skip to Main Content

Creating a Friction-free Knowledge Base & Making Information Useful


Resource: The Usefulness of Useless Knowledge: A 1939 Manifesto for the Incalculable Rewards of Curiosity
Description: Abraham Flexner on the value of curiosity for curiosity’s sake


The greatest contributions to humanity have been rooted in the discoveries made by those who were preoccupied with curiosity and wonder, not with a need to be useful.

The work of Inventors, technicians, and business people is made possible by the theoreticians.

Education should not only focus on teaching people how to be pragmatic, but also on teaching them how to cultivate a sense of wonder, awe, and adventurous philosophical pursuit.

When we discourage learners from being irresponsibly curious, we do a disservice to their cognitive development.

There are things we want to know and are glad to know, but only after we have stumbled upon them by surprise.


“In an age obsessed with practicality, productivity, and efficiency, I frequently worry that we are leaving little room for abstract knowledge and for the kind of curiosity that invites just enough serendipity to allow for the discovery of ideas we didn’t know we were interested in until we are, ideas that we may later transform into new combinations with applications both practical and metaphysical.” -Maria Popova

“throughout the whole history of science most of the really great discoveries which had ultimately proved to be beneficial to mankind had been made by men and women who were driven not by the desire to be useful but merely the desire to satisfy their curiosity.”

“Curiosity, which may or may not eventuate in something useful, is probably the outstanding characteristic of modern thinking. It is not new. It goes back to Galileo, Bacon, and to Sir Isaac Newton, and it must be absolutely unhampered. Institutions of learning should be devoted to the cultivation of curiosity and the less they are deflected by considerations of immediacy of application, the more likely they are to contribute not only to human welfare but to the equally important satisfaction of intellectual interest which may indeed be said to have become the ruling passion of intellectual life in modern times.”

“Mr. Eastman, Marconi was inevitable. The real credit for everything that has been done in the field of wireless belongs, as far as such fundamental credit can be definitely assigned to anyone, to Professor Clerk Maxwell, who in 1865 carried out certain abstruse and remote calculations in the field of magnetism and electricity…. Other discoveries supplemented Maxwell’s theoretical work during the next fifteen years. Finally in 1887 and 1888 the scientific problem still remaining — the detection and demonstration of the electromagnetic waves which are the carriers of wireless signals — was solved by Heinrich Hertz, a worker in Helmholtz’s laboratory in Berlin. Neither Maxwell nor Hertz had any concern about the utility of their work; no such thought ever entered their minds. They had no practical objective. The inventor in the legal sense was of course Marconi, but what did Marconi invent? Merely the last technical detail, mainly the now obsolete receiving device called coherer, almost universally discarded. Hertz and Maxwell could invent nothing, but it was their useless theoretical work which was seized upon by a clever technician and which has created new means for communication, utility, and amusement by which men whose merits are relatively slight have obtained fame and earned millions. Who were the useful men? Not Marconi, but Clerk Maxwell and Heinrich Hertz. Hertz and Maxwell were geniuses without thought of use. Marconi was a clever inventor with no thought but use.”

“With the rapid accumulation of ‘useless’ or theoretic knowledge a situation has been created in which it has become increasingly possible to attack practical
problems in a scientific spirit. Not only inventors, but ‘pure’ scientists have indulged in this sport. I have mentioned Marconi, an inventor, who, while a benefactor to the human race, as a matter of fact merely ‘picked other men’s brains.’ Edison belongs to the same category.”

“Over a period of one or two hundred years the contributions of professional schools to their respective activities will probably be found to lie, not so much in the training of men who may to-morrow become practical engineers or practical lawyers or practical doctors, but rather in the fact that even in the pursuit of strictly practical aims an enormous amount of apparently useless activity goes on. Out of this useless activity there come discoveries which may well prove of infinitely more importance to the human mind and to the human spirit than the accomplishment of the useful ends for which the schools were founded.”

“The real enemy of the human race is not the fearless and irresponsible thinker, be he right or wrong. The real enemy is the man who tries to mold the human spirit so that it will not dare to spread its wings.”

Questions for further reflection:

Is it possible that the scientists, theoreticians, and pure thinkers are motivated by a less obvious but still practical concept of “usefulness”?

Is it really the case that entrepreneurs and inventors are solely or primarily captivated with being useful for the sake of being useful? Is it possible that the desire to create a service or product can be the expression of a different kind of curiosity? What would Flexner say about the notion of entrepreneurship as a form of hypothesis testing?

