The other day I was reading a book on “How to Take Smart Notes“, what I was really fascinated with wasn’t the note taking system itself, but the story about the person who was famous for using the system: Niklas Luhmann. He was a sociologist who wrote 58 books in his lifetime, and he credited his prolificity to his robust note-taking system (with 90,000 index cards), “zettelkasten“. Once he was asked what his main research was and how long would he take, and his reply was:
“My project: theory of society. Duration: 30 years. Costs: zero” (Luhmann, 1997, 11)”– How to take smart notes
Can you imagine asking anyone these days how long their project would take, and how your response would be if they reply, “30 years”? We would be shocked if they said something like 3 years.
When I started architecting this website I knew I wanted towards something that would last a very long time. The growth of this website is nowhere near linear, as I frequently take long breaks due to health reasons, or I take a necessary detour like what I’m doing now with Roam Research, or I go on long reading sprees trying to fill up the gaps in my knowledge. The past few weeks I’ve just been processing a ton of notes in Roam, and it made me feel that I was neglecting this website. What I’m doing is building the scaffolding I need for the content I want to produce: I need a quick and easy way to surface connections between things I’ve read. Luhmann wrote a theory of society, and I wish to write a theory of a person, even if that theory only applies to myself.
The story of Luhmann investing years on a system made me remember the time I turned 30, I told people that I want to take my entire 30s as an incubation period so that I can become the 40 year old I wish to be. We talk about 5 year plans in terms of careers and businesses, but we don’t talk about long-term views in personal development.
The way I spent my 30s wasn’t the way my 30 year old self imagined to be. I thought I would get rid of whatever shackles I had in my 10s and 20s (which I felt I had wasted) and become a successful person, whatever success meant to me at that point in time. It turned out I reached my original goal much earlier than expected, and it promptly drove me into an existential crisis. As a 30 year old, I only knew what it meant to be successful externally and that was what I pursued. External success, is a very insecure and fleeting experience, and it made me think if this is all there is?
I was always insecure and anxious, always seeking for approval and validation. I had no stable sense of self, and minor traumatic events would send me into deep depression. It didn’t matter what I achieved professionally, or how many people told me how good my work was. I felt empty, fragile and exhausted. I felt like I had to keep up that relentless pursuit just so I can be continually validated so I can continually exist.
Thankfully my 35 year old self, probably on the verge of a serious breakdown, decided that my existence wasn’t sustainable and decided to call it quits.
I’m turning 40 next year. The world is a mess, a huge cesspool of suffering and I think we’re on the brink of a major political disaster at any given moment. But I’ve come a long way on a personal level. Yes, I’m still chronically sick, anxious and insecure, I threw my career into a garbage can and if not for Covid19 I’ll be delivering food, but I no longer feel like I’m a walking imploding tornado.
I’ve transitioned into doing things that are meaningful to me personally, and I’m developing the courage to nurture this sense of doing into something that sparks deep fulfilment to my life. To even have the idea that this is something that can be developed and nurtured, is a huge step for me. There is also this on-going effort to develop the willingness to endure frustration and ambiguity when solutions and completeness is not in sight that is signature for any long-term undertaking.
I have a private document that lists my ongoing anxieties, and from time to time I refer to it. Plenty of things that used to make me anxious no longer has the same power over me. You know how the brain is a sponge and how we can internalise people’s criticisms? It turns out the same mechanism is also effective at internalising values we keep reaffirming to ourselves. Maybe talking to ourselves in the mirror works after all – I don’t talk to myself in the mirror, but I talk to myself a lot in my journals.
When we write resolutions they tend to be pretty short-term. I think it is meaningful to contemplate the kind of persons we want to be in decade jumps. Becoming is slow, and it needs time. We don’t give ourselves time, and so we don’t give people time. Yes, life is short and unpredictable, I could be dead tomorrow much less achieve my dreams of becoming a 50 year old I can respect, but the paradox is nurturing anything meaningful, sustainable and deep doesn’t take place at a frenetic pace. We talk about long-term responsibility to the natural eco-system and to society, but my suspicion is that till we learn to undertake long-term responsibility for ourselves, we will not be in the position to undertake that on a societal level.
One of the most important things I’m trying to do is to learn how to take better care of myself so I can bear the grief I know that will come. To be capable of bearing grief one has to learn how to cherish the present so there is no regret of letting what is important simply pass us by, to learn how to cherish the present means nurturing the capacity to be present. The capacity to be present is developed by truly listening to our needs. Society has always preached that we need to put the greater whole above the individual, but I dare say that without knowing our own wholes, without learning to love our whole selves wholly, we will always be subconsciously driven by our personal needs and yet never learning to satiate them truly – we can’t be thinking of the greater whole or the other when we each feel perpetually deprived and untended to.
We can only stop chasing unnecessary things and learn to be still here, if we learn how to properly tend to our needs.
I know I am not there yet. I’m always anxious and still constantly seeking to be soothed in unhealthy ways. But I think the work I’ve put in for the past five years has nudged the needle considerably. Yet without the first half of my 30s giving me the opportunity to know what external success feels like, perhaps I wouldn’t have known that is not how I wish to live my life.
I feel like I’m constantly loosening the invisible chains on myself with every year that goes by. I think the gift of working on ourselves is emotional freedom, and it is emotional freedom that gifts one creative freedom. There has to be a sustainable, steady force propelling us through a 30-year project, and we cannot let our psychological baggage be dead weight in that long, possibly arduous journey.
In parallel is the long process of taking notes and processing them. It feels like a lot of tedious work. I did just one book and I was like, how am I going to do this for the hundreds of books I’ve read?
I think about the 20,000+ word post I wrote in 2015, how I meticulously manually included my book highlights, social media posts and writing, how I tagged them – how much value I derived and still derive out of it. I still get shivers looking at that post. Perhaps one day I’ll create a meta-commentary on that post with the benefit on hindsight, five years on.
The notes I take, gradually becomes me. When I revisit them, that part of me is reinforced. When I forget them, that part of me is forgotten too.
I believe the processing of the notes and the slow evolution of this website will hit a tipping point and become tremendously valuable to the work I am trying to do and the person I’m trying to become.
I guess this is yet another longwinded post to say, there is unquantifiable value in long, labourious processes. I am still chronically passively suicidal, but perhaps one day I may bring myself to say the same of life itself.
P.S. I know I have had incredible luck and privilege to get to where I wanted and decide that it wasn’t where I wish to stay. I think part of not wasting that privilege is taking the time I’m given to understand who I am, what I’m capable of, and learning what is the best way to live it out. I know the fire is burning, but the person I am now is not capable of doing anything about it. Apart from dealing with chronic health issues, I’m aware my worldview needs to be way wider and I’m also always unconsciously projecting my suffering onto people. I would like to at least do no harm, and try to become a more whole person first.