Zettelkasten

Nassim Taleb would love the Zettelkasten Method

In my opinion, Nassim Taleb’s most important idea is the concept of Antifragility. Here is his three-concept-model:

Fragile means that something doesn’t like volatility and variability. In short: It doesn’t like to be touched. If you send something fragile via mail you write fragile on it so to say: Do as little as possible with it.

According to Taleb, many people think the opposite of fragile is robust. But your behavior with non-fragile mail contradicts that: You don’t write “Abuse it as much as you can.” which would be the the opposite. Instead, you write nothing on it because you don’t care. Robust is something that doesn’t care.

Antifragile is something that likes volatility and variability. It gains from disorder – always to a certain degree. You are antifragile. If you train you harm your body a little bit. You challenge it and it reacts with adaptation. As a result, you get strength and endurance.

Let me clear things up with examples:

A coffee pot is fragile. The more you use it the more it is in danger to break. If you drink out of it, nothing should happen. If you hit your head with it it could break but probably wouldn’t unless your self-hatred is very strong. If you hit your room mate your hate is definitely strong enough to break it with a high chance. The more things happen with it the higher the probability of damage. It doesn’t like a variable environment.

A stone is robust. You can treat it carefully, hit yourself or someone else with really hard. It doesn’t care and doesn’t change whatever you do with it – up to a point, of course.

You are antifragile. If you train a little bit you get a little steonger. If you train longer, harder and more frequent you gain more and more strength. The more you do things to yourself the stronger you become – up to a point, indeed.

The three concepts describe the relationship of an entitiy to variability and volatility. How does something react do the variability of its environment?

  1. It gets worse the more variable the environment is? It is fragile.
  2. It doesn’t change with increasing or decreasing variability in it’s environment? It is robust.
  3. It improves the more variable the environment is? It is antifragile.

Decentralization Antifragilizes a System

virus cell
Source: Pixabay. License: CC0 Public Domain

What do you get if you create backups of your data? You create redundancy. You backup your data because you don’t want a mistake to ruin your whole system. The more redundancy you create the less downsides a system failure has.

Imagine that you have twenty backups and one fails. You don’t even care. Imagine you have only one backup and your system shuts down. If you have important data you’ll still get a little nervous, I guess.

Now you just have to add a learning effect. Imagine you lose your backup storage several times because your kids mess with it. Next time, you put it where your kids can’t reach it. Your backup system as a whole gets better (here: more robust) because your kids destroyed a part of it. A local failure becomes a gain of the whole. If you add learning to a decentralized system you get an antifragile system because a small failure means an improvement of the whole system.

The Zettelkasten Method Introduces Antifragility

The Zettelkasten Method utilizes the concept of antifragility. A decentralized system like a Zettelkasten is antifragile. If something fails, it fails locally and the system as a whole can go on.

If you write using the Zettelkasten Method and have an idea, you create one Zettel. If that idea later turns out to be shitty you’ll only have lost a couple of minutes. If you have a shitty idea and always try to write a whole article or even a thesis from it, a failure would hurt much more. Your knowledge production gets antifragile because you fail more at a local level (bad Zettel vs. bad article) and you learn from these failures with little sacrifice.

But even a shitty idea can inspire you or be transformed into a good one. That means that bad ideas can have upsides. The more Zettel notes you write, the more combinations and connections arise and the more valuable a bad Zettel can be. The possible drawback of investing time in writing down an idea is marginal because you don’t have to invest time or energy in this bad idea. The potential benefit increases over time and drawbacks are less likely to hurt. You create a system that gets more and more upsides and less downsides.

If you can’t focus on a big project you can always write smaller Zettels or just extract the ideas of an already written book. That means that you can still do a decent amount of knowledge work, even if you don’t feel like it. You won’t sit in front of your computer and be overwhelmed. Instead of putting your entire window of opportunity at risk, you risk just a little chunk of time.

The Zettelkasten Method gives you a working environment that gives you more and more upsides and thus changes the ratio of upsides to downsides.

The more Zettel you write the more each Zettel benefits. You have a system of accelerating gain of upsides from each action. Nassim Taleb would say: It makes your knowledge work more antifragile.

Application

Tinker a lot. Write lots of Zettels and apply the outline method in abundance. The more Zettel you write the faster you erase the downsides of investing time in writing a Zettel. It seems that you’d produce more waste but the more you write the less wasteful the waste becomes.

Write different Zettels for different ideas on the same topic and adhere to the principle of atomicity. Connections let the magic of the Zettelkasten Method happen. More Zettel equal more connectivity. Some Zettel may not be the best to work on that topic but they may lead to new ideas in a different topic. This serendipity could be hindered if you have just one big Zettel on that topic.

Connect a lot. The benefits of having a high number of Zettel comes from the connection. The connections should be meaningful, indeed. You can’t connect just randomly and expect good results, even if some far fetched connection would add an element of surprise later on. Just be sure that you highlight why you connected those Zettel.

Use the Zettelkasten Method as your main mode of writing. I am very guilty of making the mistake of writing outside of my Zettelkasten. The more you write outside your archive the more you shift to a less efficient process. You will generate texts and not Zettel. Texts are not an element of your archive and therefore don’t foster the Zettelkasten’s mighty magic. If you apply the Zettelkasten Method you can extract your texts later, especially with the heavy use of outlines, and generate a powerful tool for knowledge generation and thinking.


Christian’s Comment: Nassim Taleb’s books are all the hype for quite a while. I can’t wait to get my hands on Antifragile once Sascha is done reading and taking notes. As always: don’t worry about making things right with the Zettelkasten. Worry about making things, and then learn from your mistakes.