ThoughtfulAtlas

The pressure to produce, the devaluation of research, and naming your giants

There’s a pressure to produce in the Personal Knowledge Management / Tools for Thought field.

For example, Tiago Forte’s ‘CODE’ structure – Capture, Organise, Distill, Express – emphasises the importance of producing as an end goal. He writes in Building a Second Brain, “What is the point of knowledge if it doesn’t help anyone or produce anything?”1 Similarly, Sönke Ahrens in How to Take Smart Notes writes, “An idea kept private is as good as one you never had.”2

I disagree with the concept that knowledge is worthless unless it has an application; after all, you can learn things for the sheer hell of it, and a solid 75% of my knowledge falls into the category of ‘I enjoyed learning it and now it’s fun trivia nobody else is interested in’. Maybe one day it’ll be useful, but it probably won’t.

It's made me wonder, however, why it is that I disagree with this message in a more broader sense. Over the past few months I've been mulling over this, and this post is the end result (ironically).

Research is hard and time-intensive, but we should still do it properly

I sometimes think that people should have spent a little longer researching a subject before writing about it. Not to pick on Tiago, but one of the most glaring examples for me was the brief section in BASB referring to commonplace books, starting on page 19. It was poor, to put it bluntly, and lacked understanding of the historical subject. A little more research would have made a significant difference. Whilst it didn’t ruin the book by any means, it did make me more skeptical about what I then read.

I fell into a similar trap myself when I succumbed to the internalised pressure to keep up a regular blogging pattern and posted Leonardo Syndrome before I’d finished reading Walter Issacson’s biography on him; it transpires there were a few aspects of his life and works I’d misunderstood due to going solely on Peter Burke’s book and a handful of articles. A few more weeks of research and the post would have been stronger for it.

This is a major risk in the drive to produce – people skim lightly over the research, as proper researching is hard and invisible, whereas production is visible and laudable. In a world where we fear the Collector’s Fallacy and promote Information Diets, spending time reading and researching can seem a dangerous thing.

Yet it’s the meat on the bones for any product.

‘Studies show…’

I’ve regularly mentioned on twitter how much I loathe people quoting or telling anecdotes without sources – “Benjamin Franklin once said…” – or, worse, making claims that “studies show”. How is somebody meant to use your work as a springboard to go off and learn more things themselves? I’ve spent a depressingly large amount of time googling, trying to find the original sources for things mentioned in articles or youtube videos. All too often I come up short, or find that the context is different or it’s actually a myth in the first place.

As a result, I now check for references, links, citations, further reading, bibliographies etc before I settle down to read anything. If I can see that the article is densely populated with quotes, anecdotes, mentions of ‘studies’ – but there’s a shocking lack of sources – then I close it without reading it.3 If the youtube video is an hour long but has no links or references in the description/a pinned comment, I won’t watch.4

Sorry, but I’m not wasting my time with that.

I think there’s two reasons people skimp on references.

  1. They didn’t note them down.
  2. They want to look like they have something original to say, rather than rehashing other people’s work.

The truth is that we are all just rehashing other people’s work, to a greater or lesser degree, and adding our own commentary to the mix. There’s a reason the phrase “standing on the shoulders of giants”5 is so common and important in academia. The important thing to remember is that you’re standing on a different selection of giants to another person, and consequently you’ll have a different perspective. Don’t be afraid to name your giants.

A voice of authority

One of the problems is that when somebody produces an article, youtube documentary, or a book (especially a book!), there is an inherent sense of authority to it. Misinformation is a dangerous thing, as I’m sure most of us would agree.

Certainly there is a risk that a dense-peppering of references can make a work seem more authoritative than it actually is. You can overwhelm somebody with so many references that they assume that your sources are high quality and you’re representing them correctly – there’s too many for them to check. They let down their guard and assume you know what you’re talking about.

This is a risk, certainly, but it’s one that should stand up to scrutiny. You’re ‘showing your workings out’, in a way. Somebody can go away and check your sources and, in an ideal world where they want to know more about the subject, they will.

