WNW Resources - And Some Personal History

The story of what lead me to develop a second brain, and eventually my Where Not What System. The Resources section is the heart of my personal knowledge management. Here's why.

WNW Resources - And Some Personal History

Now we come to may favorite part of building a second brain. I understand the productivity boost you get with projects, and the value of elevating the areas of your life to full fledge citizens worthy of time, attention, and effort on part with your goals.

However, the biggest personal lift I have gotten from my Where Not What system has to do with learning, and that is captured in Resources.

Let me tell you a story

Back in 2012, before I joined then entrepreneurs organization, I did not have a support network. I never intended to be an entrepreneur. I had been a very successful engineer (10 patents), and then a successful engineering manager (I managed teams in Austin and Phoenix for Motorola), and I was on my way to become an Executive at Motorola Semiconductor Product Sector, when I switched tracks to join a small video game start up in Phoenix called Rainbow Studios. Eventually, that business was acquired by THQ Inc and I expected to join the ranks of the fabulously wealthy executive vice presidents who's offices lined the halls of THQ head quarters in Calabasas, CA.

Things did not go according to plan. I got caught in the cross fire between two C-level officers, and I was out over my ski's tips. My own leadership skills and maturity were not up to the challenges and as a result I resigned.

Pro Tip: Choose a side. Trying to make everyone happy, makes no one happy.

After that, I worked for Disney for a time, helping them build Fall Line Studios from the ground up. We made games for the Nintendo Wii. However, the stress of constant travel, being away from my family, the weird nature of the constantly polite, but nearly always confrontational meetings at a large public company lead me to resign that position as well. I wanted to be home with my kids. I had a weird skill set. I knew how to lead teams of people to make fun and putting it in a box, on time, on schedule and on budget. Strangely, I couldn't find a job in Phoenix doing that as an executive.

So, I start GameTruck.

I'd run divisions with hundreds of people and managed budgets in the tens of millions of dollars. How hard could it be to run my own company?

Of course, I did not know how to factor in the stress of jumping from the safety of a secure paycheck, healthcare, regular bonuses, and guaranteed vacation days into my own business. Also, my understanding of technology and translating it to other executives was enough to make me highly valued. Now I found myself the principle of a small, unknown, retail event business that sold directly to (often fickle) consumers. I swapped a staff of rocket scientists with phd's doing physics simulations for fun, for liberal arts college students who spent their spare time trying to form a band. GameTruck tested me in every way possible.

The worlds were so different. The stress of running my own company made every other career stress I had experienced up until that moment pale in comparison. If you are an entrepreneur, I am sure you can relate to this. I went from a person who cashed company checks to someone who had to write company checks.

My experience with entrepreneurship was never as glamorous as portrayed on TV and social media. I dreamed of being Bill Gates. The reality felt like being Fred Sanford (Google it).

The toll on my family, and personal relationships was profound, and not in a good way. I just did not know how to handle what was happening to me. Nor did I make good decisions with money, partners, or myself.

Most of all, I was fracturing the one relationship that was most important to me - the one with my wife, and that would likely ruin my relationship with my kids as well.

One of my employees at the time, Tawnya Sauer, told me about this thing called Audible. She said she got a lot of value out of listening to audio books on her drive to work.

I knew if GameTruck was going to survive as a business, I would need to learn a lot of new skills, and learn them fast. But I did't have the resources of Motorola (I attended 80 hours of training classes a year at their Motorola-University), or Disney (where they brought in world leading creatives like Sir. Ken Robbin's, and held regular off-sights for professional development).

So I bought a subscription, and I started listening to Zig Ziggler on Sales. He talked about Auto-University. Listen to audio-books on CD or cassette in your car. Every day. He said, "Motovation is like bathing. It doesn't last, so you have to do it daily."

So I listened. Daily. And I learned. The more I listened, the more I thought I was learning. Some books, I swear saved my life. Elkhart Tolle's A New Earth, and later The Power of Now would introduce me to mindfulness and give me the tools to get out of my head and stop manufacturing misery for me and everyone around me.

With a clearer mind, I could embark on unwinding much of the emotional barbwire I had built around myself, my family, and my business. I could begin to separate from the painful and toxic business relationships I had attracted into my life. (Some day I need to write a book about that.)

Tim Ferriss' The 4 Hour Work Week had a particularly powerful influence on me. I quit watching the news, and reading feeds that boiled my blood, and I spent even more time, listening to TED Talks, and seeking out podcasts where smart people tried to solve hard problems and believed it was possible. I became happier, and more of my mental bandwidth was available for problem solving,. Best of all being I became more present for my wife and kids.

I started building better relationships with my father, mother, sister and brother. And by 2014 I found the Entrepreneurs Organization. The regular calendar of learning events called to me like a beacon in the night.

I read, and listened to even more books, dsicovering more and more ideas.

And then... I started to notice something...
I was recognizing certain stories. I had heard them before. I began to wonder, "what had I learned from such and such a book?" I couldn't remember.

