Random Notes

The occasionally-updated public notebook of Scott Nesbitt

Wise words:

Does busy-ness mean you’re productive? No, it probably means you’re not good at making choices. To be less busy, you have to decide that some things are more important than others, and say no to the less important, so you’ll have time and energy to focus on the important ones. You can be un-busy, and productive, by giving yourself space to focus on what’s important, the high-impact things that make the most difference in your career and life.

Leo Babauta

We all have at least one book that we've been meaning to read but wind up never cracking open. With me, for the longest time that book was The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire by Edward Gibbon.

When I was about 15, I found a Penguin paperback of the abridged version of Decline at a used bookstore on Queen St. West in Toronto. Throughout my teens and into my 20s, that book sat on my bookshelf waiting for me to start reading it. Several times, I tried to do just that but could never commit.

To be honest, I was daunted by Gibbon's book, even though it was the abridged version. Each time I reached for it, I was overwhelmed by the feeling that I wasn't ready on multiple levels to tackle such weighty subject matter. That I wasn't ready to tackle a book of such scope and depth.

Jump forward to a few years ago, when I stumbled across a short article that Iggy Pop (yes, that Iggy Pop) wrote for the journal Classics Ireland. The three short pages of that piece laid out what Gibbon's magnum opus meant to Pop, and those sentiments stuck with me. So much so that I became determined to finally read The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.

It helped that I stumbled across an ebook version, which I promptly added to my reading list for 2023. And that's what I'm delving into at this moment, with these key points from Iggy Pop's article floating in my brain as I absorb Gibbon's prose:

The language in which this book is written is rich and complete, as the language of today is not.

I find out how little I know.

I am inspired by the will and erudition which enabled Gibbon to complete a work of 20-odd years. The guy stuck with things.

At some point or another in our all of lives, we've been in someone else's shadow. Growing up, I was in the shadow of a number of people. Many of whom I didn't know or didn't know well.

How did I get there? My parents, in their misguided attempts to motivate me or get me to conform, thrust me into those shadows. I was constantly being asked Why can't you be more like so-and-so? If I was doing something and wasn't achieving to the level they expected, I was told So and so can do that. Why can't you?

As much as I tried to shrug all of that off, as much as I tried to be an individual, what my parents said affected me. It wasn't until I was in my 20s that I realized that it was OK to be me. I wasn't that other person. I never would be. I never wanted to be.

And there's nothing wrong with that.

There are people out there who are smarter and more competent than you. There are those who are better at some things that you are. I've run into that countless times in my life, and I'm sure you have too.

Instead of comparing yourself to them, embrace who you are. Instead of living in the shadow of others, cast your own shadow.

How? By know what you can and can't do. Don't be afraid to push against those boundaries. Don't be afraid to try, to fail, then to try again.

The key is to that is focusing on what you want to do, on who you want to be. Ignore the progress and achievements of others. Then, work at your own pace. Do what you can, when you can. Build your skills and knowledge and life one brick at a time. You might not reach the lofty heights that others have, but that's not the point.

The point of casting your own shadow is to become comfortable in your own skin. To accept and embrace who you are, and not who you or others expect you to be.

Be willing to do what you need to do at your own pace. You'll soon find that those other people and their shadows will be meaningless in the grander scheme of your life.

We all have them. Small ones. Large ones. Regrets that are recent and regrets from long ago.

They may be regrets about something we did or about something we didn't do. Or it could be a regret about a failure.

Some regrets linger. They sting. They can put barriers in our way or cloud our judgement or make us second guess ourselves and what we're doing.

But maybe those regrets aren't merely reminders or reproaches or barriers. Maybe they linger to help drive us forward, to push us to try to better ourselves, to influence us to change and to grow.

I'm pleased to announce that I've published a new ebook. Titled Random Thoughts, this book pulls together my favourite posts from this blog between two (virtual) covers.

Random Thoughts is a collection of advice and ideas that prompt you to take time to reflect on your life and on the world around you. It's advice and ideas which will remind you that maybe all your life needs is a few small changes rather than a radical overhaul.

In case you're wondering, Random Thoughts isn't merely a reprint of a bunch of posts. I've reworked, updated, and combined some posts with other material.

If your interest is piqued, you can buy the book from:

In a previous post, I shared my opinion about why I don't think most people need a system for taking notes. That post received more than a few reactions. Some of those reactions seemed to conflate tools for taking notes with systems for taking notes.

Yes, the two are different.

Tools are just that. Software, online services, mobile apps, even the venerable combination of pen and paper. They're implements for jotting down thoughts, ideas, snippets, and more.

Systems, on the other hand, have more moving parts. Tools are components of a system, but a system consists of more than just tools. And, it's not uncommon for some folks to push their note taking systems into intricate territory. Here's an example:

Capture whatever in a Midori notebook using a Lamy pen. Then, at some point, transfer what's in the notebook to Emacs + org-mode or Obsidian or something else. There, tag and classify and link those notes. Unless, of course, you're taking notes while reading — those notes are saved on a Kindle or in Instapaper and need to be transferred, usually manually, somewhere else. And let's not forget the bookmarks that pile up in Pinboard ...

Then, rinse and repeat. Several times a week, if not daily.

That's not the most convoluted example of a note taking system I could come up with — I've seen over engineered systems that incorporate a dozen tools or more, many of which do similar things but which don't talk to each other.

A system like that, or even the one that I sketched out a couple or paragraphs ago (which is real, by the way), is overkill for the average person. It's just too complicated. It involves too many components. It's just too much.

I know more than a few productivity hackers who smack their lips greedily at the thought of complex note taking systems. But the most productive people I know keep how they take and manage their notes simple. They use one, at most two tools. They don't use systems. They don't spend time twiddling and twerning. They don't obsess over organizing their notes.

No, those folks use their notes. They get things done with their notes. And that's how it should be, shouldn't it?

I'll let you in on a little secret: it's OK to just be good at something. Mastery shouldn't be your overarching goal for everything.

But there's more to mastery, or just tackling something new and difficult, than jumping in and sweating. The key to mastery, or just continuing with something that you're trying (even if mastery isn't your aim), is to have fun.

Far too often, I've seen people get passionate about something — learning a new language, practicing a martial art, or picking up a new technical skill. But I've also seen their passion dim when they stopped enjoying what they were doing.

From experience, I can tell you that if you're not having fun, it's not worth doing. Sit back, relax, and let me share a story.


For the majority of people, the answer to that question is No.

When I say majority, I'm not talking about dedicated productivity hackers or the personal knowledge management crowd. I mean people who don't view all the little pieces of information that they collect as indispensable nuggets of wisdom. I mean people who aren't looking to build something with as lofty a moniker as a personal knowledge base.

When I think of a note taking system, there's an implication of complexity. There's an implication of heft. Of fine-grained organization. And also of volume, which explains the need (whether real or imagined) for that complexity and fine-grained organization. Admittedly, there are people who do need a system for taking notes. That said, I question the level of complexity that they bake into those systems.

The rest of us, though, only need a place to drop the occasional thought, idea, link, or bit of personal information. We don't need to manage masses of personal knowledge or generate maps of the relationships between our notes. A system, in a case like this, isn't worth the time and effort required to set it up and to manage it.

Don't worry about where to save your notes. Don't stress about whether those notes are indexed, filed, tagged, or synced. Just create your notes. Delete them whenever you no longer need them. And get on with whatever you need to use those notes for.

Don't waste time twiddling and twerning, jumping from one note taking tool or another then back again. Just fire, forget, and get stuff done with your notes. That's the whole point of taking notes, isn't it?

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