Not long ago, I reviewed Where Good Ideas Come From, a book about the many ways new ideas can spring up in all sorts of unexpected places. In it, the author touches on something practiced by many writers and thinkers back the 17th or 18th century, it was called commonplacing, or maintaining a “commonplace book.” In this era of the Internet, where everything you need to know is seemingly a few clicks away, you might think it’s out of date, but I would disagree.
The commonplace book, is generally a notebook of sorts where the owner writes down all manner of interesting or meaningful bits of knowledge he might encounter as he goes about his day. Some of us do this sort of thing, even today, because the simple act of jotting something down seems to plant the idea more securely in the brain, where it is easier to retrieve when needed and getting the idea in there, makes it more likely it will be available to freely mix and combine with new knowledge which might result in some new flash of insight.
Although the ideas entered can be from every field, they might also be more focused on one area of study, like Darwin’s notebooks, or in your own field of work. When you learn something new or figure something out, writing it down so you don’t have to go through the laborious effort of figuring it out the second time, makes the work easier over time, not only because you really do know more but because the facts give you a starting point when encountering another new problem.
You might do this already. When I was employed as a field engineer, working on medical equipment like CT scanners and nuclear cameras, I would often encounter the odd problem not referenced anywhere, those places where the troubleshooting flowchart ends with pointers to uncharted territory and labels like “this way be dragons!” Like the ancient mariners, if you sailed off in that direction anyway, you would eventually fix the problem and discover, instead of dragons, some new and valuable knowledge. I kept a notebook to record those hard won bits and it became a real lifesaver over time, those obscure adjustments, hand drawn references to show reassembly procedures, the essential sequence to follow so the whole repair wasn’t botched, it became my commonplace book for the CT engineer.
Today, with all sorts of digital help, you might be tempted to shortcut the process and take a photo with your cell phone instead of making the drawing, yes it’s nice but perhaps less likely to be burned into your brain and more easily lost when needed plus photos are filled with detail you don’t need. You might also just dictate a note on your iPhone instead of writing it down, handy, but again, less effort to learn it and maybe, irretrievably misplaced. Not good.
This whole train of thought started while I was reading Guzziology and thought of Johnson’s book about ideas because Guzziology is really a commonplace book for motorcycles. The book isn’t something you read from front to back, it’s not even a normal repair manual, the book is the result of many years of hands on experience where the author, Dave Richardson, jotted down what he learned along the way. It reminded me of my CT book, personal notes of information I knew I might need and didn’t want to painfully figure out every time. The factory manual might give you the steps, Dave’s book adds the warning, “but before you do that …” to keep you from nasty surprises. He even warns you of those things best not attempted because in those directions you really WILL find dragons, like trying to reassemble the 4 speed transmission on the old V7 and Ambassador.
Dave points out up front the book is based on the experience of trying to fill in the gaps in all of the Guzzi manuals he’s read while elbow deep in some repair, going beyond what’s easily found, it the kind of knowledge the average mechanic learns while messing up someone else’s bike. He also says he’s unaware of any other brand of motorcycle that has an equivalent book. There are many thousands of books with glossy photos, lots of factory repair manuals and company histories, but nothing quite like Guzziology.
If you don’t own a Guzzi, Guzziology isn’t really for you, while there’s some generally applicable information in it, for the most part, it’s all Guzzi, all the time. But this isn’t so much about that particular book, instead, it’s a nod to the act of recording what you learn in one place in a way that makes it usefully available for you in the future, perhaps for a specific use but also as a way of filling your mental cabinets with ingredients ready to bake into your future thinking and brainstorming.
I think Guzziology points to an opportunity for all of you who are equally knowledgeable and experienced in other brands, maybe someone should write a Harley, Honda or some other brand specific manual of the kind only possible to the greasy hands crowd. Maybe you?
Though I don’t have one at hand, it also reminds me of the extremely long running classic, “How to Keep Your Volkswagen Alive” by John Muir. That book is more of a step by step manual, but it, too, is based on hard won, hands on experience while working on the early air cooled VW, which was the vehicle of choice for all of the hippies and flower children in the 60s. While rebelling against “the man,” sometimes you needed to replace your clutch. Too busy rebelling, they never learned how, a book like Muir’s got them through. Far out!
There are software programs that try to duplicate this kind of writing and expert systems that are supposed to digitize the knowledge of the most experienced and make it available to the novice, but I guess I come from the old school, simple is better, if you want to learn it, make the effort, besides it’s sometimes tough to write on your computer in the middle of a job while those greasy hand written notes can be priceless. I’ve always been a person who writes stuff down, maybe because I grew up before the PC was invented, but I highly recommend it.
If you do this all the time, the single notebook you gradually compile while getting through the tough problems will be far more than a simple reference or a pile of random notes, it also becomes an idea generator, it might even become the most valuable book you own.