As Ryan Holiday’s research assistant, I’ve adopted and adapted his famous notecard system. Since starting this site and my newsletter, it’s the most common email I get. Do you use the notecard system? Do you use the same box Ryan uses? How do you organize everything?
And one thing I’ve learned from Ryan is when you get asked about something a lot, write an article about it. That way, when people ask you, you can just send them a link to the article.
So here we go.
In this article, I am going to explain my adapted version of the notecard system. The structure, like the system, is not sequential, but here’s an outline of what’s to come:
“The greatest genius will never be worth much if he pretends to draw exclusively from his own resources.” — Goethe
In Game 1 of the 2018 Eastern Conference NBA finals, the Cleveland Cavaliers lost to the Boston Celtics 108-83. After the game, Cavaliers’ star Lebron James was asked about a stretch where the Celtics scored seven straight points. What happened there? the reported asked
What happened? James repeated back to the reporter. He pauses, seems like he might dismiss the banal question, then perfectly recalls, “The first possession, we ran them down all the way to 2 [seconds] on the shot clock. [The Celtics’] Marcus Morris missed a jump shot. He followed it up, they got a dunk. We came back down, we ran a set for Jordan Clarkson. He came off and missed it. They rebounded it. We came back on the defensive end, and we got a stop. They took it out on the sideline. Jason Tatum took the ball out, threw it to Marcus Smart in the short corner, he made a three. We come down, miss another shot. And then Tatum came down and went ninety-four feet, did a Eurostep and made a right-hand layup. [We called a] timeout.” The other reporters in the room laugh. “There you go,” James says.
“People always say of great athletes that they have a sixth sense,” Malcolm Gladwell says in Miracle and Wonder: Conversations with Paul Simon. “But it’s not a sixth sense. It’s memory. Gladwell then analogizes James’ exacting memory to Simon’s. In the way James has precise recall of basketball game situations, Simon has it of sounds and songs. “Simon’s memory is prodigious,” Gladwell says. “There were thousands of songs in his head. And thousands more bits of songs—components—which appeared to have been broken down and stacked like cordwood in his imagination.”
The archive of situations James has in his memory function as reference points to decipher new but analogous game situations, to enable intelligent decisions, to facilitate anticipation.
For Simon, those reference points facilitate his creative output. He cultivates an archive of sounds he likes that become the building blocks for his own songs. As Gladwell says, for Simon, “songwriting is the rearrangement and reconstruction of those pleasurable sounds.”
Simon’s musicianship is a function of the library of musical components in his head. Everything he creates is largely an amalgamation of bits from his musical memories. Simon recognizes this to be his gift: “I seem to have a very exact memory of things that I’ve heard—liked and disliked—but very exact,” he says.
If you are like Lebron James or Paul Simon, if you were born with a gift for recall, you might not need a note-taking system.