The Brutal Truth About Reading: If You Don’t Take Notes Right, You’ll Forget Nearly Everything
Author’s Note: This article was written over 60 hours with love and care using the blockbuster mental model.
Seven years ago, I swallowed a bitter pill.
Up to that point, I had read hundreds of books. Yet, when asked about specific ones, I often realized I had forgotten almost everything. The brutal reality was I had wasted thousands of hours.
You know what I’m talking about. Right? It’s that moment you find yourself struggling for words when you try to explain an audiobook you spent eight hours listening to a few months ago. It’s the surprise of revisiting a childhood movie (i.e., Honey I Shrunk The Kids, Home Alone, or Star Wars for me) and realizing you only remember a few plot points.
It’s in these moments you realize the brutality of the human experience. That memories are sandcastles blown away by the tides of time.
That the brain is more of a forgetting machine than a remembering machine. That we are captains of leaky vessels:
So, I wondered to myself, “Is there a better way to remember what I learn?”
I Spent Seven Years Studying The Best Note-Taking Methods, Experimenting With Tools, And Taking Thousands Of Pages Of Notes
At the beginning of my note-taking journey, I was also a few years into writing, and I saw waste there as well:
80% of my time on each article was spent on research.
I threw away most of the research because it didn’t fit into the article.
So, I wanted a note-taking system that could help me be a better learner and writer.
To guide my journey, I tried to answer two simple questions:
Learner: Can I remember what I read for decades?
Writer: Can my “research waste” be turned into a knowledge asset?
More specifically, I wanted my knowledge to be an asset that would:
Get traffic (ie, search engines, others sharing it, social media).
Earn passive income by people paying for access.
Serve as a resource for me decades into the future.
For example, every month, my articles from the last seven years are read by over 100,000 people without any promotion from me. This leads to enough people signing up for our courses that I would barely need to work moving forward. I wanted the same thing for my notes.
Fast forward to now. As a result of my note-taking system, I’ve already made multiple 6-figures in revenue from my notes. Furthermore, I’ve found that my learning process has improved so much that I organize my learning history by BN and AN—Before notes and after notes.
While there are many articles and books on how to take private notes better, I’ve found almost nothing on how to take better public notes. This has always struck me as odd because we spend decades building up the knowledge in our head. This knowledge could help thousands of people and is worth millions of dollars (more on this later), yet 99% of it sits dormant. It’s like putting millions of dollars under our mattress and then forgetting about it. By sharing our knowledge publicly, we let our knowledge do the work for us like money earns us interest when invested.
So, I thought I would share my top insights on public note-taking. Hence this article. Forewarning, this article is beast, so if you’d prefer to jump to a specific insight, you can use the list below as a guide:
You’re already a mental millionaire
Sell your sawdust
Learn knowledge with lasting value
Create research templates
Use Notion to take notes
Break your notes into atomic units
Learn information architecture and usability
Make your notes default-public
Package your notes so others experience their value
Make each piece of content free and paid
Start by sharing as you learn on social media
Let’s start with the most foundational insight first. It’s a mindset shift…
Insight #1: You’re already a mental millionaire
You’re already a mental millionaire.
As much as investors are wealthy “on paper” because they own stocks, you are wealthy “in brain” because of your skills and knowledge.
You’ve spent decades learning through school, books, videos, and other life experiences. There are skills you can practice automatically that others dream about and would be willing to pay for.
It took you tens of thousands of hours of learning to get to where you are now. You’ve already done much of the hard work.
Now, it’s about putting the cherry on top—learning how to organize and package everything you have learned in the past and will learn in the future.
This “Mental Millionaire” mindset is foundational because it dictates how you act. If you don’t have it, you will always wait to share your knowledge until you’re “fit” to do so. If you have the Mental Millionaire Mindset, you will always share now, because:
There are people you can help now.
Sharing what you learn helps you remember it (more on this later). So, if you don’t share now, you will forget more and more of the critical subtleties that others need to learn from you.
As time goes by, you will lose your excitement to share. You will never be as excited to share a new insight as you are when you first have it. As time goes by, the insight becomes obvious and automatic. As a result, you become less excited to share and you lose your empathy for what it’s like to be a beginner and become a worse teacher.
Most people compare themselves to the few best in their field and judge themselves unfit to share their knowledge (impostors syndrome). Rather, what they should do is compare themselves to the thousands of people who want the skill they have and would be willing to pay for it. In other words, we are all climbing the mountain of knowledge. As a teacher, thought leader, writer, mentor, or coach, what matters most is not the few at the peak, but the throngs at the base.
