Zach's PEN #41: The Zettelkasten

2021 Week 18: The most mind-blowing book I've ever read.

Subtitle: The most mind-blowing book I've ever read

Dear PENpals,

In early 2019, I learned about this thing called the Zettelkasten. It had been mentioned by a few nerds in a few disparate forums, and I was hungry for more information about it. I searched everywhere I could, read posts about its creator (a German sociologist named Nicklaus Luhmann) and watched the few YouTube videos that existed. The YouTube videos were mostly these two German academics talking about this Holy Grail/City of Atlantis/Fountain of Youth notetaking system, but they were very... academic about it.

I searched Twitter and discovered one person who was speaking about the Zettelkasten with what seemed to me an appropriate level of excitement. His name was Conor White-Sullivan, and I knew nothing about him other than that he was excited about the Zettelkasten and he had a couple of brilliant tweet threads about it.

I reached out to make conversation about this exciting thing, hoping to make an acquaintance.

"Building something better."

Little did I know that a year later, I would be writing literally everything I write, for every purpose in the "something better" that Conor was building, an app called Roam Research. Roam is the single most transformative piece of software I've ever used in my life (and I've used a lot of software). Every tweet, every post, every note for work, every outline, every screenplay, everything that I write is done in Roam, and now it's also my guitar practice notebook, my recipe journal, where I organize photos, everything.

Incidentally, Roam also recently closed a fundraising round at a 200 million dollar valuation. It's a notetaking app. And yes, it is that good.

Roam has an incredibly dedicated following of people like me. Of course, there are plenty of Roam users who don't give a damn about what a Zettelkasten is and just like Roam because it's the most frictionless digital notebook ever created, but the core group, including Conor himself, is here for the Zettelkasten (and it's broader, networked implications).

The Zettelkasten is Blackbeard's buried treasure, the elixir of the gods... It is the unicorn.

And full disclosure: I haven't figured it out yet.

But on the first ever Roam "True Believers" call (yes, people are so fanatical about this application that there is a category of users called True Believers who paid for their first five years in advance, you do not need to ask if I am one of those), I met a guy named Beau Haan. We had a lot in common. We were about the same age and sober about the same amount of time. He was an actor. Most importantly, he was as fired up about the Zettelkasten as I was.

As it turns out, he was fired up a bit more.

More than a year later, I'm now 21 days into Beau's Roam "Book Club" which is really the deepest and most comprehensive course on writing/thinking/notetaking (Zettelkasten Hint: those are all the same thing) that I've ever been a part of.

Beau implicitly claims that he has discovered the digital Zettelkasten, and he has implemented it in Roam, and I am beginning to believe him. This course has been spectacular.

I mentioned it's a "Book Club." Well, the book we're reading is the book that I originally read in one sitting back in May of 2019. I've never read a book in one sitting before. This is the book that captured my imagination about the Zettelkasten. This was the most cataclysmic book I've ever read. Every page was like a round of artillery shells blowing holes in the wall of useless bullshit I had built up around writing and creative work my whole life.

Here is the book. It has the least enticing title of all time. In case you forgot, the Holy Grail is the cup of a carpenter:

I was so taken with this book that I immediately tried to contact the author, and I found that he offered coaching through his website. I scheduled a session with him and took it from my old office in the Joseph R. Biden train station, with my card catalog behind me (yes, I intended to implement the Zettelkasten with notecards the way that Luhmann had, I was in the middle of my own Analog Renaissance and I was going to do this the RIGHT OLD WAY).

Professor Sönke Ahrens was very helpful, but at the end of the call, he essentially said "Look, it sounds like you have a bunch of projects you already know you want to make. You should just go ahead and make those. A Zettelkasten can be something you start now but I'm not sure there's a reason to reverse-engineer things you're already doing with a Zettelkasten." He also suggested I pick digital or analog, and not the analog-digital hybrid I had schemed out complete with stylesheets for printing index cards from Dynalist.

Oh yeah, at that point I had implemented my Zettelkasten in Dynalist, which was a nicer-looking clone of Workflowy, which was the most useful outliner ever made. I had no idea at this point that Roam even existed, or that it was going to follow in Workflowy/Dynalist's footsteps and add a couple of features that were literally beyond my wildest dreams.

I showed Sönke on that call how I thought a hierarchical outliner with referenceable blocks could be the best implementation of a Zettelkasten. He seemed intrigued, but as a practical person, he tamped down most of my explosive enthusiasm and wished me well.

I never did get my outliner Zettelkasten implemented. I thought about it all the time, often keeping me up at night, but I never had the energy or the insight to figure it out, and I never could. The truth is that my old conceptions around writing, organization, notetaking, and creative WORK were truly in charge and kept leeching their way into my Zettelkasten, plaguing it with the same problems I've always had.

Beau Haan figured it out! Look, to be clear, I don't know if he's figured it out, but I believe he has. And if he has, everything is changed. Whole new worlds are possible.

I have a half tongue-in-cheek collection of interests that I call Thought Technologies™. I put it in my Twitter profile and About Me page. The Zettelkasten is the most powerful Thought Technology™ for creative work that I've ever come across, and it isn't close, but the only evidence I have of it ever working is the claims of the guy who invented it. It's like the proof of a design for a nuclear fusion power plant that removes all energy concerns from the world to the end of time, but thus far it only works on paper. I haven't held it in my hands yet!

I believe I'm close.

God bless Beau Haan and Sönke Ahrens and Conor White-Sullivan and all these beautiful fucking nerds.

I would recommend Sönke's book to literally anyone who has ever written anything in a notebook, in a journal, for a class... Anything. And if you get excited about it, follow @BeauHaan on Twitter to see if you can get in to the next round of the "Book Club." Keep in mind, you will be kicked out if you don't do the work. That is in keeping with the fact that, thus far, he is giving it away for free, and he is the most earnest, intense dude, maybe ever.

This Week’s Posts

I wrote about the least optimal way to spend your time.

I wrote about what from my experience it takes to edit film.

I wrote about what it can feel like to finally give up and admit you were wrong about something.

I wrote about one of the best things about this publishing habit I've had for the last 135 days and 40 weeks.

I wrote about one of the many reasons I love riding a bicycle so much.

I wrote about a tendency I've had the last few years to eat at night and why long-term health thinking has never been an effective motivator for me.


We went to the diner in the Reading Terminal Market this morning and I messed up on my shutter speeds. Louisa got the sharpest photo of all (this is photo credit to Louisa, these are all digital, by the way, Fuji X100V).

The next two are photo credit to Allison.

Here's Louisa excited about some cookies.

And here's a total mistake one that I love anyway.

And in this last one, which we'll pretend is Wendell taking a selfie because that's fun, both sweaters were knit by my mom.

Much love, PENpals,