WNW Resources Unlock Learning

The power of linking ideas comes to light in the Resources section of a personal knowledge management system.

WNW Resources Unlock Learning

I believe the most valuable part of my system is the Resources. Why?

I read a lot. I mean, like a book a week. Sometimes more. Mostly I listen to books, but I also read every morning, and sometimes at night. In short, I consume a lot of content. My kindle account has 15 years of highlights and over 500 books. That does not include all the podcasts I listen to, or all the learning events I attend.

Part of what sparked my interest in personal knowledge management was that I noticed two things.

  1. I kept forgetting what I read, yet.
  2. I kept reading more and more.

I was afraid I had become a "knowledge junkie," someone who consumes information for entertainment. The point of reading non-fiction books was to learn and grow as an individual. But I was not doing that.

Enter the Zettlekasten (or how I got here)

One way I tried to improve my retention for learning was to take notes. I knew from college if I wrote something down, I was more likely to remember it. So, for years pursed better note taking systems. From moleskin to bullet journals, to sketch noting. I eventually graduated to analog digital notes with an iPad, Notability, and the apple pencil. However, it was in that 2017, Sönke Ahrens published his book, How to Take Smarter Notes. In that book, Ahrens told the story of an obscure German sociologist (all German sociologists are obscure) named Niklas Lumen, who had created a novel form of note taking that dramatically increased his productivity and ability to apply his knowledge.

That was what I wanted.

If you want to work smarter not harder, then step one is you have to get smarter. My head felt like full pitcher of water I kept trying to pour more into. Knowledge splashed out as fast as I could pour it in. What had Lumen figured out?

One Idea Per Note

Without retelling the whole novel, Lumen's big idea was the put a single idea on a single "slip" (or note card). Every card had a unique number. He would then link the cards by their numbers, creating a sequence of ideas. I call them thought trains, or threads, but the idea was simple enough. Until that time, everyone expressed every idea in a long academic paper. Ideas were trapped in the amber of big blocks of text. Lumen's insight was to fragment papers into more granular chunks, chunks he could cross link with other ideas from other threads.

Lumen had possibly created the first Wiki before anyone knew what a Wiki was. His method, sounded simple, but contained a powerful idea.

So how is it different from a Wiki?

It is not the linking cards that made Lumen's idea brilliant. It was how he thought about what was on the cards. Most Wiki pages are no different from academic papers. They contain large blocks of text, and the links provide support in the form of references, foot notes, or definitions. But Lumens system freed the ideas from the cage of text. He made each card stand on its own. If you wanted to get a full paper, you would have to assemble a sequence of cards.

He genius became manifest when he realized, there were many ways to assemble sequences of cards. And the more associations he created between ideas, the more paths he uncovered.

By taking a line of reasoning, and breaking it into atomic "idea" pieces, Lumen could see connections others had missed. The more notes he "connected", the more paths he created. The more paths he created, the more insights he gained. After all an insight is by definition, a connection between two seemingly unrelated things. But the real genius of Lumens system was that you could traverse links backward. You could look at one of his note cards and find out what other ideas linked to it.

Welcome to 2018

Lumens system remained obscure until Ahren's resurfaced the idea. Almost immediately that concept took hold with two groups. Content creators and Doctors. Content creators loved it, because it allowed them to exponentially increase their content producing abilities (the same thing the system had done for Lumen - he published a truly absurd number of academic papers and books without contributors or co-authors.) The other group were medical students, because in Medicine, everything is freaking connected. It's maddening.

But within months developers sprang into action to try and implement some of Lumen's ideas. In particular, back linking became critical. Most links point in one direction, and you use the back arrow to "back up." But until the end of the 2010s, being able to automatically generate a list of every link that pointed to a document, had not been widely adopted. If you wanted bi-directional links, you had to manually add them. Auto-backlinking solved this problem. And Notion.so was one of the first companies to embrace the concept.

Let's Put Some Tools Around that.

I came across Ahren's book in early 2019 and found the concept compelling. What's more, I saw a way to unlock a trove of fifteen years of kindle highlights sitting in my Amazon account. I discovered an app called Readwise.io. Readwise automatically exported my Kindle highlights and injected them into my Notion.so note app.

In a few days, I had a system where I could find an interesting idea from a book, then click on a link and open my Kindle to that exact page. Now for the first time, I could begin to take my highlights and "work with them." I could pull information into a "thought train."

It did not take long before I started to connect ideas across books. I was hooked. To retrieve an entire thread from a book, I only needed one handle, one memory, one idea, and then I could recover the entire concept.

Very quickly companies began to implement note taking apps based upon Lumens ideas. RoamResearch and Obsidian started around the same time. I tried both, and finally settled on Obsidian. If you wanted to know who was new and hot all you had to do was read the Readwise.io blog to find out what new note taking app they supported.

Within weeks I had a new process. I would

  1. Buy a book on Audible, and Kindle.
  2. When listening to audible if I got to an idea I liked I would pause the book.
  3. Then I would highlight the part I wanted.
  4. then continue.
  5. when I was finished, all my highlights (most of them anyway) would be waiting for me in my note app.

Now Amazon does put export limits on highlights, and so some long passages I wanted did not get fully exported, However, all in all the process brought my curiosity to life. After I listened to something, I could go back and review those highlights and start to assemble my own trains of thought.


I got into Personal Knowledge Management, not to do projects or elevate areas of my life, but to recover more than a decade of learning that felt lost to me. I had no way to "work with", many of the ideas I had uncovered over years of listening and attending learning events.

Suddenly, personal knowledge management became very real. I had a way to work smarter.