I’m realizing that there is something deeper that I’m not seeing with regards to concept maps and how it ties into what I feel is missing from note taking and personal knowledge management, specifically with regards to the ability to show a meaningful “big picture” view of something.
I think one of the best places to start in understanding this is with an article by David B. Clear on the Zettelkasten method of note taking entitled Zettelkasten — How One German Scholar Was So Freakishly Productive. To start, this quote below from the article really touches upon my frustration of trying to organize and categorizing knowledge unsuccessfully on different iterations of my website over the past couple of decades.
Now imagine that instead of the Web being a web, all of the world’s webpages had just been dumped into a big folder without any links. All Wikipedia pages, all blog posts, all Medium stories, all the web articles of different newspapers, all YouTube videos, all the gazillion webpages that make up the Web, all just piled onto one big heap inside a folder. You’d never make any sense of it.
Now imagine further that someone proposed that the solution to this mess was to use tags. You’d consider the idea ludicrous. What? I should organize the gazillion webpages in this folder by using what? A million tags? That’s absurd!
No, the way to organize a massive amount of information and make sense of it is to use a web. That’s why the world’s webpages, as well as the neurons in your brain, are organized as a web. And that’s why you should organize all the interesting ideas you want to keep track of over your lifetime as a web of notes as well.Zettelkasten — How One German Scholar Was So Freakishly Productive
David then further describes the benefits of a concept map but also their downside as well, that being a concept map of your entire knowledge over your entire life would be a pretty huge visual map.
If we now consider mind maps, concept maps, and outlines, we’re getting closer to a solution. These tools are a good approach to find relations among ideas. The problem, however, is that they only allow you to properly work with a few dozen ideas. You’re certainly not going to put 90,000 ideas into a single concept map over the time span of 40 years and draw connections among the ideas. But that’s precisely what Luhmann did with his Zettelkasten!
You get that? The linear recording of information, as in a notebook, sucks. Non-linear notetaking, and especially graphs and concept maps, rock. And what is a Zettelkasten if not one massive graph or concept map?Zettelkasten — How One German Scholar Was So Freakishly Productive
He then describes how asking a question, lets you explore a Zettelkasten note system which is exactly how a concept map works in that it should be based around a question. This ties in metaphorically with how I see questions as quests for your life and the greater your questions the more adventurous your life will be which will help you “level up” and psychologically mature in turn.
This is poignant because he describes how a Zettlekasten must have reached a certain level of maturity itself as well. So it mirrors your own stages of psychological development and “levels” of consciousness which relates to vertical development. In effect, think of your current concept map for life, as your map of meaning for it, often more commonly referred to as your worldview. The more evolved your concept map of life is, the more evolved your worldview will be, and the more mature you are which means you’re able to make sense and meaning of the greater complexity in life.
Now compare that to a mature Zettelkasten, which contains thousands and thousands of ideas. You have a question and with that question in mind you dive into your Zettelkasten, moving from one idea to another by following links among notes. Since it contains so many ideas, which you’ve been collecting over a time span of years, you’ve forgotten a huge chunk of them. The Zettelkasten is bursting with ideas that you added years ago and no longer remember. Thus, if you explore it with a question in mind, the Zettelkasten will provide answers in surprising ways. In this sense, the Zettelkasten is smarter than a duck and it’s why Luhmann described it as a conversation partner.
Of course, to reap these benefits, the Zettelkasten must have reached a certain level of maturity. At the beginning it will just contain a few notes which you won’t find that surprising since you just added them recently. Over time, however, your Zettelkasten will grow from an apprentice to a full-fledged writing collaborator. Meanwhile, it will be at least as good a repository for your notes as a notebook or some fancy app. In fact, a Zettelkasten will probably already be a better notetaking system from the first day as the method has some further advantages.Zettelkasten — How One German Scholar Was So Freakishly Productive
David then describes one of the key foundations of note taking systems that is often overlooked and how it should replicate how concept maps work as a relationship of concepts.
I think the Zettelkasten’s power as a thinking aid is explained by three main factors.
First, using the Zettelkasten method forces you to write. In particular, according to the method you have to write notes using your own words to ensure that you’ll understand them in the future. And as anyone who’s done any writing knows, writing things down forces you to turn vague notions into clearer thoughts.
Second, whenever you add a new note, the Zettelkasten method forces you to look for already existing notes you can link to. That broadens your thinking by forcing you to consider how new ideas relate to others you’ve encountered before.
Third, a Zettelkasten can store a train of thought. A train of thought is nothing but a sequence of ideas and a Zettelkasten is all about linking ideas. Thus, you can have a train of thought today, store it in your Zettelkasten as a sequence of interlinked notes, and then, anytime in the future, you can continue that train of thought by adding new notes and linking them to the previous ones.Zettelkasten — How One German Scholar Was So Freakishly Productive
He then highlights why these relationships are so important because they help us to be more creative.
