How I Use Learning in Public as My Personal Knowledge Management Strategy

January 27, 2021
6 min read

Lately, I’ve been writing quite prolifically. I’ve published sixteen blog posts in the last 28 days, with content ranging from personal essays, to frameworks for productivity, culture, creativity, and innovation, to project logs, to book notes.

How much readership do I get? Google Analytics says about a hundred views across the site per week, so basically non-existant. I don’t write for readership, though. I write for myself, and I would go crazy if I stopped.

All of us are constantly absorbing huge amounts of knowledge and insights (i.e. ideas/information and the connections between them) through the content we consume, the conversations we hold, and simply the experiences and thoughts we’re constantly having. We then forget the vast majority of the information we take in. This is the way that our brains are designed: meant to focus on the present situation, not get caught up in the richness of the past. Past experiences are recombined in the background and brought up when needed.

Yet, the information situation today is very different than ten thousand, one thousand, or one hundred years ago. In the age of information we live in, information is at a constant, overwhelming surplus, and time to reflect and digest is at a constant deficit. This isn’t a critique of social media and online entertainment, the usual examples of the modern-day attention economy. Rather, to me “valuable” resources are just as scary. Blog posts by industry leaders and detailed biographies of historical world-changers are a Google search away. The “present” that determines our frame of thinking is rapidly shunted between Medium posts, YouTube videos, New York Times editorials, what have you, either leaving us floating with surface currents or threatening to drown us when we dive in.

How do we make sense of all this? How do we ride the waves to get where we want to rather than thrashing about half-submerged?

There are tons of note-taking systems and apps out there. Backlink-based Zettelkasten, the driver behind Roam Research, Obsidian, backlinks in Notion, and more, comes to mind as a recent example. Apps like my mind claim to act as your “new, extended mind,” and Obsidian calls itself “a second brain for you, forever.”

In conversation with a friend, I devised my own high-level hypothesis for knowledge management: that time is the only constant that can be relied on, and robust synthesis and reflection must happen on regular time intervals, like daily or weekly notes.

All of these systems have more or less fallen apart for me, though. Every structure I add feels like a complication rather than a simplifying force. The anxiety of the knowledge and insights I consume drifting away, rather than being eliminated, multiplies with the anxiety of not properly working with the system I set up.

Eventually, a conversation I had with an old mentor of mine, Phil Liao, led to an epiphany. Asking him how he takes notes and manages his knowledge, he had this to say:

I’ve been actually doing less note taking in Roam, and more “public” note taking (aka writing). I’m trying to find the right balance, but the attitude of “this is going to result in an article” is really important.

I would say, I take notes in Roam when I think “this is an important idea for my writing”. Otherwise, for learning purposes, I take notes on paper/Notion (like my scratch pad). And ultimately, I want to produce some form of writing.

Ultimately, it really just comes down to “Learn in public!” It’s the forcing function that ties all activities together. Without it, everything collapses.

The last line is precisely the thesis of this blog post: among all notetaking strategies, the only one that actually simplifies knowledge management and makes it more effective is to publish your learning, experiences, and insights in public.

I’ll reference Sartre’s essay Existentialism is a Humanism, in which he outlines a fundamental doctrine of the philosophy: “Man is nothing else but what he purposes, he exists only in so far as he realises himself, he is therefore nothing else but the sum of his actions, nothing else but what his life is.”

When thoughts are in our head, they are intangible and meaningless. When we die, they die with us: they may as well have never existed in the first place. A “second brain,” as Obsidian and others advertise themselves as, thus don’t do anything to reduce knowledge anxiety. With existentialism in mind, it makes total sense why these systems would, in fact, increase it: you’re creating even more abstract space in which to place your thoughts, where they may never see the light of day and therefore exist at all.

Publishing your thoughts for others to read is the only way to make your thoughts real, to make them exist in the real world and not in the meaningless chaos of your mind. Thus, learning in public is the optimal, and perhaps the only, way to overcome knowledge anxiety: to begin to surf across the ocean of experience and thought rather than drown in it.

Publishing your learning has all sorts of more practical benefits, too. Writing forces you to slow down and have a conversation with yourself, a process through which your thoughts will clarify and new connections be drawn. Writing also provides tangible entrypoints for you to access your own memory. Memory is like an array of locked doors: we can only access the ideas or experiences we have keys in the present for. Published writing serves as such keys, allowing us to revisit our past thoughts and experiences and draw new connections. By creating opportunities for you to revisit your ideas, published writing functions as a sort of spaced repetition, too: an idea you might only come across once becomes one that you revisit several times, ingraining it deeper in your memory.

And, of course, published writing allows others to get to know your ideas, and through them you and your projects. Instead of restating the same ideas anew in every conversation you have, get discussion off to a faster start by sending a blog post. By holding yourself to the goal of providing value in every piece that you publish – “make the thing you wish you had found when you were learning,” Swyx writes – and investing a little in growth, you’re also creating a powerful content marketing funnel to get you connections and leads.1

This thesis, that learning in public is the most effective way to manage your knowledge, is the underlying driver of almost all of my writing: it’s not extra effort to write, it’s simply an extension of my learning process. I even go so far as to have the rule of thumb that I haven’t learned something until I’ve published writing about it. It doesn’t matter if what I publish doesn’t build a larger brand or have particular relevance to any project I’m working on. Whether it’s a book I’m reading, a good conversation, or a mental model I assemble for myself, if I find it interesting I feel compelled to get it down in writing sooner or later.

As Phil said earlier, with the end goal of publishing content in mind, it matters a lot less the private knowledge management strategy you have. I find that there are three such strategies I pursue:

  1. Time based, as mentioned earlier. I write daily updates, which aren’t very high quality on their own – I rarely go back to re-read them, unless referencing specific details – but often provide the sparks for eventual blog posts.
  2. Progress based. I continually take notes as I work on things, especially when building software. I’ll often have an idea in mind for what I want an eventual blog post to look like, for example Creating a Ping Pong Elo Tracker for Edyfi in 1 Hour, but I have no idea what the arc is like or what interesting problems I’ll encounter as I’m taking notes. This is a great way to be more intentional about what you’re currently working on, and get a free blog post in the process.
  3. Idea based. This is the classic model of writing a blog post when you have something to write about, like how this blog post came together.

The most important thing is that all of these methods eventually lead to a blog post. Referencing Phil again, “Learning in public…is the forcing function that ties all activities together. Without it, everything collapses.”

If you want to learn a lot, or feel like you’re struggling to act on your learnings and ideas, consider giving learning in public a try! Take it one blog post a time: the next time you encounter something interesting, consider making a write-up about it! It’s important that it feels authentic and exciting to you, and not like you’re writing out of obligation. The time and energy requirements for writing will make the latter fail quickly. If you do decide to adopt this philosophy, let me know!

Until then, look forward to a continuous stream of thought and learning from me 😁

  1. I don’t discuss the content marketing aspect of learning in public much in this post, but there are lots of good writeups on this angle. Here’s one from Shawn Wang (Swyx), and buildinpublic.xyz has a bunch of guides and interviews. The idea that learning in public is a powerful content marketing strategy is also the underlying thesis for Updately, a publishing platform for building in public that I’m working on.