Riffing on Marianne Williamson…
We ask ourselves, “Who am I to share what I know?” Actually, who are you not to share? You have an embarrassment of riches. You know more than 99.9% of people in human history. You having impostor’s syndrome does not serve the world. Everyone is a teacher. Knowledge is abundant. The more you give it, the more you have it. When you teach others, you teach a student and create a future teacher. You become a link in the chain of wisdom that gets passed from human to human and generation to generation.
Now that we have the most fundamental mindset, let’s explore the most fundamental mental model for public notetaking…
Insight #2: Sell your sawdust
The worst readers are those who behave like plundering troops: they take away a few things they can use, dirty and confound the remainder, and revile the whole…
The philosopher believes that the value of his philosophy lies in the whole, in the building: posterity discovers it in the bricks with which he built and which are then often used again for better building: in the fact, that is to say, that that building can be destroyed and nonetheless possess value as material.
The idea of turning waste into a productive asset is not a new idea. We see it across industries, cultures, and time.
For example, the term, “sell your sawdust” comes from lumber mills. When trimming wood, sawdust is left on the ground. Originally, that sawdust was thrown away. Now there are whole markets for sawdust.
In the U.S. Native American cultures, there’s the idea of using each part of the buffalo rather than just using it for meat.
First, they partner with schools, companies, consumers, and stores to collect waste that is pre-divided into many types:
Next, they turn the waste into a product that can be sold or a raw material that can be reused. Here’s an example of juice pouches being turned into a backpack:
What’s crazy is that Terracycle makes money and an impact at several stages of the production process:
Normally companies pay for raw materials. Terracycle gets paid to collect its raw materials.
Normally, separating recyclable materials into many different types would be a cost center, but consumers do it for them by using Terracycle’s single-purpose recycle receptacles.
Normally, Terracycle’s raw materials would be thrown in a landfill. Now, they become useful products.
To date, Terracyle has recycled nearly eight million items, donated nearly $50 million to charity, and earned hundreds of millions in revenue.
Another example of selling your sawdust is Amazon. Most people think that Amazon’s core business is e-commerce, but the company actually makes most of its money from selling its sawdust. In order to grow Amazon had to be able to store and process a lot of data and build its own server system. They turned this infrastructure into AWS. Now, it’s more profitable than all of the other Amazon divisions combined. They did the same thing with warehousing, shipping, and product listings.
The same idea of selling your sawdust can be applied to knowledge. My favorite example of this is Gary Vaynerchuk.
At one point he had The #AskGaryVee Show where he would do 20-minute Q&As answering questions that came through social media using the #askgaryvee hashtag. Here’s how he used the idea of selling your sawdust:
The full video was recorded to be posted on YouTube.
It was also streamed live on several social platforms.
A ghostwriter worked on an article in real-time.
His team chopped up each 20-minute episode into several video clips (sorted by question) and then posted each clip across Gary’s social media channels.
The best of Gary’s answers went into the #AskGaryVee book.
The best quotes were turned into quote visuals and posted on social media.
A developer made all of the questions and answers searchable on the GaryVee search engine.
Ultimately, #AskGaryVee shows how someone could take something that was just 20 minutes of their time and turn it into one hundred pieces of content.
With that said, some of my favorite examples of selling your knowledge sawdust include:
Free Newsletter. Tim Ferriss turned his personal curation (books, music, hacks, gadgets) into 5-Bullet Friday, a weekly newsletter with over one million subscribers.
Paid Subscription. Patricia Mou is a product manager by day and a curator by nite. She charges $5/month to over 400 subscribers in her Rabbit Hole Newsletter, which uncovers the curation gems she normally comes across while learning. In a similar vein, a former Economist managing editor searches for the most interesting content full-time. He sends out a paid newsletter called The Browser at the end of each day to thousands of subscribers with his five top links along with a paragraph on each.
Hacks Articles. FastLife Hacks siphons hacks from great podcasts into short bullet-point articles that are easy to apply.
Book. Eric Jorgensen took all of the public material ever created by one of Silicon Valley’s most successful entrepreneurs and compiled it into a bestselling book. Nik Goke did the same thing for his book, The 4 Minute Millionaire, except rather than focusing on a person, he focused on a topic.
Video documentaries. My friends, Emerson Spartz and Drew Spartz, created video documentaries summarizing amazing books and articles on their YouTube channel.
These examples show that when it comes to selling your knowledge sawdust, you have a lot of options:
Format: Link, playlist, highlights, summary, review, swipe file, workflow, checklist, script, etc.
