WoW 076: On creativity and a personal knowledge management system (part 3 – knowledge workers series) [Words of Wisdom]

In this series, I'll share my thoughts on a new experiment I'm running and the different principles, practices, and tools connected to my new little quest. This series developed unexpectedly, as much learning does, and I'll reveal more about my experiment as the week unfolds. Growing meaningful new things take time, and what I'm growing is still in nascent form (with no current plans on selling anything), so for now, here are my previous essays in this series in case you missed them:

Part 1: On the garden of your mind

Part 2: On getting started

Intended Audience: Knowledge workers, students, or anyone who wants to take their learning seriously and compound their knowledge and learning over time and does not yet have an intentional personal knowledge management system.

(Reading this thoughtfully might be the most valuable 15 minutes you spend all month...)

Let's start with a definition.

A Personal Knowledge Management System is a process for collecting knowledge and improving your thinking over time. We'll refer to it as your PKMS, or as your second brain.

The ideas I'm exploring today go beyond productivity hacks or even the famous Getting Things Done method. You can use GTD or some version of it in your knowledge management system, but my intention is that this will help take your learning and thinking to another level, which is far more valuable than simply being productive and executing tasks efficiently.

However, I think it's worth noting that many people do not need a PKMS, will not use one, and can still be quite effective in creating value in the world without one. The difficult thing is that it might not be so clear today if a PKMS will be incredibly valuable for you in the future. But I'll share my bias, after intentionally building a PKMS since late 2020, that it is, in fact, surprisingly powerful and beneficial. It is worth carefully considering if seriously doubling down in creating a PKMS is an investment you should undertake. I hope to contribute in some small way to your thinking here.

While I love the physical process of writing by hand in a journal, I recommend you use a digital note-taking tool (also nerdily called "a digital second brain") to help you improve your thinking.

To start in thinking about what to do for building a PKMS: anything you read, watch, learn, or listen to that seems meaningful in some way can be quickly collected and stored in your digital second brain.

Then over time, you can organize, sort, and systematize the content in your digital second brain to clarify your thinking and help you with whatever you want to create.

Here are some core principles and concepts to consider when building a digital second brain. Most of my thinking here is conceptual, and I will get more practical at the end. I hope my perspective will help you understand why to start creating a PKMS and help you see just how powerful a system like this can be.

Use your brain to think, not to remember

I invite you to consider that the best way to use your brain is to think, not to remember. I'm not saying remembering things is bad or that improving your memory skills is a waste of time. Improving your memory is quite valuable.

But I do recommend that you should put significant effort into trying to develop your thinking skills, perhaps far more than working on your memory skills. If you want to influence others, if you want to create value in the world, if you want to grow your creativity, focus on using your brain to think, more than assuming you will remember what you read, watch, and listen to.

It's important to realize that our memories and ability to recall information is not all that great. Not only can we not hold many things concurrently in our short term memory at one time, it can be stressful to try to! You can choose to use a strategy like spaced repetition to improve your memory and this is a worthy endeavor. Even while successful spaced repetition can be a compounding investment strategy for your time, my focus here will be the incredible value of learning to improve your thinking. Improving memory is a critical skill used in many cognitive functions, but a big topic and beyond the scope of today.

By training your brain to concentrate and think carefully, in my experience, you will inevitably improve your memory as a byproduct.

We are inundated with information, resources, ideas, and opportunities, yet if we rely on our long-term memory to be able to recall all of those things immediately, we will inevitably fail to retain all that we come across.

We can improve how we relate to what we read, watch, listen to, and learn if we externalize it and get it into a note-taking tool. This might help you think better in the moment as you capture it, and it will definitely give you ideas and resources in the future to utilize to improve your thinking. Improving your thinking over the long term is my focus here.

As you prioritize and condition your brain to think, to be intensely curious, to ask questions, and to have ideas, your thinking will improve. As you develop a PKMS and a practice of taking your thinking seriously, your creativity will grow in orders of magnitude.

Part of any productivity system, or learning approach, is to have a system to collect, store, and access your information, resources, tasks, and ideas.

From all possible knowledge to a personal knowledge management system

Let's step back and think big picture. First, consider all possible knowledge that someone could ever learn in a lifetime. Then think about every idea, experience, failure, lesson you've learned, resource you've come across, video you've watched, conversation you've had, or thing you've read. To summarize, let's call all the experiences and knowledge you've ever encountered your "inputs".

Of course, what you can experience is much smaller than the infinitely large sum of what you can know.

A goal of growing in knowledge and your thinking skills is to expand the quality and quantity of your inputs of what you are exposed to so. However, if you can't remember the input, access it, or use what you've come across, there is a problem.

Now consider all that you can look up and access from all the inputs you've ever experienced.

Collect as you go

Investing in your own PKMS is invaluable for collecting various information, resources, and opportunities.

A PKMS helps you have a kind of personal knowledge wiki, so you don't have to remember everything, and you can expand what you can look up to be much more potent than if you do not have a PKMS or if it is a haphazard PKMS, spread across many different places, both physical and digital.

