Aidan Helfant is a college student who’s using personal knowledge management (PKM) to improve his learning. He’s also sharing his methods and tools to help other college students succeed. In this conversation, we unpack Aidan’s approach to note-taking for learning.

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Jorge: Aidan, welcome to the show.

Aidan: Thanks for having me on Jorge; I’m really excited to, to talk.

Jorge: I’m excited to talk with you as well. What brings you here today? What’s your story?

About Aidan

Aidan: I remember in middle school and high school, I used to be really addicted to video games. Every single day I would run up the stairs and boot up my computer and play for hours on end; sometimes in the summer months I could play for seven hours. During Covid 19, I reached a point where I was playing so many video games that I regretted what I was missing out on in the real world. None of the stuff I was doing in video games were applying to real life.

But I remember there was this one day where I was walking around the basement. And watching a video by Ali Abdaal on this concept called Building a Second Brain by Tiago Forte. And he said something which really struck out to me that was building a second brain is like playing a video game. And when I heard that, I was like, “Wow! There’s one thing I know I’m good at: it’s playing video games. So, what if I could apply this love for video games to something that actually has application in the real world?”

This led me into the Building a Second Brain community with Tiago Forte. For anyone that doesn’t know what that is, it’s a course where you learn how to create a personal knowledge management system that captures information over time and then fosters it, grows it, until eventually you create something out of it, and through that process of learning to play that new game of getting better at personal knowledge management, how do I organize information?

I stopped my addiction to video games and have played this game instead, which is, in my opinion, the most fun game since, because the things that I create out of building a second brain actually apply to the real world instead of not really doing anything.

Jorge: That’s very cool. I’m familiar both with Ali’s YouTube channel and I’ve also read Tiago Forte’s book, but I have not heard about this analogy between personal knowledge management and games. Can you expand on that? Like, how are they similar?

PKM as a game

Aidan: Sure. If we think about what a game even is, there’s only five things that comprise any game, chess, a video game, checkers, literally anything, and that is: there’s a goal, there are rules, there is voluntary participation. At least I hope that ; it wouldn’t be good if there wasn’t. There’s a feedback mechanism, through which you can see how your actions are leading towards the goal, and then there is a gameplay loop, which is the actual core loop behind which you do it.

Now, if we apply that to PKM, they’re very similar. Your PKM is in some ways a game. What are the goals? The goal is in figuring out how do I manage the overwhelming amount of information in my life, right? And inside of that, there are a ton of sub goals. Like, how do I find a knowledge management process that resonates with me? And there’s a ton in the community like Tiago Forte’s PARA Method, Nick Milo’s ARC framework, there’s the zettelkasten, which is personally the one that I use alongside a bit of tweaking that I’ve done.

And then, there’s many other goals inside of PKM as well. Like, how do I choose which information to collect? How do I grow information in my system? How do I organize it? How do I create things out of it, whether it be YouTube videos, blog posts, podcasts, newsletters? So the core goals are very clear in PKM. And then, alongside that, there’s — I hope — voluntary participation. The feedback loop is, how is my PKM system helping me understand the world, understand myself? Is it lessening the information overwhelm that I feel? Is it allowing me to do my best thinking? And then, finally, the gameplay loop is very similar to what talked about earlier with the knowledge processes that you can choose. That’s the core gameplay loop of PKM: collect information, relate it together, and then create things out of it. And it’s not always linear, but that is a game play loop, just like any game.

Jorge: I really like this mapping of game characteristics to PKM. I was particularly intrigued by the fact that those five characteristics don’t include competitiveness. One of the things that I think a lot of people associate with games is like you’re trying to somehow beat some kind of goal. Does that factor into how you approach personal knowledge management?

Aidan: Of course. That’s a great question, by the way. There are obviously lots of games with competitive aspects. I, myself, was a toxic League of Legends player at one point, if you’ve ever heard of that game. But there’s lots of games where the core appeal of them is that there is no competitiveness. Take Stardew Valley, for instance, that is a game where you play as a farmer who’s taken over their grandfather’s old farm, and it’s your goal to grow the farm over time, build your relationship with the citizens inside of the town, and grow your skills in other areas.

