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Tom Hall
Tom Hall

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Beyond Taking Notes (or how I joined the #roamcult)

I’ve always bristled at the term ‘self-taught’ to describe myself because a) it sounds terribly pretentious and b) it’s simply inaccurate. I don't have much formal education (less than one semester of high school and some college) but I didn’t build a decades-long career in technology by conjuring knowledge out of thin air. I’ve learned from reading countless books, articles and blog posts, watching endless videos and having long conversations with a lot of people a lot smarter and more knowledgeable than me over many years. In other words I’ve had many teachers and even more lessons, just rarely confined to an uncomfortable chair in a cold, concrete building.

The downside to all of this is despite craving continuous learning, I never really learned how to learn efficiently. I’m endlessly curious and my reading comprehension has always been high, but without ever having learned how to learn I end up retaining very little of what I consume, and even less (it seems) as I get older. As an example I have earned numerous technical certifications during my career in technology, but in each case my method was something like:

  • read the study guide cover to cover
  • try to memorize as much as possible
  • take the test soon after
  • if I failed (as happened maybe 25% of the time) then repeat the cycle. (I had to do three rounds of that process for one of the exams in the Novell CNE track back in the day.)

I knew I was supposed to be taking notes and reviewing things and I really did make an effort to do that, but I just didn’t know how. I would end up taking such copious notes that it was as if I were trying to make a copy of the text, or so few notes that all the context was lost and they were useless.

The same goes for things I've taken a personal interest in. For example I’ve always been interested in philosophy (primarily metaphysics and ethics) and have spent years participating in lengthy discussions and debates with people from all walks of life (mostly in online forums) about religion, culture, politics, psychology, etc. I’ve also taken some college courses and read a lot of source material on those topics over the years.

All of this has helped me form a worldview that I am comfortable with--and even to have a higher tolerance for those whose conclusions are different than mine--but vast swathes of the information and reasoning that helped form who I am today are simply lost to me. Granted a lot of those discussions still persist in text on various websites, but it would be nigh impossible for me to go back and recreate the paths I took along many different threads to reach the conclusions that I eventually reached.

Maker Mind

Until very recently it never occurred to me that others might have similar struggles, much less have discovered strategies for overcoming these inherent limitations. My first real step toward this realization was when I discovered and subscribed to the Maker Mind newsletter by Anne-Laure Le Cunff.

With articles such as Learning how to Learn and How to Read a Book, I was instantly drawn to subscribe. So it is that a couple weeks ago I read her article How to use Roam Research: a tool for metacognition and began a whirlwind ride down the rabbit hole of knowledge management and productivity research.

If that lead-in wasn’t warning enough, let me make it more explicit:

This stuff is all very new to me. I am not an expert in any of the techniques or tools I’m going to talk about here and I am very open to corrections!

I just learned about all of this stuff in the past couple of weeks, so please check out the blogs, books, and videos referenced here and come to your own conclusions about whether I’m representing these ideas adequately. I only hope to spark some interest in these methods and tools while not getting anything horribly wrong.

Roam Research

The first thing I did after reading Anne-Laure’s Roam overview was to create an account at and check it out. My honest first impression: I had no idea where to start. The tool is brilliant, the documentation is not yet great. There are scattered help docs and videos about various features and such, but no step-by-step getting started guide. There are understandable reasons for this, such as: a) there are only currently 2 full-time engineers building the product, and b) there are many different use cases for the tool, so any “getting started” guide would have to be opinionated (and therefore potentially limiting).

Fortunately I soon found another Maker Mind article called A beginner’s guide to Roam Research: getting started in 5 easy steps and that was exactly what I needed to start getting my toes wet in Roam myself. As I started to get more familiar with how Roam works I simultaneously started digging into what inspired its creation, how it differs from other tools and other examples of how and why people are using it.

What would I use Roam for?

Building a Second Brain

Early on I stumbled on a YouTube video of an interview with the creator of Roam, Conor White-Sullivan, by someone named Tiago Forte. Tiago wanted to talk to Conor about how Roam might benefit people who sign up for Tiago’s Building a Second Brain (BASB) course.

Tiago’s BASB overview could have been addressed directly to me:

“How many brilliant ideas have you had and forgotten? How many insights have you failed to take action on? How much useful advice have you slowly forgotten as the years have passed?

We feel a constant pressure to be learning, improving ourselves, and making progress. We spend countless hours every year reading, listening, and watching informational content. And yet, where has all that valuable knowledge gone?"

I haven't taken Tiago's course but I'm really interested in it. Moreso if he introduces a cohort built around the use of Roam Research instead of Evernote. I have nothing against Evernote--I've used it off and on for years--it's just that paradigm never captured my imagination the way Roam has.

Zettelkasten via “How to Take Smart Notes”

During the aforementioned interview Conor and Tiago discussed their shared admiration of a book by Sonke Arens called How to Take Smart Notes, which I picked up a few days ago. This book is essentially a modern introduction to a system of note-taking used to great effect by Niklas Luhmann, a German sociologist in the middle of the 20th century called Zettelkasten which is another super interesting rabbit hole to go down if you’re so inclined. A good overview of the book is How to Take Smart Notes: A Step-by-Step Guide by Nat Eliason. While you’re there his post Roam: Why I Love It and How I Use It is worth reading as well.

Bullet Journal

I initially found it odd that the default format of the Daily Notes pages is a bulleted list, but as I started to use it for my daily journaling I realized it was very comfortable for me. I hop around from topic to topic a lot when I’m writing so it’s just a natural fit to have one thought per bullet. I also learned that this was inspired in part by bullet journaling, which is a really interesting method for increasing productivity. An overview is here: How to Bullet Journal

All these things and more are made much easier with Roam Research. Check it out yourself!

Roam Resources

Top comments (1)

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Erin • Edited

God, this looks so much nicer than my top-down isolated notes in big pages within Notion, crammed with snippets and musings that I don't give full context for to keep the page "readable". This predictably makes my notes laborious and unintuitive to use as intended and I find no value in looking back at them. PKM resources are so fascinating and I love the concept of Roam, Obsidian, and Foam. Now to decide what to use!

Thanks for the write-up. My bestie is a law student and I'm sure she'll find her sanity and passion again with Roam especially.