​The Dunning–Kruger Effect

This weekend we were driving down to Tacoma and because it’s a long and boring ride we listened to a This American Life podcast on the way. Ira Glass talked to two researchers, David Dunning and Justin Kruger, who conducted some very cool studies. They gave a bunch of college students some quizzes — on grammar and logic and humor — and then asked them how they thought they did. They found that students who did poorly consistently thought they did better than they did. If a student was in the bottom 20% in terms of scores, they almost always thought that they did much better, sometimes as high as 80%. From the interview: “in short, there seemed to be a direct correlation between incompetence and an overweening sense of self-confidence. It wasn’t apparent in every poor-performing student, but it was in the majority of them. Most people who did badly thought they did just fine or even great. They had no idea.” This in itself is funny to me but the research said something else really interesting — this doesn’t happen because these people are assholes, it’s because they answer the question of how they’ve done with the same base of knowledge they used to answer the questions. Meaning you don’t know what you don’t know. And that happens to all of us sometime or another.

So, anyway, I’m with you — I keep hemming and hawing about organizational structure and categorization but in the end, I just decided to get started and learn as I go. Admittedly I have an advantage over you here — because I’m choosing a digital route, making course corrections is much easier for me. I decided to use Evernote for my CPB.

I’ve used Evernote for years and years now, but never to its full advantage. I mostly use it to keep track of accounts and logins but I know that it’s capable of much more and I figured if nothing else this testing would help me better understand how to utilize Evernote.

Why Evernote? I like that it’s always with me. I can access it on my work computer, on my home computer, or via the app on my iPhone. Evernote also has pretty cool Optical Character Recognition (OCR) scanning so I can take photos of text and it will recognize the text in a search. The downside is it is kind of unattractive, so that’s one of the things I’ll want to solve for.

So here’s my basic set-up:

Within Evernote I have two notebooks for commonplace books, one for quotes (the actual CPB) and another for the construction of a commonplace book (blog posts on how other people have set up their CPBs, for example). Both of those together make up a Commonplace Book stack (this doesn’t really mean anything other than it looks tidy when I view my notebooks).

In the CPB Quotation notebook, each entry is for a single body of work. This is easy to do but kind of ugly. ​
The body of each entry is just a long listing of everything of note I found or thought about the work.
Here’s an example of the OCR: I read an excerpt of Alec Baldwin’s new memoir in Vanity Fair and took a photo of a quote I liked (I, too, find making a good hire pretty damn satisfying.)

There are surely still lots of tweaks to make but this is where I am today.

PS: Love the convention of listing something from a recent CPB entry as the title of a post. I’ve obviously stolen it from you and will probably use it a ton.

PPS: Tell me more about looking things up in the dictionary. One of my favorite things about my Kindle is the ability to easily look words up but I always feel like I should do something with those words. I’m sure I don’t remember most of them after only looking them up once.

PPS: I think the question of quantity or quality is much clearer when you’re using a digital CPB: you definitely want quantity. There’s no downside to having too many quotes or entries. Search and an easy copy and paste solve for that.

Human Wreckage

 That was my entry in my commonplace book today. I heard the phrase in a song and liked the sound of it, so I wrote it down. Morbid, yes, but to quote Lydia in Beetlejuice, “My whole life is a dark room. One big dark room.”

My point here is that I think my commonplace book is going to be strange and unusual because, to quote Lydia again, I myself am strange and unusual. Some of my entries will be comprised of whole sentences, others just phrases. Sometimes they will be just words, strangeas I have a strange (there’s that word again) fondness for keeping track of words I look up in the dictionary while I’m editing. Spoiler: I look up a lot, so my lists are long. I also have a lot of thoughts and opinions on the practice of looking up words in the dictionary–really, I do–but I’ll spare you.

I am struggling with–or at least pondering–two issues as I embark on this endeavor. First, organization. Something is telling me not to worry about it at this stage, to just start writing things in the book, and maybe an organizational system will become clear over time. I’m going with this, but part of my brain is stuck on thinking there has to be some sort of organization, and index or something. But I also think if I wait until I figure that out to start, I will never start. So I’m starting and hoping this issue will work itself out at some point.

Second is what to actually write in my commonplace book. I looked back over my Kindle highlights from pretty much every Kindle book I’ve read, and I copied a few into my book, but I also found myself reading all of the quotes very critically: Is this worthy of the book? Will I want to remember this, really? If it doesn’t particularly speak to me right now, should I included it anyway, as it might at some other time (as it obviously did while I was reading the book)? This is one I have to decide fairly soon, as it will affect how I approach this project: Should I be highly selective of what I write in my commonplace book, or should I just write down anything that sounds interesting or that I found interesting in the past, regardless of if I think it’s interesting now? I’m leaning toward that–just writing it all down. Quantity over quality to begin with. But I’m not 100 percent decided on that yet. Any thoughts on the subject?


A Kick Ass Commonplace Book


An early mind map from Vic

I’ve been dreaming of a commonplace book for quite some time now, ever since seeing a fantastic exhibit at Seattle’s Henry Art Gallery by Ann Hamilton that featured gorgeous vintage commonplace books.

These books have been around for centuries and they vary greatly in design and use, but ultimately they are a collection of quotes and ideas that a user gathers over time. Historically they have been handwritten but there are many instances of digital commonplace books online these days. As a voracious reader, I often come across lines of text so beautiful or so poignant that I expect them to be forever imprinted on my brain, but they are relegated to the gutters of my leaky memory pretty quickly.

An important question to start with is what will I use commonplace book for? Three things immediately come to mind:

  • A way to improve retention of the things I’ve read.
  • Inspiration for idea development and writing of all types.
  • A record of my reading that I can reflect on or share with friends.

I mentioned this obsession to my good friend Elise a while back and she loved it, too. We immediately started digging into the idea, going back and forth a bit. While we both love the idea of a commonplace book, we have pretty different ideas on the execution of the book, starting with the format. So we decided to test out a few prototypes and compare notes right here at http:www.thecommonplace.net.