I had begun to consume a book a week. But I was experiencing "idea-indigestion." I couldn't put it all into practice. I couldn't keep it all straight.

Instead of learning, I had turned knowledge into a form of entertainment, enjoyable, but fleeting. It felt like I was doing something important, but in practice, very little changed. I had created an illusion of personal growth, without the tangible benefits of change.

I had become comfortable with the idea I was learning without experiencing the discomfort of putting something new into practice.

I asked myself, "What the hell am I doing all this for?" Why invest so much time in listening, reading, and highlighting important passages if I just moved onto the next shiny new idea that comes along. Why do this if none of it sticks.

I asked myself, "What the hell are you doing this for if it's not making you better?"

The Start of the Journey

And so, in about 2015, I started to dig into how to actually, learn. What did it take to, you know. Learn something? In EO we talk about "nuggets". If you go to a learning event, there should be 1-2 nuggets you can take away from a talk.

I was afraid I wasn't even getting that much. I knew I needed to raise the bar. Again Tim Ferriss (who by then claimed he read several books a day), provided another answer. The Feynman Technique. If you take something you want to learn, describe it to someone, in your own words, like you're talking to a 12 year old, then you will know it.

If you can't explain it, you don't understand it. Go back, and fill in your knowledge gaps. There's even a form you can use to fill out the Feynman technique.

Feynman's core insight is that we need to express new knowledge to learn it. It's not enough to see it, you have to produce it. You can get about 80% of the benefits of the Feynman technique if you tell someone what you learned - you know share it. You can also get a similar boost if you just write it down in a journal.

Keith Roberts, creator of the Oak Journal says that if you write something down by hand, you are 30% more likely to remember it. I knew from college where they taught engineers to keep notebooks, that if words went in my ears, and out my fingertips through the pen to the page, I could remember a lot.

So I started keeping a journal. Paper at first. Then I heard Jordan Peterson say, "Writing is practice thinking." Expressing thoughts in words is thinking. So, keeping a journal, in a way was a way of playing with the ideas.

I learned about Sketch Noting, and eventually I moved to analog-digital note taking with an iPad (today I still use a remarkable tablet). But by 2017, what I had was a HUGE collection of randomly assembled, discordant, disorganized notes that I never went back to read, or use.

I had invested years creating "notes", and like old Kodak pictures from the 70s and 80s they sat in boxes, inaccessible, unused, unreferenced. I started to feel the anxiety of wasted effort. Whats it all for?

I was drowning in a sea of inaccessible ideas. I had piles of best practices I couldn't act on, implement, or fully comprehend. And then before I took action, the next shiny new idea would come along and consume my attention.

The more I read, the more familiar it all sounded. Worse, I had no way to vet the validity of the ideas. Every author, every speaker was just as passionate about their "thing" - but was it true? Did it work? Was it worth exploring? How would I know?

Shit. I was changing. But not in a good way.

I had stopped being an engineer, a person who uses research, critical thinking, and creativity to solve hard problems. I had become an idea junky.

The Feynman technique, and note taking helped me recall a lot, but I couldn't put it together in a useful way.

Then, I discovered How to Take Smart Notes by Sönke Ahrens.

That book, changed my life by changing my mind.

The Power of Working with Ideas.

Ahrens told the story of a staggeringly productive German Sociologist named Nikolas Lumen. (You can look up his academic exploits. They are truly impressive.). No has heard of Lumen because... well who has heard of any German sociologists? To say he toiled away in obscurity would be an understatement. But his method for working with ideas was truly revolutionary.

Here's the golden nugget: Ideas are relational. Ideas don't exist in a vacuum, they connect to, and inform other ideas. Lumen created a system that allowed him to work with ideas, and see those connections clearly.

The practice sounds simple. Using "slips" (English speakers would call them note cards), he restricted each idea to a single card. But, using a pen & paper system, he could "link them." He created a Wiki before anyone knew what a Wiki was. But it was his methodology, the discipline of one idea per card that was unique.

Instead of one giant monolithic block of text, like a monologue rant of information, the fixed size of the card forced a conciseness and granularity that most people never know. Lumen created more and more links between related ideas.

What's so special about one idea per card?

Most business books, and text books mix a blend of narrative (stories), with facts and figures. We need the stories to relate to the content, but we need the data to support the claim. Those almost always get blended together in a chapter, or a paper.

You can think of a paper like a community of people - all lumped together. Lumens method however recognized that within any community, or any group of communities (or group of papers), there are multiple ways to group and organize the people that make them up. There are mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters. In fact, there are a virtual infinite number of ways to take groups of communities and find different kinds of connections that will reveal different insights, stories, and information.

The academic paper, with its monolithic blocks of text, enforces one viewpoint, one definition of community on a collection of ideas. Lumen wanted to free those ideas from that structure and explore new ways of connecting them.