Medium: sound, video, audio, text
Money: Free, paid, freemium
Traffic source: email, social media, search engines
End form of sawdust: Newsletter, lead magnet, book, article, podcast, social media, course, etc.
Content type being curated: Tools, books, podcasts, studies, speeches, videos, people, etc.
These examples show that there are hundreds of ways you can turn your notes into assets by being the first or best person to do it in a particular way for a particular topic.
Insight #3: Learn knowledge with lasting value
The whole premise of note-taking is that you store something in order to use it in the future. However, if the knowledge becomes irrelevant or outdated, then so do the notes.
Here’s how I think about it. The total value of knowledge is a function of:
How often you use it over time
How valuable it is when you use it
When most people learn, they unknowingly over-focus on Snow Cone Knowledge. Snow Cone Knowledge is valuable if you use it now, but it’s worth nothing if you let too much time pass by because it either gets outdated or becomes irrelevant.
Some examples of Snow Cone Knowledge include:
Stock tips for day traders
Most social media
Most industry news
In addition, there is Just In Case Knowledge. This is when you spend time learning something that you may or may not use in the future. Learning CPR is a good example of Just In Case Knowledge, because although it’s not likely to be necessary, it could save a life when it is needed. A bad example, for me, would be me spending six years learning French in school and never using it, which is what happened to me.
On the other end of the spectrum is Titanium Knowledge. Titanium Knowledge is durable knowledge that is used often and keeps its value over decades:
Examples of titanium knowledge include meta-skills and mental models like:
Learning How To Learn
If you improve at prioritization, you can use that skill every single day for the rest of your life personally and professionally. For example, you can use it when deciding:
What skills to learn
What to do (today, this week, this year)
Who to spend time with
It’s easy to underestimate the value of Titanium Knowledge because it is hard to conceptualize the value of being 2% better at prioritizing something for the next 10 years (3,650 days) of your life. It’s easier to conceptualize the value of something that could help you solve a specific problem today or in the future.
Even if something is 1,000x less valuable on any given day, over your lifetime it might be 10x more valuable. Many top performers across fields innately think in decades while others think in months.
In order to build a note-taking system which is an asset that gives you passive benefits for decades, you need to focus on titanium knowledge. Otherwise, you’re building a ship with holes in it. As soon as you stop creating, the value will fall off a cliff.
With this realization in mind, I decided to commit myself to Titanium knowledge in the form of researching and sharing a monthly mental model guide in 2018. At first, I tried to research mental models on my own, but I found that I wasn’t as deliberate as I wanted because learning mental models was never urgent. By creating a subscription-based membership, a forcing function was set in place to create one new, high-quality model per month. Now, I’ve created nearly 50 manuals, each of which is the equivalent of a short book. (Shameless plug: You can try the Mental Model Club for just $1 and get one of my best manuals immediately).
Insight #4: Create research templates
Over time, I began to realize that no matter what I was studying, I kept on collecting the same types of things over and over:
Knowing what I was collecting in advance was helpful on two levels:
I could create a template for each content type and use it over and over. Rather than starting from scratch on my note structure, tables, and headers, I could just fill in the blanks in the templates.
I knew exactly what to take notes on. When researching, I knew what I was looking for, so I could easily recognize it while reading which helped speed up my process.
Keywords. If I started to see the same jargon word over and over, I would use that as a signal that it was important and that I should put the term in my notes and document definitions and examples.
People. If I was reading a book and the author mentioned someone who had a big influence on them, I would research that person and put their profile in my notes.
Resources. If I came across a really good book, I would create a book summary document, save my highlights into it, and summarize the big ideas.
Over time, this allowed me to create databases of:
The most important keywords by topic in order to help newbies quickly understand a completely new field.
The most important people by topic in order to help people choose who to follow and get obsessed about.
The best resources (podcasts, books, studies, etc) by topic.
By turning these databases into a website (see insight #5 on Notion), suddenly my notes became assets that could save other learners from duplicating hundreds of hours of research.
Insight #5: Use Notion to take notes
I started off using Google Docs to take notes. Whenever there was a new topic I wanted to go deep on, then I would create a new research brief Google doc for that topic. Over the years, I created 150+ research briefs and thousands of pages of notes.
What I like about Google Docs was:
It was simple to use.
I could share research briefs publicly.
It was free.
I used Google Docs happily for years in a few ways:
I was able to easily reference research I did years ago. One research brief could give me the fodder for multiple articles.
I shared links to the briefs if someone said they were exploring a topic I had covered.
I shared these briefs as resources within our courses.
It worked, but I didn’t know what I was missing.
