6. Digesting information by putting it in your own words 📽

When it comes to working with ideas and developing compelling lines of thinking, I think we are better off to have as our aim not so much the creation of so-called original ideas but instead trying to make the ideas of others in some sense our own.

6. Digesting information by putting it in your own words 📽
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Resources

Different ways of digesting information

Texts quoted from in this video

  • Fiona McPherson's Effective Note-taking
  • Sönke Ahrens's How to Take Smart Notes
  • Mortimer Adler and Charles van Doren's How to Read a Book

Video transcript

I have a question for you. And I’m going to present that question with the help of probably the best motion graphics you’ve ever seen in your life.

Ready?

Have you ever eaten something—say, a piece of pizza—and then a day or two later have it come out exactly the way it was before you bit into it?

Of course not, right? Or at least I hope not.

Why doesn't pizza come out the exact same way it went in? Part of the reason is that you chew it, obviously. But the main reason is that you body digests food, and in digesting food, your body transforms it in ways that make it useful for you.

So what about digesting information? How should we digest and thereby transform information so that it becomes useful to us? That's what we'll be focusing on in this video.

Unlike the previous videos in this series I’ve been making about building an old-school Zettelkasten, this video focuses on an issue that is not specific to building a Zettelkasten.

That is, digesting information is something you should be thinking about regardless of whether you are building a Zettelkasten of the sort that Niklas Luhmann did.

There are a variety of ways to digest information. For instance, you might answer a certain set of questions about every source of information that you want to digest. Or you might create an argument map that reflects the arguments made in a text and your analysis of them. Or you might create what are called sketchnotes—that is, notes consisting primarily of illustrations supplemented with some text—and if you're really good at that, you might be able to pull off something as impressive as one of Zsolt Viczián's "book on a page" drawings.

But it's what all of these approaches have in common that I think it best to focus on—namely, stating in your own words what is said by others.

Just to be clear, I am not saying that your Zettelkasten should consist of only the ideas of others. If you're maintaining a Zettelkasten, you're going to want it to contain plenty of cards that represent "your own ideas."

However—and this is why I put the phrase "your own ideas" in quotation marks—in many cases, what count as your own ideas aren't so much the ideas themselves as they are the particular sorts of connections you make between ideas that you have gotten from other people.

If you're thinking, "But I want to come up with ideas that are entirely my own, not just connections—merely making connections is for peasants,” then all I can say—apart from talking about peasant economies and status hierarchies—is what one of my professors once said, which is that people who claim to have come up with original ideas entirely on their own are in most cases simply revealing a profound ignorance of the ideas developed by people who have come before them.

When it comes to working with ideas and developing compelling lines of thinking, I think we are better off to have as our aim not so much the creation of so-called original ideas but instead trying to make the ideas of others in some sense our own.

And a necessary step in achieving that aim is gradually getting better at stating in your own words what has been said by other people.

Getting better at stating things in your own words will increase the likelihood that the notes you create are your own in the sense that they serve your purposes, that they help you develop your own lines of thinking, or your own perspective—which in all likelihood will be a perspective that amounts to a remix of other people's perspectives The remix you produce may be a remix of other people's ideas, but the remix itself is your own creation.

Putting things in your own words is not always easy. But if you do it enough, you will get better at it and you’ll come to see how valuable it is and thus be more likely to do it despite the effort it requires.

Hit the “like” button—NOW. Hit the “like” button—NOW.

Okay, now that I have stressed the importance of putting things in your own words, I'm going to present you with the words of people who also stress the importance of putting things in your own words, but since I'm lazy, I'm not going to bother stating their ideas in my own words. (That's right: do as I say, not as I do.)

Test your understanding by putting things in your own words

In her book Effective Note-Taking, Fiona McPherson emphasizes the importance of putting things in your own words:

note-taking is effective to the extent that you paraphrase, organize and make sense of the information while taking notes — in other words, to the extent that you put the information in your own words.

The reason that putting things in your own words is an effective way of taking notes is that doing so tests your understanding of material you’re taking in.

As Sönke Ahrens says in his book How to Take Smart Notes,

[Putting things in your own words] is the simplest test: We tend to think we understand what we read – until we try to rewrite it in our own words. By doing this, we not only get a better sense of our ability to understand, but also increase our ability to clearly and concisely express our understanding. (Location 968)

In their book called How to Read a Book, Mortimer Adler and Charles van Doren bluntly state how important it is to put things, including your own thoughts, in your own words:

The person who says he knows what he thinks but cannot express it usually does not know what he thinks.

Without putting an idea in your own words, then, you fail to demonstrate that you understand that idea. Moreover, since writing is such an important mode of thinking, when you don’t put an idea in your own words, you deny yourself the opportunity to enhance your understanding of that idea.

One reason so many of us deny ourselves this “opportunity” is that it doesn’t always feel good to do it.

As Ahrens says,

the attempt to rephrase an argument in our own words confronts us without mercy with all the gaps in our understanding. It certainly feels less good, but this struggle is the only chance we have to improve our understanding, to learn and move forward. We are faced with a clear choice. We have to choose between feeling smarter and becoming smarter.

When Ahrens says we have to choose between feeling smarter and becoming smarter, he’s basically saying that we should choose to become smarter even though our efforts to do so will in plenty of cases make us feel dumb.

Should I put quotations on my idea cards?

Although it is best that as much as possible you put things in your own words, that doesn’t mean you should never add verbatim notes to your note-making system—that is, notes where you copy word for word what someone else has said.

However, each quotation you write down is basically undigested information. If all you write down on a Zettelkasten card is a quotation, then that card is like the piece of pizza that remains untransformed.

Again, it’s certainly fine that you do this sometimes, but the vast majority of the time, you’re better off putting things in your own words because I can pretty much guarantee that notes in your own words will be of much more use to you, and also more pleasurable to return to, in the future.

Yes, taking such notes can be difficult and at times you might think that writing down ideas is a waste of time, but as Ahrens says,

while writing down an idea feels like a detour, like it's extra time spent, not writing it down is the real waste of time.

So how does all of this relate to building an old-school Zettelkasten? The next Zettelkasten video I’ll be releasing builds upon what I talk about in this video. That next video will be about how, after years of taking notes digitally, I came to realize that taking handwritten notes on an index card can be a valuable part of the process of digesting information.