By definition, an insight is: an unexpected connection between two seemingly unrelated things.

The dominant way that most knowledge workers process information masks insights. They group multiple ideas together and present it as a unified whole. Lumen realized that if you fractionated the ideas, making them atomic, you could find new connections, new paths, new ideas, and new insights.

What does this have to do with Building a Second Brain?

Once, I learned about Lumens system, building what I call, "threads of thought," or "trains of thought," (thought trains works too), I changed the way I took notes.

Suddenly, instead of a bunch of unrelated, disjointed books, and podcasts, and learning sessions, I began to build a tapestry. I started _weaving_ ideas together.

It started simply enough.

I would start a folder for book notes, make a StartCard, think of it as the engine for my train of thought, then, with some flexibility, I would start making notes for specific ideas.

Single ideas went on NoteCards. Sometimes the ideas were stories the author told, other times they were formulas, or proofs, or facts, or research.

It is very common for an author to cite the source for their information. This new method allowed me to explore some of those sources. One idea lead to another, and I created a BranchCard for each new line that branched off the main train in a new direction.

As I added more notes, the connections grew, and new insights came to light. "Oh hey, that parable of the Chinese Farmer with the horse, I knew I've heard that before" - I would connect, or cross-reference this story, with others I had heard it before.

Instead of ideas just going in one ear and out the other, they would go into my notes and stick, "catching" on other ideas.

From Passive to Active

This system caused me to shift from simply receiving information, to seeking new and specific information. I conducted my own research.

I wanted to know things like, "what does it take to build a high performance team?" Or, "What does it mean to be a Good Man?". I asked, "what are the best ways to live?"

Using my connected notes, I could collect, and connect ancient wisdom (stoicism) with modern takes (The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck), and find similarities, differences, and gain clarity.

Most important, I finally started putting ideas into practice. I began to distill what I was learning down to tests, hypothesis, trials. When I listened to something new, I could measure it against the network of ideas I had already assembled. What's more, it gave me a basis for testing for validity. I could ask, "what is behind that idea?"

Here's a specific example. In his book, Scrum, Author Jeff Sutherland makes two assertions. There is an idea of a 10X engineer. That means an engineers who given the same qualifications is ten times faster any a similarly qualified engineer. I was able to find independent validation for that idea. Let's face it, there are differences in human performance. However, Sutherland also asserts that the delta between similarly qualified teams is even larger, like 2000 to 1. That means the highest performing teams can do work in a week that takes a similarly qualified (on paper) team two and a half years to finish. That is a bold claim. And it may not be true. I can find absolutely no corroboration for it, not on the internet, not in academic papers, not in any other books.

Sometimes, claims are just good stories, sometimes they are supported by facts. I wanted to know which was which.

Using this system, I could begin to separate:

  1. The ideas
  2. The stories
  3. The supporting evidence
  4. The practices

To stay with Sutherland book as an example, it is loaded with ideas on how to plan and work together more effectively. I was able to extract those suggestions from the narrative and distill them to my own cheat sheet. That had a profound impact on GameTruck and how we executed projects.

I found myself more consistently able to act on new ideas. If I wanted to work smarter, not harder, I had to get smarter. And now I was.

If linking ideas was making me smarter I still missed one piece. How did I tie it all together? Lumen was all about learning and ideas but he had nothing to say about business and life. How could I make this system more actionable?

From Lumen to Forte

How could I integrate my notes into every area of my life? I searched YouTube and found several vloggers who talked about Lumen's system (called a Zettlekasten), and then one of them, a student going to medical school, mentioned Praxis Labs.

Praxis Labs, Tiago Forte's website grabbed my attention. Forte was focused on productivity. In his world view, the vast majority of us are knowledge workers. So he developed a methodology for working with knowledge. He believed we should save the context of our work into structured folders that represented each area of our lives. That is his PARA system.

At first I just smashed PARA and Zettlekasten together - and like you might expect it was a bit of a disaster. Then in 2022, I took a step back, really thought through was trying to do, and realized the key was to use Forte's work space mindset to organize Lumens thought trains.

Productivity focused information would end up in Projects, and Areas, but, curiosity focused ideas would end up in Resources. Put another way, PARA organized for action. Zettlekasten (lLumen) organized for better thinking.

I finally had a system that put them together. I had a system that helped me learn to be more productive. My second brain helped me integrate and act on new knowledge.

And it was powerful. To say my personal productivity increased 10X would likely be an understatement.

More than File Cabinet

I hope his gives you some context of the actual problem I was trying to solve. Further, I hope this helps explains why the Resources section of my system is so important to me. Resources can be a collection of assets like headshots, or a brand guide. However, for me it is so much more. This is the space where I learn, and discover new understanding, and eventually, put into action better ways of thinking.

The Resources section of my second brain is where I get smarter. Projects and Areas are where I put those smarter ideas into practice.

So over the next series of articles, I'll break down my practices not just for how I use resources but how I think about learning.