps a few people to decide if a ‘Second Brain’ is a rabbit hole they’d like to explore, or if they are running the risk of getting nerd sniped.
I’m sure I will personally continue to experiment with a bunch of trendy ideas and tools that don’t end up working for me (or maybe anybody). My zettelkasten page of personal insights will gather digital dust. Anki flashcards for spaced-repetition will remain unreviewed. My project pages will fall out of date and serve as a reminder of my tragic aspirations, a particular, idealized version of myself that is much more prolific, lifts heavier, and attends fewer social gatherings. My days and weeks will go by without a systematic, standardized reflection, while my simple GoalTracker app oscillates between periods of daily use and weeks of inactivity. And I think that may be all for the best.
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Let me know if you enjoyed this post, or even read it! I spent more time working on this blog than most of my others. My hope is to write more reviews of the books that I read, particularly those written by friends and other indie authors.
The discrete notes, ideas, and questions that I noted while reading Building A Second Brain:
Divergence is exploring, convergence is exploiting.
End your work session by outlining next steps. Leave your work session with the task partially unfinished.
What strategies do you have for dealing with the overwhelming waves of information that you are bombarded with daily?
The issue isn’t that you haven’t consumed enough information. The issue is that you haven’t synthesized it in an actionable way.
Start with what you already know. Fill in the gaps once you’ve already started the project.
The first step in working with your ideas is to capture and articulate them.
Without an easy way to access our notes, we will succumb to recency bias.
Fewer, better notes. The best curators are the most discerning.
If you’re not producing anything then the actions you’re taking are definitionally unproductive.
At any given point, Richard Feynman had twelve problems that he actively sought out information to help solve.
What are your ‘twelve problems’?
The power law applies to books, videos, and other sources of information. Identify the most powerful, actionable ideas and take note.
What was the 5 percent of information that provided 50 percent of the value?
Save now, read later applications are mostly useful because they stop you from reading low-value articles and blogs that briefly capture your attention.
Your completed projects are the most valuable contributions to your notes.