So there’s no competitive nature inside of that game, and I would argue to have the most healthy relationship with your own PKM system, you could have a competitive nature with other people in the community if you’re the type of person that thrives on that, but I myself find that I like being more competitive with myself with trying to improve my system. That’s why it’s called personal knowledge management, because it’s personal to you. So, it’s actually almost hard to be competitive in the same way in PKM as in another game because you’re operating on different rules as each other because your system is different.

Jorge: What comes to mind is this distinction between finite and infinite games. Have you heard of this?

Aidan: Yeah, I’ve heard of that.

Jorge: James P. Carse. I remember when I first read that, it made an impact in my life; this notion that some games you play to win and some games you play to keep playing. And it sounds to me like PKM might be the latter, right? It’s the type of game that you do to keep playing somehow.

Aidan: I love that idea. And I think exactly like you said, the best mindset I think to come into PKM with is to treat it like an infinite game. Because if you treat it like an infinite game, then you learn that one of the most beautiful things that you get when you build a PKM system that works for you is you start to create this knowledge base that compounds as you go throughout your life instead of staying stagnant, and you start to begin projects later on, where you dive back into your notes from maybe eight years ago, if you’ve been taking notes for that long, and you see you’re already 80% done. It’s really a beautiful process.

Aidan’s use cases

Jorge: Yeah. I really like that. It’s like a record of your growth somehow. You, you can revisit this and see how you were thinking at a previous stage. You mentioned that one of the revelations for you when you heard Ali’s video about Tiago’s framework was that you were able to make the mapping between the things that you loved about games and things that brought you benefit in real life. I don’t remember exactly how you phrased it, but but I’m curious about how you’re applying this in real life. What are you doing with personal knowledge management?

Aidan: That’s a fantastic question. And the first thing I wanted to say off of what you said is, I think you hit on the core power of having a PKM system where you relate information that are seemingly disparate together. I know that’s one of the things you wanna write your book on is connected thought.

And I think that, as an idea, is so revolutionary because it really applies with a quote that I hold very dear to my heart, which is there are no rigid disciplines in the universe, only concepts, right? Biology, anthropology, statistics, mathematics, computer science, they’re all highly related concepts connected together. But that doesn’t mean that you can’t take a concept from one area and connect it to a concept from another. And that’s the core insight that I think a connected knowledge, a personal knowledge management system gives you, is how interconnected everything is.

So, to answer the second part of your question, what am I using this for in my actual life? I would say there’s broadly two main things. Firstly, I’m using it inside of school. I’m a psychology major at Cornell University and using Obsidian as my digital note-taking system. I have created a system where I take… I call it conceptual note-making, but it’s basically just a slightly changed zettlekasten system which we might get into later. And I use it to take notes in the various readings I have, the lectures I have and actually connect the lecture content the class contents together, not only between classes but also between semesters. So, I compound my knowledge over time.

And then, outside of school, I am using my PKM system to create content online. I have four main places that I’m creating content on, and that is my YouTube channel, where I create content on PKM in Obsidian, gamification, memory, and relationship psychology. And then I have a newsletter called Aidan’s Infinite Play and a blog as well as a podcast myself, where I talk about personal knowledge management. So those two buckets are the main places that I apply my PKM system in.

Jorge: I would love to hear more about the approach. You said it’s like a modified zettelkasten, but I am especially curious about the idea of linking the things you are learning in your classes across different subjects and also in time, like over different semesters.

I’ll give a little bit of a preview of some of the stuff I’m writing about. I opened one of the chapters in the book talking about how I took notes when I was in school. Not even in college, just like in grade school, and talking about how I would use these binders, these paper binders. And when the semester was done, I would move on, right? This thing would… I had no use for it anymore. The notes were just basically ways for me to remind myself of what teachers said during class. But I couldn’t see the usefulness in these things after I had taken the test or whatever.