Adding to information overload

‘Information overload’ is a whole different subject – for not just one but multiple blog posts as a starting point – but it’s a valid consideration when it comes to production of content.

I think there is one question content creators should ask themselves:

Does the value of this justify adding yet another thing into the info-mire for people to have to wade through?

We talk about needing information diets, curating what we consume, selecting for quality over quantity – and yet the cultural encouragement is to produce, produce, produce. Why? There are valid reasons, which I’ll cover next, but as a general rule the motivation seems to be production as an end in itself.

So why and when to produce?

My stance in this post so far might seem quite anti-production. Yet I’m writing this blog, aren’t I?

Quite simply it helps me to clarify my thoughts, and to test how effective and comprehensive my note-taking has been.

Dann Berg wrote a blogpost that really clicked for me. All of it was good, although he’s yet another to talk about input/output ratios, but one paragraph stood out:

“Writing helps pinpoint the exact weaknesses in your understanding of a concept. Start writing and you’ll quickly discover which parts of a topic you don’t know as well as you thought you did.”

Similarly, in Writing to Learn, William Zinsser succinctly states:

“Writing is thinking on paper. Anyone who thinks clearly should be able to write clearly – about any subject at all.”6

I currently have seven blog drafts sat waiting to be finished or at least significantly reworked. Several of them I started writing with an idea but wildly insufficient research. Those topics aren’t the main focus of my current research, however, so they’re on the backburner. Others I started writing only to realise I can’t articulate the ideas properly yet, so need to digest the content a little longer before I rework them.

This could be done in private, though, so why do I need to publish it on the internet?

This is where I’m a little selfish. I love teaching people and sharing with other people the interesting new things that I’ve learnt. At work I have the reputation of ‘the one who writes and shares how-to guides’. My desire for this blog is for people to think, “Huh, that’s interesting.“ Maybe to then mention it as trivia to a friend at some point in the future.

Trinkets of knowledge, if you will.

I don’t need to change the world. I don’t need to revolutionise anything. I don’t need to monetise anything. I have no intention of setting up a course or patreon. I just want to share a little part of the joy I find in learning for the sake of it, and to be a voice that encourages that approach to knowledge. I think that justifies adding more content to the world, but I may be horrifically wrong!

Conclusions

  1. You can research and learn for the pleasure of it. Production is not the only good.
  2. Don’t skimp on the research to rush the production.
  3. Name your giants and cite your damn references.
  4. Write because it aids in clarity of thought.
  5. Share if you think it adds value to others.

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Naming my giants

  1. Tiago Forte, Building a Second Brain: A Proven Method to Organise Your Digital Life and Unlock Your Creative Potential (Profile Books, 2022), p. 42–47. Sidenote: the etymology of ‘productivity’ in the footnote for this quote is incorrect. (For once, my Latin degree is useful!)

  2. S. Ahrens, How to Take Smart Notes: One Simple Technique to Boost Writing, Learning and Thinking (Sönke Ahrens, 2022), p. 46. I agree with the overwhelming majority of what Sönke writes in this book, but this is the one thing that made me raise my eyebrow doubtfully.

  3. Ryan Holiday and Robert Greene are eternal frustrations of mine. Their books are filled with interesting anecdotes and they have lengthy bibliographies, but rarely do they link the two. I want book and page references, damn it!

  4. The one exception to this is content from History Hit and associated channels since they’re, y’know, produced by verified historians.

  5. The specific phrase is from Isaac Newton, ‘Letter to Robert Hooke, 1675’, 5 February 1675 https://digitallibrary.hsp.org/index.php/Detail/objects/9792 [accessed 16 October 2022]; the concept pre-dates Newton, however.

  6. William Zinsser, Writing to Learn: How to Write - and Think - Clearly About Any Subject at All (New York: Harper Paperbacks, 2013), p. 12.

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