If you’re an idea entrepreneur, then you need a tool to collect, organize, and refine the ideas that you’ll eventually present to the world through writing, speaking, training, or consulting.
Ideally, this tool will be simple, flexible, and immediately accessible. Moreover, you’ll want something you can use over the long-term—for months, years, or decades—as you develop articles, blog posts, books, and presentations on a variety of topics.
Fortunately, such a tool does exist. Actually, it’s been around for a couple thousand years. This tool is the commonplace book.
I’ve assembled an FAQ on commonplace books (my latest obsession) that I’ll present in two posts. In this one I’ll define the commonplace book and describe its uses and benefits. My next post will go into the details of setting up your commonplace book and using it on a daily basis.
WHAT IS A COMMONPLACE BOOK?
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.
If you choose to create a commonplace book, you’ll be in lofty company. According to Ryan, the list of commonplace book enthusiasts includes Marcus Aurelius, Petrarch, Montaigne, Thomas Jefferson, Napoleon, H.L. Mencken, and Bill Gates. And that’s just for starters. (To see some examples, check out this online collection from Harvard University Library.)
Another option is to go digital. Blogs, Pinterest, Facebook, Twitter, and Tumblr can all be used as commonplace books. Note-taking and writing apps fill the bill as well.
WHY CREATE A COMMONPLACE BOOK?
Everyone who creates a commonplace book will have a personal answer. Some key reasons are to:
Aid your memory. The mere act of writing something down can help you remember it. As the people at Field Notes put it: “I’m not writing it down to remember it later; I’m writing it down to remember it now.”
Create a personal reference system. Of course, a primary use of commonplace books is to remember things later. With a commonplace book, you never have to worry about losing a key fact, quotation, or personal insight. If you bothered to record it, then it’s in your commonplace book. Look there.
Filter information. Think about all the words and images that come at you daily through media (Web, audio, video, books, magazines, newspapers), speeches, presentations, and conversations with flesh-and-blood human beings. Out of that massive input, only a fraction is worth remembering. What exactly is that fraction, for you? The answer is your commonplace book.
Spur creative thinking. Commonplace books allow you to take ideas (such as quotations from books, articles, and speeches) out of their original context and “mash” them up. Arranging and rearranging this material allows you to discover new relationships and patterns.
In his classic book The Act of Creation, Arthur Koestler called this process bisociation—the “perceiving of a situation or idea…in two self-consistent but habitually incompatible frames of reference.” Matt Ridley describes it in more graphic terms as letting ideas have sex with each other.
Move seamlessly from consuming to creating. In “Extraordinary Commonplaces,” a 2000 article for The New York Review of Books, Robert Darnton captures this well. He describes commonplace books as a method of breaking texts into fragments, combining those fragments, and commenting on them. Historically, this meant that:
Reading and writing were therefore inseparable activities. They belonged to a continuous effort to make sense of things, for the world was full of signs: you could read your way through it; and by keeping an account of your readings, you made a book of your own, one stamped with your personality.
Have fun. Hey, you don’t really need a reason to keep a commonplace book. If people ask why you do it, just tell them it’s your hobby. Some people collect stamps. You collect ideas. So there.
WHERE CAN I LEARN MORE?
Commonplace book, the Wikipedia entry
How And Why To Keep A “Commonplace Book” by Ryan Holiday
Project: Start a Commonplace Book by Jamie May
The Commonplace Book: Part 1 from DIY Planner
The Commonplace Book: Part 2 from DIY Planner
Commonplace Books from the Harvard University Library Open Collections Program