Collaborative Cognition

Finding a career breakthrough by pushing at the edges of what’s possible

In my previous post, I concluded that having a career mission seems to be one of the traits that define compelling careers. It gives a unifying focus to a career, and to some extent, answers the ultimate question: What should I do with my life? When you focus your energy towards a useful goal, it can maximise the impact you make on your world—a crucial factor in loving what you do. 

For many people, a career mission comes off the back of some sort of career breakthrough—an innovation or idea that receives external validation and prominence. They find this breakthrough in the ‘adjacent possible’ —the area just outside the presently accepted understanding of the world. This area is constantly being explored by scientists, inventors, writers and thinkers, reaching beyond their particular field of expertise into new areas of discovery. Once their ideas are tested and validated, they are launched in a venue that provides feedback, good or bad, that guides their next steps. 

But how to come up with the ideas in the first place? We can leave it to chance, stumbling across it in our everyday work using a good note taking or idea capture system. Or we can expose ourselves to new knowledge and research in a consistent and methodical way with people who are experts in their field. It’s this latter ‘engine of innovation’ that I’m keen to explore, something I’m calling collaborative cognition for purposes of this article. 

Roam research and note taking

I’ve previously shared how I work with Roam Research and the multiple benefits it gives me in my working day. But I’ve also used Roam in ‘multiplayer’ mode in an online book club. In this situation, over 100 people came together to read and take notes on a book in an open Roam ‘graph’ that everyone in the group can edit. While we read passages of the book, we could read and build on each others’ notes, make comments on the text together, and hold almost-live discussions. 

For me, the experience was groundbreaking. It felt exhilarating to be part of a network of thought, seeing my comments reacted to and built upon, like a mason working with others to build a wonderful cathedral. 

One important thing that made the experience successful was a common set of rules that everyone followed. For collaboration to work in Roam, people need to work together consistently and efficiently. When I joined the book club, we applied the concepts of a Zettelkasten to Roam, whilst reading the book How to take Smart Notes by Sönke Ahrens.

The Zettelkasten

A Zettelkasten is a method created by German scientist Niklas Luhmann to store and link ideas together on notecards using a numbering system. Luhmann lived from 1927 to 1998 and published over 600 pieces of science literature including more than 60 books in his career. When he read something that resonated with his area of research, he’d write a summary of the idea on the back of a notecard, along with anything it reminded him of or new ideas it gave him. Using the numbering system, he’d link the notecard to other relevant notecards, thereby creating a web of interlinked ideas in his notecard system.

The Zettelkasten we used in Roam provided a common set of rules for collaborators to abide by, which enabled the collaboration to happen. This multiplayer mode  I’ve been using this method to capture insights and ideas from the non-fiction books I read, and it has grown into a large personal Zettelkasten within my Roam graph. 

A Multiplayer Zettelkasten

Creating a multiplayer Zettelkasten in Roam with several of my peers could be an efficient way to explore the ‘adjacent possible’ leading to potential breakthrough career ideas. The peer group would keep each other accountable to keep pushing at the boundaries, sharing new research, connecting ideas together, and supporting each other to learn. Members of the peer group would ideally bring expert knowledge from an adjacent field into the group, for example in finance, data or psychology, all focused around one big problem to solve. 

I could imagine that over a 6 to 12 month period, we would have created a very aligned, trusted peer group, who are contributing to a shared body of knowledge, pushing at the boundaries of their fields, and being enriched by the process of group learning, collaboration and idea generation. 

A sketch of the process

Every week, members of the peer group would use their curiosity to find and consume new sources of knowledge, such as a journal article or book, a recorded webinar on YouTube or a podcast. Then, when something resonates (i.e. when what they’ve read has particular meaning or importance to them), they’d capture a ‘Fleeting Note’ of what it reminds them of, what it relates to or how it differs from their current understanding. These are meant to be quick notes in the margin of a book. They are ‘fleeting’ because if you waste any time writing them down, they are gone! So a good capture system is important. When reading a physical book or kindle, I like to keep a notepad and pen at hand, or when reading on my laptop or phone, I take a note straight into Roam.

Then, a few hours or days later that week, members would sit at their computer, set a timer of 30 minutes and elaborate on the idea with free-form writing to reveal more of what and why it resonated with them. By setting a timer, and not deviating from the page for that time, they’re continuing to push at the keys and elaborating on their thoughts, forcing their mind to wonder, and digging deeper into their thinking. This process was developed by Beah Haan and he’s generously posted his book club supporting videos on his YouTube channel.

Elaborating is not just restating the facts, but trying to figure out why it is the case, what it connects to and how it agrees or disagrees with their existing knowledge. It helps us push into new territory of understanding when we really think about what the content means to us, how it relates to our areas of interest, and what follow-on questions arise.

The multiplayer zettelkasten process also helps with learning. On the one hand it solves the problem of a mounting ‘to read’ pile, helping you keep up with the latest research in your field. On the other, it helps you become enlightened on a topic, challenging you to connect it to your existing world view and understand how it differs, respects or refutes it. Above all you emerge wiser.

Way forward

I would suggest we should begin with a small group, and it enlarges from there once the group has become comfortable with the process, and any kinks have been ironed out. New members would be encouraged to read How to take Smart Notes by Sönke Ahrens to learn more about the Zettelkasten concept and benefits of elaboration. 

I imagine this would most suit those who are entrepreneurially minded, who exhibit an intellectual curiosity and a desire for continuous improvement and professional development. I’m interested in setting up a group focused around the challenge of poor sanitation in low and middle income settings, inviting experts in the field of finance, data, health and policy.

I hope there would be occasions when new projects or areas of possibility are identified and members would need to drop out of the group. And that’s OK. Because the whole purpose of this is to identify new ideas, so they can be tested in a venue where people can remark on them, and provide the much needed feedback to move ideas along. So when people drop out of the group, then perhaps they find someone else from their area of specialty to replace them, or the group decide they want to invite someone with a different topic of interest.

If you’re reading this and you’d like to discuss the concept or give it a try, then please get in touch