But it sounds like you are using information differently to study. I’m wondering if you could expand a bit on your approach and how you’re using it for school.

Conceptual note-taking

Aidan: Yeah. I think that that’s a great question, first off and secondly, to explore that I do think we need to define what the zettlekasten is and then we can explore the way that I applied in school using my slightly modified version, conceptual note making. So, the zettlekasten system of notetaking was first developed by German scientist Niklas Luhmann in the early 20th century, who created little index cards that he would write individual ideas on with the reference back to the source material, and he would put them in what he called a slip box and he would through a pretty simple system, connect index cards together, sometimes multiple index cards with multiple index cards, and was just incredibly prolific with this system.

It was incredibly simple as well. It only has three types of cards, which are fleeting notes, literature notes, and permanent notes. Fleeting notes are just notes you write down in the moment, not fully fleshed out ideas that you intend to expand upon later on. And create into potentially a permanent note. Literature notes are the notes that you take from resources you consume, whether it be journal articles, videos — I’m sure he wasn’t watching YouTube back then — and any other type of resource. Finally, permanent notes are fully fleshed-out singular ideas that you can connect together to create new knowledge. It’s called in systems theory “emergence,” when the individual parts merge to create a whole that is different.

And as beautiful as this system is, it allowed him to create so much … such a crazy amount of stuff. There are two main problems that I have with it, which I had to switch for my conceptual note making system. Firstly, permanent notes only having one idea, I found, made it very difficult to expand upon ideas if you wanted to, because you can only have one tiny little index card. It’s very hard to have a lot in that. So, I changed permanent notes to concept notes, which don’t really refer to a singular concept in the sense I just liked the, the name. And the difference is they focus on one idea, but they can have multiple ideas in them. So, that allows you to have a bit more nuance inside of the denote itself.

And secondly, the other problem with the zettelkasten system is it’s entirely bottom-up mode of thinking, which is a type of thinking where you don’t need to come into a learning endeavor with a understanding of how the individual parts fit together. That’s a more top-down learning approach. That’s what we do in school most of the time is, you get the curriculum, you see everything that’s going to be given, and you know when it’s going to be given. The zettelkasten system is entirely bottom-up. You just read whatever you want, create individual notes, connect them together. And you don’t have that top-down structure off the bat. You have to give it back.

So, what I started doing in my conceptual note making process is giving that top-down structure that was necessary to see the bigger view, which is why I started doing creating notes called Maps of Content. It’s a term from Nick Milo that refers to a note with a bunch of other individual notes inside of it. That’s a map of content and creating that map of content, it lets you see all, how all the individual notes that you’re taking bottom-up fit together into a greater hole. So that’s my conceptual note-making process.

Jorge: I agree with you that it’s desirable to strike a balance between top-down and bottom-up. Like you said, one of the wonderful things about this approach is that it does leave room for emergence. I manage a system that shares some similarities with what you’re describing here. It’s not exactly like it, but it aims for some of the same goals. And one of the beautiful things about it is that sometimes, I discover connections between ideas that I would not have planned for right there. And that speaks to this notion of emergence. But I also agree with you that we don’t come to this without any top-down expectations. Like, we have mental models that we bring to note taking and to these interactions, and it’s good to acknowledge that. I would love to hear more about how you’re using maps of content in your studies. And I also wanted to call out, I don’t know if you’ve read Sönke Ahrens’s book…

Aidan: Oh yeah, it’s a great book.

Jorge: Right? So, he also talks about ideas like these. right? I forget what he calls them, but he has a similar idea about kind of like index notes that point to these more granular things, right?

Aidan: I think he calls them zettels, but I might be wrong.

Jorge: Yeah, I don’t remember what the phrase is but this is, yeah, the, the, the higher level idea is, like you said, you have individual notes that are focused on a concept. In your case, it sounds like there’s leeway as to what that means, right? Like, you can expand on it. And then, you have other types of notes that serve as indices to collections of notes about different concepts. So how are you using these? What would be an example from your studies?

