Collecting and Compiling Personal Wisdom

Reading isn’t an activity for me, it’s a default. Commuting to work? Read a book on my phone. Work break? Read an article. Lazy Sunday afternoon? Fire up the good ol’ Kindle. I’m 27 (June 2017) and it’s been years since I was able to simply hold all the information I need in my head. I know there’s more of you out there.

First I started writing down simple things. Meetings, appointments, tasks, goals etc. The list grew until I realized I was revisiting and rereading some of the articles and books that I enjoyed most and realized that I don’t remember half as much as I thought.

The point: Knowledge can be lost, experience can fade away and good judgment is easy to rationalize against. A good book read years ago can slip from memory and its lessons become fuzzy and unclear.

So how can knowledge be compiled and organized? I’ll outline three practices that have changed my life in the last 6 months and post links to examples and places where they can be explored more fully. Doing this systematically has helped me retain and integrate knowledge at a much faster rate than before. It is also a great way to learn deeper stuff about myself and make more informed decisions that fit my character.

This is a dense, content rich post. It is possible to be overwhelmed with too much information at once. I suggest you pause and reflect after each section, and then continue reading.

Commonplace Book

I first heard about the Commonplace Book from Ryan Holiday’s post.

A commonplace book is a central resource or depository for ideas, quotes, anecdotes, observations and information you come across during your life and didactic pursuits. The purpose of the book is to record and organize these gems for later use in your life, in your business, in your writing, speaking or whatever it is that you do.

It’s actually something I’ve been accidentally doing on my own, although digitally. Ryan uses an index card and writes everything down by hand. The tricky thing is to actually get myself to use my commonplace book when I notice something interesting or get an idea, but I’m getting better at it.

It’s a useful practice for any type of person or job. Everyone writes notes, email, memos, cards, gives advice and has conversations where they share knowledge. This is essentially a repository of your knowledge and an external memory palace.

The general process Ryan recommends looks like this:

Read widely. Read about anything and explore everything. The key is to approach everything with a beginners mind and be open to things you don’t expect to be there. It doesn’t have to be just books. Songs, videos, movies, conversations, whatever.

Take notes while you read. Write down everything that sticks out to you. Words, ideas, quotes, whole passages, anything. Also, after you’re finished with an article or book, put it down for a few days. Let it simmer. Then return and try to summarize it in one passage and remember the key points, lessons, and ideas.

Focus on wisdom, not facts. Ryan said:

We’re not just looking for random pieces of information. What’s the point of that? Your commonplace book, over a lifetime (or even just several years), can accumulate a mass of true wisdom–that you can turn to in times of crisis, opportunity, depression or job.

Don’t worry too much about organization and specific categories. These will come to you as the book grows. It’s meant to be specific to you. It’s a lifetime project. Get into a habit of using it daily.

Things I write in my commonplace book:

  • A summary and key points for every article or blog post I read
  • Notes while reading any non-fiction book
  • Half-baked thoughts and ideas (log it or lose it)
  • Personal reviews (weekly, monthly, annual)
  • Journaling
  • Freewriting
  • Brainstorming
  • Quotes, notes, interesting phrases etc.

Getting stuff out of my head helps me develop thoughts further, and allows room for more mental alchemy to happen. It also conveys the importance of the issue to my brain so it can think about it on its own while I’m are doing something else. I have written more about the former here, and the latter here.

Codex Vitae

The Codex Vitae, or “Book of Life,” the idea comes from Buster Benson, who got the idea from Robin Sloan’s book Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore: A Novel. This document’s purpose is to capture my beliefs about the universe, track how my thoughts change over time, and act as an invitation to others to hold me accountable to my beliefs and commitments (or at least it will be when I make it public).

It’s my personal canon. A compilation of lessons I’ve learned, the people and writings that changed me. This document’s benefit grows in a compound interest kind of way, over time, as beliefs course correct and build on one another. It’s always incomplete and out of date.

It starts with a set of instructions for whoever opens it:


If you are NOT Kristijan:
  • Read this with the knowledge that you are different than Kristijan — the way he lives his life is not the way you should live yours.
  • Look for a few bits of wisdom that you could apply to your own life.
  • Consider creating your own Codex Vitae. Copy and paste this document and then delete most of the content. Fill it with your beliefs. Feel free to add or remove sections as well.
If you are Kristijan:
  • Develop a habit of using the Codex as a repository for beliefs that you develop throughout the year.
  • Do a yearly review on your birthday of the entire document, editing places where beliefs have changed.
  • Expect beliefs and tactics to change — don’t hold on to them too rigidly.
  • Consider doing a monthly review of whether your life is in alignment with values and beliefs. If not, should your behavior change or have your understanding and values changed?

The basic idea is to create separate sections for various beliefs, perceptions, opinions, lessons I’ve learned and the influences that shaped me (people, books, articles etc.) and populate them with a list of those beliefs. You can structure it any way you like. Here’s what mine looks like:

  1. Belief Systems
    • Meta-beliefs (beliefs about beliefs)
    • Beliefs About Reality
    • Opinions
    • Predictions
  2. Personal Systems
    • Personal principles
    • Productivity
    • Diet
    • Exercise
    • Emotional health
    • Lifelong learning
  3. Work
    • Career
    • Coding
    • Writing
  4. People
    • Strangers
    • Friends
    • Partnership
    • Conversations
  5. Influences
    • Books
    • Movies/Cartoons
    • Blogs
    • People
  6. Interests and Obsessions
  7. My Created Content
    • Web
    • Fiction
  8. Aspirations
  9. Annual Reviews (of my life)

As you change and grow, keep adding, removing and modifying your Book of Life. It’s a repository of who you are as a person. If you were to suddenly lose all memory, this should be the document that provides you with the most accurate map to the way you were.

Showing is better than telling. You can find good examples here and here. The authors urge you to copy and paste theirs and edit out where you disagree.

Personal Manifesto

A manifesto is a statement of principles and a call to action. A personal manifesto declares core beliefs and values, what a person stands for and how s/he intends to live his/her life. People use their personal manifesto as a source of motivation and inspiration, as a focusing mechanism or guidepost for how to approach decisions, a reminder of their priorities etc. (Here’s mine. Other examples.)

So how do you write one? First, make a list of areas that you want to address: your general approach to life, how to spend your time, how to treat the important people in your life, how to deal with opportunities, mistakes, hardships etc.

What do I stand for? What are my strongest beliefs? How do I want to life my life? How can I live my best life? These are some of the questions you should ask yourself when writing your manifesto. This is your living creed, update it freely, as you learn and grow.

Some general guidelines:

  • Write it in the present tense.
  • Make it uplifting and positive.
  • Use strong, affirmative language.
  • Start with your most meaningful values.
  • Don’t make it so long that you can’t read it every day. (Don’t go over 20-25 points.)
  • Don’t make it vague.
  • Update it once a month or once a year.

Todd Henry said in his book Louder Than Words:

The worst thing would be for your manifesto to feel like a Frankenstein’s monster of buzzwords, or like a forced corporate mission statement that looks impressive carved into a marble wall but has absolutely no bearing in reality. It should be something you live and breathe, and something that is so natural to you that others you know would read it and say “Yes . . . that’s definitely you.”

* * *

I like to have all of these documents in digital format, and Evernote is a great tool for this. It’s easy to access on every device, especially when I organized the tags, categories, and notebooks to be intuitive to me personally. The choice of software/app is irrelevant, use whatever you like. A lot of people prefer writing on paper instead of a computer.

This is powerful stuff. Pick one and give it a shot. The benefits are cumulative and you’ll enjoy the process more as you go along. 🙂

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