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Building a knowledge base

Last post we explored the value of writing and concluded that “Only through the capture of life’s minutia are we able to systematically build coherence and intellectual relevance in our lives”. This leads directly to the idea of a knowledge base, sometimes described as a ‘commonplace’. This is the concept of an organised collection of thoughts, ideas and experiences. It serves as a way to orient yourself towards your intellectual advances and keep widespread clusters of ideas under your control.

So what does a knowledge base look like? Well, the answer will vary wildly between people, as each repository of knowledge must serve the owner in a unique way. For a comedian like Jerry Seinfeld it is a notepad to jot down a clever idea or joke as it strikes. For an digital artist it may be a collection of dribbble posts saved in categorised buckets to draw on for inspiration. For a developer, a commonplace might be a GitHub account full of starred repositories, and half-finished projects. A writer is likely to have ideas, personal notes, book excerpts, project outlines, sketches and any number of things they’re drawing on to complete a project.

In all cases, a commonplace is a method of compiling knowledge for later use. In digital or analog form, this continued growth of stored ideas and projects is a key driver of intellectual development. Any time you decide to work on a project, you should attempt to collect and categorise all information that is relevant and useful.

“My daily routines are transactional. Everything that happens in my day is a transaction between the external world and my internal world. Everything is raw material. Everything is relevant. Everything is usable. Everything feeds into my creativity. But without proper preparation, I cannot see it, retain it, and use it. Without the time and effort invested in getting ready to create, you can be hit by the thunderbolt and it’ll just leave you stunned.”—Twyla Tharp, The Creative Habit

Methodically noting and filing resources is a sign of a mature and deliberate craftsman—it is an investment into future learning and projects. Before long, you will begin to reach the point where this collection generates projects and ideas with minimal effort; previously isolated ideas are consolidated and curiousity spurred on.

Effective writing stems from intelligently connecting the dots between the concepts you understand and can articulate. It stands to reason, then, that in order to generate more creativity you must not only add to a knowledge base, but deepen and expand the number of connections within the totality of the network. By establishing and explicitly mapping your knowledge, you allow yourself the freedom to remix information. You will often find that solutions come from previously unsuspected fields or topics—proving to be analogous in some shape or form.

Even outdated resources, including old notes of thoughts or opinions, can prove to be valuable after time. How do these old opinions sound to you now? What lessons can you learn from your updated beliefs? Was it difficult for you to let go of this belief? Why? Was your environment conducive to holding on to this idea for a particular reason? Always test your beliefs and be updating your knowledge. Did something surprise you or make you doubt it’s validity? Good, this is a perfect chance to make sure this belief still holds true. Try to map ideas and concepts from one field onto another—do metaphors or strategies from the article you read last week apply to this economics problem? There is a huge amount you can learn by reviewing what you think you know—this introspection is critical for building a rock-solid foundation of knowledge.

“Richard Feynman was fond of giving the following advice on how to be a genius: You have to keep a dozen of your favorite problems constantly present in your mind, although by and large they will lay in a dormant state. Every time you hear or read a new trick or a new result, test it against each of your twelve problems to see whether it helps. Every once in a while there will be a hit, and people will say: ‘How did he do it? He must be a genius!’”

Eventually, you will have so many plans, ideas and questions arising out of your knowledge base. Rearranging, reworking and rebuilding this knowledge will yield exciting new thoughts and prompt you to pursue new projects, if you have the time. Indeed, keeping a commonplace will likely result in having so many plans, ideas and questions about concepts you simply will not have time to pursue them all.

Take advantage of technology and the wealth of information around you, use the wisdom of others to drive your own creativity. Do it intelligently, systematically. Take the time to learn things and learn them deeply. This is the basic formula for creativity and play. Break out of structured, outdated thought patterns and allow yourself to learn freely. You never know what you may discover.


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