The Need to Craft


My last posts were rather prescriptive by nature. Before I start sprinkling in the casual software reviews, I want to slow down a bit and change the pace.

Lately, I wondered why I do things. My answer is pretty plain, and I’d like to know what drives you to worry about organizing information. So I’ll begin to share, and then you may, if you like.

So here is how I discovered the use of a Zettelkasten and why I write at all.

a blacksmith
Photo Credit: supersum (off) via Compfight cc

I’m a creator. I like to build things. I’m not an artist and I don’t want to express myself. I’m interested in craft. For me, that’s programming, writing, and drawing. To be able to build things drives me forward. Sometimes, it’s relaxing and self-rewarding and I can get into a meditative mood, especially when I’m drawing. Other times it’s just nice to look at the product and feel the pride of a craftsman.

Learning to draw, for example, interests me because I want to be good at capturing pictures with a pencil. Also, I like to fully immerse in a given moment and have this little meditative practice of being present. Practicing drawing is useful to heighten my everyday attention to detail. It’s training my perception. I want to create computer games in my pastime, so I need decent skills to draw in-game graphics. You see that to me drawing can be both self-rewarding and useful.

Programming and writing don’t have the same meditative function, at least not to the degree drawing has. I can fully immerse in these activities as well, though, and have fun working on projects.

In hindsight, this want to craft motivated a lot of my life’s decisions.

For example, I enrolled at university to learn useful skills and practice with like-minded people. Sadly, I didn’t find many like-minded students of philosophy or computer science. But I could still work on my knowledge.

To expand my knowledge fast, I thought about how to organize information. I’m terrible at remembering stuff; I can recall experiences vividly, but I can’t recall most of the things I’ve come across in the last book I read. So I practiced taking proper lecture notes.

lecture notes
Lecture notes example. Click on the image to reveal a collage of 12 scans I took over the course of the years.

The notes were in a Sketchnote style, although I didn’t know the term back then. The archive of lecture notes gave me confidence in finding information again, and the graphical style helped me recall the information. Overall, I guess I’m a visual learner.

Still, I had to look at scans of the notes or the pages themselves to remember what happened in which course. I wasn’t independent from the medium. On this blog, I dubbed this problem the Collector’s Fallacy.

Only then did I come across the terms “personal information management” (PIM) and “information management system” (IMS). Both are used heavily in communities like or Literature and Latte’s Forum if you’re interested in the topic. Douglas Barone introduced me to his plain-text archival system, which made me think about information organization, and from there it was an upward spiral of increasing my productivity as a note-taker and a learner.

This is where my affection for the Zettelkasten method arose.

Working with the Zettelkasten note archive meets my need to craft. I like to write because I create something from nothing. Unlike tinkering with novel drafts, which I did in the past, writing Zettel notes satisfies my wants quickly. The encouraging feedback loop is short: Writing a single note doesn’t take a lot of time. Also, a single note is self-contained and can be re-used, so when I finish a note it almost feels like I completed a small writing project which I find deeply gratifying.

The quick gratification of writing short text notes would make me happy enough to work with the note archive. If this were all there is to it, though, other people would probably be under the impression I’m pretty odd. The cool thing, for me, is this: I could me satisfied with writing Zettel notes alone, but I put the notes to good use instead and work on more complex projects, like the Zettelkasten book. I consider every note I finish both to be complete in itself and to take me one step towards a bigger goal.

In the case of some obscure topics I wouldn’t know what this bigger picture looks like, but I have faith in the process. It has worked before. Maybe that particularly awkward information I can’t seem to make good use of will be the piece of a text I’m going to write twenty years from now. Thus I relax: no matter when I need the notes in the future, they’ll be there to help. It’s a long-term investment, this thing about learning.

The Zettelkasten to me is both a fulfilling practice in itself and a means to go ever further, to expand my knowledge, think things through, and share it with people.

Obviously, I can see that this tool is useful for scholars and other kinds of knowledge workers. It’s great to organize knowledge organically, which is by definition suited to your very needs.

But what about you? What’s your motivation?

Maybe you’ve got an odd devotion yourself; feel free to share, I’d be happy to hear from you! If you happen to write your own blog post instead of writing a comment, tell me via Twitter and I’ll link back to you!