A commonplace book is basically a place where you store anything that is valuable to you; from quotes, notes and thoughts to anecdotes and experiences, especially, when you’re reading.
They are repositories of knowledge, experiences and self-improvement.
The American author Ryan Holiday wrote in his awesome article about commonplace books:
A commonplace book is a central resource or depository for ideas, quotes, anecdotes, observations and information you come across during your life and didactic pursuits.
It was a big thing among the top intellectuals during the Renaissance. Philosophers like Francis Bacon and John Locke had journals that served to collect thoughts, experiences and moments of reflection.
However, the tradition of commonplacing goes back longer than that. One of the first people in history to mention it was the Roman Stoic Philosopher Seneca the Younger:
We also, I say, ought to copy these bees, and sift whatever we have gathered from a varied course of reading, for such things are better preserved if they are kept separate; then, by applying the supervising care with which our nature has endowed us, in other words, our natural gifts, we should so blend those several flavours into one delicious compound that, even though it betrays its origin, yet it nevertheless is clearly a different thing from that whence it came.
This practice served as a form of self-definition: what you chose to write in your commonplace book said a lot about you. It was a reflection of your character and personality. A list of the subjects you’re passionate about and also the ones you ignore entirely. It was an act of self-expression:
What you chose to share says a lot about you.
These notebooks were personal diaries written for a small audience of friends and family.
At what point is this different from what you get in today’s social media platforms?
People’s joy of sharing their interests and passions didn’t change much over time. Posting links and snippets found elsewhere is standard practice on social media. Some of these platforms are mostly based on someone’s else content. Others facilities sharing personal experiences.
What was as true centuries ago, it is still today.
Why a commonplace book?
In today’s world, you could spend hours consuming a massive amount of content. This makes very easy to overlook what resonates with you. The same thing happens when you come up with an idea or thought and you don’t attempt to save it.
Commonplacing is a convenient way to process, understand and store the information we are exposed on a daily basis. Our heads are not prepared to assimilate everything so your brain is doing the filtering for you (but not the saving). Unless you consciously attempt to save valuable information, it won’t happen.
Don’t trust your memory. You probably think your memory is good or above average, just like you think the same about how well your driving is. We are biased to overestimate our abilities. This is known as the overconfidence effect.
Here are some of the benefits that I found critical:
- Learning: It facilitates the review of specific themes or topics. You saved valuable information to use in the future. Most of the time you don’t need everything you save immediately. It depends on the moment you are in life.
- Creativity: it helps you synthesize information quicker. Creative thinking comes from connecting disparate ideas from different areas of knowledge. If your work requires some kind of content creation, this could be a game changer for you.
- Organization: It helps you have a holistic view of your knowledge base through categorization. This saves you a ton of time in the long-term when looking for answers.
- Introspection: It becomes a manifest of who you are; it can help you reflect yourself when you are facing a moment of self-doubt.
- Compound effect: This is a habit that compounds over time; every piece of information, no matter how small, adds up over time. This is how you build your own knowledge base.
Commonplacing is probably one of the most productive habits a person can have, especially, today.
The Stoic philosopher Epictetus said:
Don’t just say you have read books. Show that through them you have learned to think better, to be a more discriminating and reflective person. Books are the training weights of the mind.
Keeping a commonplace book is an essential system for learning and creative thinking. You can use any tool to make this happen.
After years, you will document how you view the world and how you understand things. What you agree and disagree. What you’re passionate about and what you ignore entirely. A true masterpiece worth sharing.