Creativity

The Commonplace Book

I’m reading Steven Johnson’s book “Where Good Ideas Come From” (Riverhead Books, 2010). In it Johnson discusses the hunch. That murky, disjointed, jumbled and disconnected hunch about something. These hunches often get lost in the daily elements of life. And that’s where the “commonplace book” comes in.

In 17th century England, it was common practice for people to write down quotes and ideas from the books they were reading in a little book of their own.  The book became a history of personal knowledge that allowed the readers to interact with the material, and reflect upon it at later dates.  This book was called a “commonplace book“.  People jotted down ideas, drew diagrams and otherwise recorded for posterity the flotsam and jetsam of facts, ideas and trivia. “Reading and writing were inseparable activities in an effort to make sense of things”. John Locke wrote an essay about the use of the commonplace book.

After reading this, I immediately thought of a story I had heard about Richard Branson.  Everywhere he goes, he carries a small notebook in his jacket pocket.  When he meets people, he immediately starts asking questions, and jotting his thoughts down on paper.

Sometimes it takes a while for an idea to come together.  Johnson calls these ideas “slow hunches”. The commonplace book allows you to jot down the ideas that occur to you as you are puzzling out a problem. Reviewing old ideas can help fit the pieces of the puzzle together.

For me, this blog is a bit of a commonplace book.  I occasionally go back to earlier posts to spark thoughts or to see how other ideas link together. It helps me keep track of my random thoughts. I also carry a small Moleskin book everywhere with me.  (I’m old school, don’t like being connected 100% of the time.  Sometimes I just want to be disconnected, so I can allow my mind some time to wander).  When an idea runs through my mind, I just jot it down in the book. My friend the Skinny Professor uses a digital recorder and his iPhone as his commonplace book.

Often this random thoughts occur when you’re not task focused. Maybe on a long walk, in the shower, or staring out the window in a coffee shop. That’s why it’s so important to record them. You never know what might be valuable later.

How do you capture your fleeting ideas?  Stuff that emerges from those long chats with friends over coffee? Stuff that could become the next great innovation?

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