Examples of note types

Aidan: Okay, I’ll start with an example at first, just so it’s very clear what the tangible product is, and then I’ll go into like the system behind how it gets created.

So, a good example of where a note that I took from, so fundamentally connected to another one, is from two classes that I took at different semesters. One of them was Human Bonding last semester, a whole class about relationships, how they form, why they form, how we can make them better. And then another one was a class called Six Pretty Good Books where we read six books in the social sciences and wrote essays on them throughout the semester.

One of the books that we read was Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman and one of the big insights that I took a concept note from that class in is that first impressions heavily skew how we seek information in the future. That is the actual title of the note. It’s a statement, right? And the idea inside expands upon it.

There was another note that I took in my human bonding class where I looked into how in relationships we tend to confirm our pre held notions of what someone is like is based off of maybe how we saw them a year ago or two years ago. And then, I made this connection between them, which is: the first impressions we make of someone can dangerously skew how we see them, right?

If I jumped on this call and the first thing you did was swear at me, it wouldn’t have made a very good first impression. I probably would’ve been more prone to look for information as time went on where I was like, Jorge is not a good guy. And that would’ve been really unfortunate cause I think that’s not true. So, that’s a example where connecting notes together allowed me to see a relationship I might not have seen beforehand. And that was between classes. Between semesters.

How does that actually happen? I think in order to answer this as succinctly as possible, I first want to very quickly say what normal students do when they take notes, and then I’ll go on to the way that I take notes with a different mindset.

Most students, when they go into class, Open up a new Google Drive document or a Notion document, and they write down exactly what the professor says verbatim, which not only hurts their understanding of what the professor’s saying in the moment, because they’re focused on taking as much notes as they can while they’re talking, but it also makes them what I call cookie cutter students. Because they’re all taking notes on the same thing as they’re not re-putting it in their own words, they’re essentially all cookie-cuttering themselves into the same notes, meaning they’re taking away the same ideas.

The way that I take notes attacks it a little differently because instead of letting the notes be… write them verbatim is what the professor says, and let them like sit over years and years, never touch them again, when I go into the class, I treat the lectures that I am going into as literature notes inside of the zettelkasten system because they are like literature notes. I’m consuming something and I’m taking away information from someone else’s ideas.

I should note before I come into the lecture that I’ve usually done quite a bit of scoping on the top-down thinking. What is actually being taught in this class? What is the order through which we’re learning it so I understand how the individual parts fit into the whole? While I’m in class, I am spending most of my attention listening to what the professor’s saying because when you’re writing notes down, it does hurt your understanding a bit because you have to both listen to the professor and write notes. Then I only take notes on stuff that is used, which means stuff that isn’t useless, self-explanatory, or easy enough to memorize on the spot.

And when I do take notes, I usually write them in the form of questions in headers and Obsidian with the answer below. So, they’re already in a form where they can be easily studied later on if I wanted to. At the end of the class, I’ll usually take either right after the class or sometime later in the day to do what’s called free recall, which is where you essentially just write down your memory summary of the class as much as you can without any other cues, right?

You’re just writing down the summary and I put that at the top. So, my actual questions are at the bottom, my summary’s at the top, and then sometime throughout the week I’ll usually go into my lecture notes that haven’t been processed and I will see if I can create any concept notes out of them.

Is there any ideas in here that I think are so interesting, so important that they might be able to be siloed? Not siloed, but taken away from the context of just that class and connected somewhere else? And that’s really where I do what is, in my opinion, my best thinking, which is where I connect them between other class concept notes that I’ve created and across semesters.

So in summary, that’s how over the semester you connect between classes. Over the years, you start collect connecting notes between semesters and you build this incredible knowledge base that grows with you instead of being siloed inside of whatever semester it was taken in.

Jorge: And an example of that might be the idea from the Kahneman book about first impressions that you mentioned. Like it sounds, it sounds like that would be one of those.

Aidan: That would totally be one of those. Those were both two concept notes. Yeah.

