Commonplace books

Over the last nine years or so, I have been collecting words that meant something to me. They include words of wisdom, advice on reasoning, and anything else that I think is worth remembering.

Why do I do this?

A few years ago, I read Decisive, by Chip and Dan Heath. They argued convincingly that using a pros-and-cons approach to making a decision is deeply flawed. I took this lesson to heart, and started using their recommended approach instead. This lasted for several days, maybe even a week or two, but a month later, I found myself going back to the old pros-and-cons approach. This is not because I discovered that Chip and Dan Heath were wrong. Rather I simply forgot what they had said.

Sometimes I’ll read a novel, and I’ll start seeing people differently, more sympathetically, more humanely. But again, a month or two later, I’m back to my old ways—committing acts of prejudice, using familiar stereotypes, essentially doing the same thing over and over again, etc. It’s as if I haven’t read anything at all.

Reading something once just isn’t enough for me. I forget stuff I’ve learned. And if I’m forgetting stuff I’ve learned, I’m failing to use good and helpful ideas. And if I’m failing to use good and helpful ideas, why learn about them in the first place?

So I write them down. I copy and paste. And I’ve started reviewing these “good ideas” every morning over coffee — in a ritualistic, almost religious sort of way. But I don’t treat these words as holy.

If you look at my notebooks of passages, you’ll find many things crossed out and questions written in the margins. For instance, I had copied passages mentioning how willpower is a limited resource and that one needs to be mindful about what you choose to do in a day. But a couple of years ago, it turned out that the research this idea was based on was part of a larger problem in the field of psychology. (See Vox’s “What psychology’s crisis means for the future of science.”)

So it may not have been true at all, and so I crossed it off in my notebook.

But the general point is that there’s wisdom out there, and I want to make it as much a part of my life as I can. My solution is to read good stuff, find words that seem true and helpful, copy them down, and then look at them regularly.

I once had links to PDFs of my commonplace books here, in the hope you would find what I had collected interesting. I’ve since removed them. If you would like, you can email me for them. But it’s probably a lot better to compile your own.

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