In 2020, two new note-taking tools jumped onto the scene—Obsidian and Roam. These tools broadened my thinking on what a note-taking system could look like. Many students in my blockbuster article writing class adopted one of these tools, so I spent a lot of time exploring each.
These tools are special because they introduce amazing innovations:
Backlinks. On any given page in your notes, you can see all of the other pages that link to that page. Having more densely connected notes can help you make more connections.
Blocks. Rather than working just with pages, you can work with blocks within pages. Each page can have multiple blocks and blocks can be directly linked to each other. This makes it possible to atomize knowledge (more on this later).
Etc. Some other innovative features include link previews, multi-panel views, knowledge graphs, and more, all of which make both note-taking and note-using simpler and better.
While Roam and Obsidian opened my eyes, I still found them lacking key features I wanted:
I wanted my notes to be public by default.
I wanted my notes to look beautiful.
I wanted my thousands of pages of notes to be optimized for search engines.
So, I never pulled the trigger on either Roam or Obsidian and decided to wait for a system that had the features I was waiting for.
My life changed when I discovered Notion. Notion also has the ability to do backlinks and blocks, and it has many other features (including ones I didn’t realize I needed):
With a Super.so integration, I can turn my notes into a beautiful, SEO-optimized website that’s customizable with CSS.
Here’s a screenshot of what my soon-to-be-launched note website landing page looks like. Super.so added the top bar with search. It also added buttons. Memberspace added a login option.
3. Synced Blocks
With synced blocks, I can duplicate a block on multiple pages. So, if I make an edit in one block, it updates on multiple other pages. I use this for putting “Related Links” at the bottom of pages within a section of the website.
Image Credit: Notion
Once you understand the power of creating a site using a database, your mind will be blown. At least mine was.
Databases make it faster and easier to create a large website. Just by editing one table, you can create and edit dozens or even hundreds of pages on the fly.
For example, let’s say you wanted to create a dictionary of terms. Let’s further say that there are 15 categories these terms fall into and each category has its own page on your website. Finally, let’s say that one term belongs to multiple categories. With a database, all you would need to do is edit the main table and tag the term with both categories. If you were doing it in the normal way, you’d have to copy & paste the term for each category. Therefore, if you made an update in one place, you’d have to update it in the other as well. As your site gets larger, it gets more and more unwieldy to manage. Alternatively, let’s say I wanted to add a new term to the Risk Management keywords. All I would need to do is create a new row in the main database with the term and tag it with the ‘Risk Management’ tag.
I currently have four databases:
Keywords sorted by multiple categories and subcategories.
People to follow and learn from.
Resources like books, podcasts, articles, studies, and videos.
Mental models sorted by topic, who it’s created by, and by profession.
To translate the value of what a database can do, let’s break it down a level further. Here’s what the database looks like in the table view. As you can see, it is very similar to editing any table.
In Notion, you can embed this database on any page and then customize the view into one of several layouts:
Each time you embed the database, you can filter which rows in the database you want to display on that page:
Here’s what a database looks like when it’s in gallery preview format on a specific page. This preview is for two of the terms that users would see when they visit the Risk Management keywords page on my site.
From here, the user can click on an item in the gallery and go to a full page. Here’s a preview of the top part of the Ludic Fallacy page.
I’ll be launching my public notes website in early 2022. It will include the mental model guides from our Mental Model Club and the thousands of notes I’ve taken over the last seven years organized in a fashion that is easy to navigate and learn from.
Insight #6: Break your notes into atomic units
With Notion, rather than a research brief or a mental model manual being a 90-page document, I could break it up into dozens of unique pages:
A page for each keyword
A page for each resource
A page for each person
In other words, rather than just having one long document, I can have short pages that say one thing each. This simple change has a few major benefits:
Modularity. Every keyword, resource, and person can stand alone, which means I can directly link it to other pages. For example, I could link it to other keywords on the same topic. Thus, I could create topic-based dictionaries. Or I could link each keyword to the person who coined it so that for profiles on individuals, I could link to their big ideas. When the keyword was nested in a Google Doc, I couldn’t link directly to it or tag it.
Default-complete. Getting a research brief so that it’s good enough to share and doesn’t feel incomplete takes dozens of hours, but if you divide the research brief into dozens of short pages, then even if you’re not done the full research brief, you will still have dozens of complete individual pages and you can hide the incomplete pages until they’re ready.
SEO traffic. More pages create more opportunities for targeted traffic from search engines.
Easier readability. Opening a 90-page document is intimidating. With atomized pages, there might only be a few hundred words on each.