So to build a digital second brain, simply collect whatever stands out to you as you go.

That way, you slowly build up a collection of valuable resources and ideas, and it will only become more valuable over time.

Google vs PKMS

You might think, "This sounds nice, but I don't need anything fancy to remember things because whenever I don't know something or need to remember something, I can just google it."

But can you? And do you want that to be the extent of your knowledge management and learning strategy?

First, consider the question: can you google what you want to know?

Searching the web is helpful for certain things. But it has it's limitations. It's limited to what others have published online and you trust the source. It also requires your ability to find that information quickly. If something helpful is buried a few, let alone a hundred pages deep in Google, you aren't likely to find it, or it might take more time than you have to find the answer.

There are better strategies for retaining information than only searching the web. Once you've found the answer, then what? How will you find it again in 6 months or three years? Will you get the same search results? Maybe. Maybe not.

Or what about when you want to know something that Google can't answer?

How do you search for what you think about a certain topic?

How do you find the 35 best quotes you've read or the insightful videos you've watched on an important topic in the last 3 years and cross reference that to a new idea you've been exploring in the previous month?

How do you remember what you learned from an insightful conversation?

How do you access the meeting notes with great resources and recommendations from a company you no longer work for?

You need a personal knowledge management system if you don't have a practical method for answering these questions. These are relatively simple questions, and it'd be fantastic if you had a systematic way to answer each.

Creativity is interconnected, not isolated

People sometimes tell me they are impressed by my creativity. They say things like "How do you have so many ideas?" "You are so creative!" or "How do you remember so much?"

Well, the best creativity doesn't happen purely by accident. I have developed an intentional practice of creativity powered by my PKMS. The most creative people that I know have intentionally built up a large body of knowledge in an area or in a number of different fields.

You see, creativity is about more than just original thinking, and creativity is not about having a singular, isolated idea.

There are no geniuses in the world who naturally walk around having brilliant ideas simply because they are born gifted. There is this persistent and misguided myth of the genius: that some people are endowed with exceptional brilliance and creativity, and the rest of us mortals are doomed to suffer in mere mediocrity. Yes, there are various levels of fixed intelligence. However, intelligence is far more varied than your IQ score. If you look at how the most influential people through history learn (many of them had tutors from a young age) you see that they developed a skillset for rigorous thinking over many years.

Creativity needs a network of diverse knowledge and idea dots

These so-called geniuses invested rigorous thinking over a period of years, meaning they put time into learning many different skills, and they developed ideas about a vast network of fundamental and disparate knowledge units or dots. To be creative, you need a diverse library of ideas, knowledge, and skills to be able to draw from.

Build a diverse library of knowledge

You need to be able to see what network of ideas you do have in a novel way. Sometimes having a 'beginner's mind' is a powerful way to be creative because you do not yet have an engrained way of seeing ideas. But you do need enough knowledge and ideas to work from!

Creativity is connecting knowledge and idea dots

In my experience, creativity comes from learning from others:

Watching what someone else does and imitating it in your own way, or tweaking just one part of it.

Reading something and applying that insight to your context.

Learning from 3 different inspirations and combining them in a new way.

If you think of knowledge and ideas as different points on a graph, creativity is just connecting two or more idea dots together.

Creativity is making connections

Creativity is not usually about originality as much as the ability to see and connect the dots.

It would be best if you still learned to think for yourself and apply principles to your decisions, but that is beyond the scope of my focus today. The main idea here is to learn to see the signal amidst the noise.

Developing a system for connecting the dots will help you be more creative because you will begin to be able to see connections and the way things relate to each other if you have your knowledge and ideas externalized in one space. You use that as a space to think. I'll share more about this in the future.

Creativity is reconnecting idea dots

Furthermore, as your digital second brain takes shape, you will be able not only to connect idea dots but you will be able to quickly and powerfully reconnect idea dots. Think of each idea as a single dot with multiple purposes or uses. You can reuse or reconnect an idea or knowledge dot to another idea dot to further your creativity.

Creativity is reconnecting the dots

So, with whatever ideas you have, with whatever you create, whether that's an in-depth note of your own thinking of a concept, a summary of someone else's idea in your own words, an email, an essay, or a tweet, save it in your digital second brain. This will allow you to reconnect your ideas at some point in the future, recycling or reusing your ideas in a new way. This is not only efficient but will foster further creativity.

And what about when you want to build on your learning and improve your thinking?

The more you connect ideas, the more ideas you have

The more knowledge you build, the more ideas you have, and the more original ideas you can have, the more one thought leads to even more ideas. Learning can be a Cambrian explosion of ideas if you are intentional enough about it.

The more dots, the more ideas


This is how, at a high level, building a PKMS can help you experience compound growth in your thinking over time.


...that's it!

Let me know if you have any specific questions that you'd like me to address about my process or an aspect of knowledge management systems that you want me to explore more. There is a lot of ground to cover, and I kept things relatively conceptual today.

I'll share more practical insights and more specific examples in the future.

Live wisely,


P.S. If you know someone who might like to nerd out on this, you know what to do!

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