A Zettelkasten is designed to find connections between any past idea you’ve recorded and any present or future ideas you’ll record. This makes a Zettelkasten into a tremendous tool for creativity. After all, creativity is nothing more than connecting ideas.Zettelkasten — How One German Scholar Was So Freakishly Productive
This is a poignant statement to make because it relates to what Beau Lotto said in his book Deviate about how creativity only seems magically from the perspective of someone else because they can’t see the steps to achieving it, instead they just see a leap across a meaningless chasm of seemingly disconnected thoughts and concepts. This is exactly why I believe so many people today are misinterpreting their reality, it’s because they’re misinterpreting the meaning of what they know. To put it another way, the concept map of their life’s knowledge has many relationships that are incorrectly linked.
But finally David summarizes the key principles of a Zettlekasten, which repeats what was said above about keeping each note focused on a single concept and linking them together similar to a concept map, whereby you’re explaining relationships and connections between them as you’re making them. This one principle below really stood out though.
Don’t worry about structure: Don’t worry about putting notes in neat folders or into unique preconceived categories. As Schmidt put it, in a Zettelkasten “there are no privileged positions” and “there is no top and no bottom.” The organization develops organically.Zettelkasten — How One German Scholar Was So Freakishly Productive
Let structure emerge organically. When it’s imposed from the start, you prematurely constrain what may emerge and artificially compress the nuanced relationships between ideas.Andy Matuschak, Prefer associative ontologies to hierarchical taxonomies
Now to try to bring this all full circle, I’d like to clarify what a concept map is and how it relates to what was said above by relaying some quotes from an article entitled The Ultimate Guide to Concept Maps: From Its Origin to Concept Map Best Practices.
A concept map illustrates a set of meaningful propositions about a topic.
Generally, a concept map should be woven around a focus question, which is the problem or the issue the concept map seeks to resolve. The better the focus question, the richer the concept map will be.
Concept maps are based on Ausubel’s Assimilation theory. This is built around the fact that new knowledge can be learned effectively by linking it to what is already known.
As you identify these connections put down the linking words or phrases to indicate the relationship between the two concepts you are linking.The Ultimate Guide to Concept Maps: From Its Origin to Concept Map Best Practices
Even more importantly, if you dig further into what Ausubel’s Assimilation Theory means, more poignant quotes can be found. Note the description of “high level” learning.
David Ausubel’s Assimilation Learning Theory focuses on what he describes as ‘meaningful Learning’. This is a process where new information is related to an existing relevant aspect of the individual’s knowledge structure. This component of his theory fits with the concepts of short and long term memory in cognitive information processing.His theory integrates the cognitive, affective and psychomotor.
He identifies two aspects of learning – rote learning and meaningful learning. I am sure we have all experienced these two as a learner and a teacher! Rote learning is learning – but it is not high level learning and has implications for recall and transferability.Ausubel’s Assimilation Theory
More specifically in terms of meaningful learning, note how it differs from traditional rote learning. If I say so myself, this is exactly the type of learning that is needed in our rapidly changing world today, as it helps us to “level up” through vertical development and understand higher complexities of order in life.
Deliberate effort to link new knowledge with other higher order concepts
Learning related to experiences
Can be applied in a variety of new problems or contexts (transferable)Ausubel’s Assimilation Theory
All said and done, I’d like to leave you with something Justine Musk said in her article Don’t Lose The Snake: Creativity, Difference The Bold Point of View (via the Internet Archive) which I’ve been trying to figuring out how to achieve for sometime now which I think this “concept map” note-taking system might be able to do.
It might be worth asking yourself, what do you believe that nobody else believes? How can you express that belief through your product or service in a way that someone else might find relevant and even self-enhancing? Don’t just ask, who is your consumer – ask, who do you want your consumer to become? What kind of story can you tell around your product or service to help him become that? How can you build out the world of your story so that the consumer can find different ways of entering it and interacting with it — especially in this day and age of social media?
I don’t think in terms of platform anymore; your platform is your storyworld for the consumer to explore and get lost in.Justine Musk, Don’t Lose The Snake: Creativity, Difference The Bold Point of View
What I’m getting at here is what if you could make your note-taking system not just your own map of meaning and worldview for understanding yourself but it could also be your “storyworld” which others could “explore and get lost” in at their own pace, thus helping them to understand you in turn as well. Again this mirrors with my approach of seeing life metaphorically as an adventure, one whereby you are exploring beyond your existing world(view) to “level up” but also where others can explore where you have already explored in turn as well.