Crossing the streams

Jorge: You mentioned that there are two things that you’re doing with this: you’re using these notes for your studies, and then you also have a variety of means of publishing, right? So you have the YouTube channel, the podcast, the newsletter, the blog, and all these things. And it sounds to me like the publishing. Is centered. It’s like meta. It’s like you’re publishing about the approach that you use in your studies. And I’m wondering about the mechanics of that. And now I’m gonna speak in like Obsidian terms, right? Like, are you treating those as separate vaults? Or is it like a single thing that you are… like, are you leveraging the Kahneman idea in your non-school studies, for example, are you crossing the streams there?

Aidan: They’re crossing. Yeah, there’s a hundred percent tons of notes from my school studies, which have made their way into my content creation. And really that comes out of the realization of how connected it all is. I might be a little biased in my major, considering it’s psychology, which obviously connects to a lot of different stuff. Like, we’re all human beings and psychological… the things you learn in psychology can just be connected to so much stuff.

If I was in like an applied science I don’t know, no, maybe not an applied science, maybe like geography, it would be way harder to do this type of note taking system. And I think that’s an important thing to note is the zettelkasten framework, it’s not for everyone. I don’t think the zettelkasten would work well for someone in a very project centered field that doesn’t need to make bottom-up notes, like, they’re more top-down focused, because zettelkasten is a very bottom-up focused note taking system. But yeah, like you said the two lives, while they are separate, they very much interact.

Jorge: You say that, and yet I manage my projects using an approach. Not exactly like this. I’m not doing… so, I have two vaults. I have a vault that is like my slip box, where I keep ideas. Pretty much in the way that we’ve been describing, right? Like with literature notes and and zettels and stuff like that. And then I have another vault that I used to manage projects, and that one is much less bottom up like you’re describing.

But I’ve also found that thinking about these ideas as a hypertext as opposed to like just one-off notes… like, I’ll give you an example: meeting minutes. When I’m in a meeting, I will be taking notes on what people are saying. And one of the things that I do is I capture who is in the meeting and each one of the people that I deal with has a note in my system. And I can go to that note and I can see all of the meetings that they were in, because they’re all linked together, right? So it’s not the same framework, but it’s the same mechanics and it creates a similar structure in that there’s these small nodes that are all linked together.

Aidan: Oh, okay. I’m really glad that you mentioned that because I have not doven into that side of note-taking. I’m not as project- focused on my work. I mean, you could say that content creation is very much a project, each one, but I’m not like in the lot of meetings or not. I’m interested, you can tell me if you don’t wanna dive into this, but can you give, do you think in your project-centered work you ever utilize the bottom-up note-taking where you connect disparate ideas together intentionally to try and come out with new ones.

Jorge: I do it a lot with research. So, basically I design software. At the end of the day, that’s what I do. And that entails doing research upfront about what it is that you’re gonna be designing. And the research process yields a lot of information. And oftentimes, you can’t see the patterns at first, so you just capture and eventually there comes a point where you make sense of it all. Now, I don’t use Obsidian for that; there are other tools that I use to make sense of that, like Tinderbox, which which is better suited for this, I think. But any of these hypertext tools that allows for granular capture of concepts that can then be set in relation to each other, can be used for this sort of the, this sort of work, I think.

Aidan: Okay. Wow. I’m really glad you mentioned that. Yeah.


Jorge: Well, this is really great stuff and I’m very excited to hear you talking about how you use it and both for your studies and also for the work that you’re sharing with the world. I think that folks listening in at this point might be curious to know where they can go, look at the stuff that you’re putting out. Where do you point them to?

Aidan: Uh, yeah, I’d point them to two different places, first my youTube channel. It’s just Aidan Helfant on YouTube. And secondly, my blogging website, and you can also find me on Twitter if you want to message me. But yeah, I’d say those are the main areas.

Jorge: Great. I’m gonna include links to all of those in the show notes. Hayden, it’s been such a pleasure having you on the show.

Aidan: Thank you so much for having me on, Jorge. It’s been great on my end as well.