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Extending the zettelkasten beyond the ivory tower. An experiment.
The solution seemed so obvious and clear to me. The process was broken, and the most impactful fixes were low hanging fruit: just reduce the handoffs and replace the tooling. Doing so would allow one person to do the job of three.
This was the position I found myself in as a newly hired operations director at a startup. Aside from the issues with the process in question, the real challenge I faced was that my fellow directors, and some of the executives, were skeptical of my claims.
I knew what things were supposed to look like, but all of my examples and references were either sitting in books I hadn’t picked up in years, or trapped within a graveyard of my previous employers’ private Google clouds.
I knew that I had solved this problem before, but I also knew that I’d never again see the presentations, emails, post-mortems, and spreadsheets I had created the last time I did. In terms of making an argument, I’d have to start from scratch.
What I was missing was a non-work system that housed the big ideas and knowledge I had absorbed and refined over time. Beyond a repository of notes however, what I really craved was a system that could help me clarify and justify my thinking.
How great would it be if this system offered up dynamic and unexpected combinations of ideas that I could apply to situations I haven’t seen before?
A possible solution from a world away
To the personal knowledge management (PKM) nerds among you, you’ll quickly recognize that these are the traits of a zettelkasten. This is a system of note taking and knowledge synthesis that was developed by Niklas Luhman in the 1950s.
Using nothing more than index cards and a wooden box of drawers (zettelkasten is german for slip-box), Luhman published an ungodly 70+ books and nearly 400 academic papers, all at a high level of intellectual quality and rigor. He was revered for the way he connected dots between different disciplines, and whenever asked, he always attributed his prolific output to the fact that his information system amounted to a partner in thought.
“I must learn more” was my immediate thought after I came across his name. I was in the midst of my company’s onboarding, and this system appeared to be just what I needed to ensure I wouldn’t have to start from scratch ever again.
Lucky for me, Sönke Ahrens effectively wrote the book on Luhman’s system back in 2017. I devoured it. While it was a magnificent review of why the zettelkasten is so effective for learning, insight generation, and sense making, it offered very little in terms of how to actually create one. After reading the book, I still found that I wasn’t any closer to a system I could actually use.
So naturally, I did what any obsessed person does, and spent the next few months spinning out into a rabbit hole of Youtube videos, Reddit threads, and blog posts.
When things clicked
I finally had the eureka moment when I stumbled across Maarten Van Doorn’s Academic Mastery with Roam Research self-paced course. In it, Van Doorn provides a step-by-step curriculum for creating your own personal zettelkasten in Roam Research, but he goes one step further.
He spends a few lessons going over what I’ve come to think of as a “knowledge architecture” that classifies information into a structure of questions, claims, and evidence.
This was the missing ingredient.
The reason I didn’t see it until I encountered Van Doorn’s course was because he specifically designed the course for academic writers who, it turns out, have a very specific set of needs.
Academic writing is hard
Academic researchers publish scientific papers that are meant to be torn apart by fellow academics through the peer-review process. Skepticism is the point. This kind of writing requires a high level of reasoning, rigor, and citation that most of my humble emails would immediately wilt under.
Academic papers are the currency of academia. They’re how PhDs are born, reputations are made, and how tenure is earned. This is the world Van Doorn’s course is meant to serve, and it’s why his zettelkasten implementation has as its centerpiece, the knowledge architecture of questions, claims, and evidence.
Even though his approach is 100% overkill for my needs, I couldn’t help but feel that some aspects of it could help me create my dream system for life and work. I came away buzzing with excitement at the prospect of remixing his techniques for non-academics like myself.
So, how could this work?
All that knowledge that had evaporated out of my head over the course of my career could have been captured in the form of claims like “companies are the sum total of their processes”, and “reducing handoffs leads to work being performed where it makes the most sense.”
Claims like these could be connected to each other, or to a question like “how can I reshape a company’s performance through process theory?”
Results from studies I had read could be captured as evidence for, or against, a claim. I’d also be able to capture evidence from personal experience, such as a post mortem that clearly illustrated how a claim played out in the real world. Books, trade publications, lectures, and conversations would all be valid sources for claims and evidence.
My hope is that the dream system I craved could come to life by adapting the knowledge architecture to my non-academic world, through the infrastructure of a zettelkasten.
I’ve completed Van Doorn’s course and even took another one by Lukas Kawerau called Cite to Write, which covers very similar ground. Both spend time explaining how the knowledge architecture works in the world of academia, and both offer different variations on how to build out the infrastructure in Roam Research.
By applying key lessons from both courses, I’ve begun to build my own lightweight zettelkasten and am in the midst of testing and refining it to see if it could become the thought partner I’ve been searching for. In future posts, I’ll be reporting on my findings about what works and what doesn’t.
While I’m not entirely certain whether this experiment will result in the system of my dreams, I’m excited to give it a try and let you know how it goes.
This post is the first in a series focused on how the QCE framework can aid us in the non-academic contexts of business and life. Here are links to the related posts:
If you have any ideas, questions, or feedback, I’d love to hear from you. Please feel free to reach me at firstname.lastname@example.org.