How much of our worry and concern about what dominates institutions of higher learning comes from the consequences of statism (ie compulsory schooling and the subsidization of college)? There seems to be an underlying sentiment here that schools ought to focus on certain things because it’s good in a way that requires public support.

Resource: Seven Ways to Create a Friction-Free Knowledge Base
Description: Tips from Doug Toft on how to manage the information you study and discover


Keep it simple. Use as few tools as possible. Unnecessary complexity makes your saved data much harder to retrieve when you need it.

Make your knowledge management processes and practices enjoyable. Instead of looking for the “right” tools or worrying about the “wrong” tools, go with what feels intuitive and fun for you.

Get a note app system that allows you to easily capture ideas on the go. As you move through the day, you’ll hear things, think about things, read things, and see things that you’ll want to “capture” for future contemplation, research, or work. Make this process easy on yourself. Take advantage of voice note and web clipper apps.

Choose the information you capture based on what grabs you. Trust your tastes. At the heart of intuitive note-taking is sensitivity towards what’s interesting and important to you personally. Sometimes certain passages of thought will jump out at you inexplicably. Go with the flow and capture that information. Let your personality into your note-taking process.

Use note titles that will help you find what you’re looking for.


“One core skill in PKM is capturing ideas on the run — no matter when and where they occur to you. Some people carry a pen and pocket-sized notebook for creating quick notes in the midst of any activity. Voice memo apps and mobile versions of notes apps also work well for this purpose. In fact, I always leave the Notes app on my iPhone open.” -Doug Toft

“We know from neuroscience research that “emotions organize — rather than disrupt — rational thinking.” Often, when something “resonates” with us, it is our intuitive/right brain/System 1 mind telling us something is valuable before our analytical/left brain/System 2 mind even knows what’s going on…. In fact, I very often find that the most counterintuitively insightful pieces of information I save are the ones whose practical application is initially the least clear. My intuition tells me there’s something special about what I’m seeing or hearing, and only much later does the logic become clear.” -Tiago Forte

“Tiago gives an example: While driving and listening to Tim Ferriss’s interview with Brené Brown on vulnerability, he heard some ideas that resonated with him on a gut level. So he pulled off the road to park his car for a moment and create this note. “I have no idea what vulnerability has to do with my work on productivity and innovation,” Tiago adds, “but I’m 100% sure I will find a connection eventually.” -Doug Toft

“You can manage a lot of information with just three tools: Paper and pen stored in a pocket or purse for capturing ideas on the run (alternative: a cell phone with a notes app), A calendar for scheduling appointments and due dates, A notes app for any other information you want to save.” -Doug Toft

“Above all, adopt a playful mindset to making notes and creating your personal knowledge base. Fire up your notes app for a few minutes and cruise through it with no special purpose in mind. When you see a notebook or note title that catches your eye, open it up. Surface ideas at random. Cultivate serendipity. Follow the trails and see where they lead. This is one of the benefits of externalizing your knowledge as an organized collection of notes. All those gems of information are stored outside your head in a second brain. They’re safely tucked away and ripe for exploration.”

Resource: Getting Things Done by David Allen


Manage your “waiting for lists” with as much care as you would your own personal actions list. Even though the step by step details of things you’re waiting for don’t need to be managed, still treat the final results and the process of following up as if the responsibility belongs to you.

When following up on action-items you’re waiting for other people to deliver on, be precise. Referring to an agreement that was made on May 5th is much more effective than an agreement that was made “a few weeks ago.”

Keep your “waiting for” lists near your action lists.

File things into your system not based on the type of thing it is, but rather based on the next action item that needs to be done with it.

When managing your email, don’t rely on your inbox to let you know what needs to be done. Create folders to manage things outside of your inbox.

Create a “waiting for” email folder and an “action” folder.

If an email can be responded to in less than two minutes, do it. If you have to defer an email, put it in your action folder and review it daily.


“Manage the commitments of others before their avoidance creates a crisis. ”

“Like reminders of the actions you need to do, reminders of all the things that you’re waiting to get back from or get done by others have to be sorted and grouped. You won’t necessarily be tracking discrete action steps here, but more often final deliverables or projects that others are responsible for, such as the tickets you’ve ordered from the theater, the scanner that’s coming for the office, the OK on the proposal from your client, and so on. When the next action on something is up to someone else, you don’t need an action reminder, just a trigger about what you’re waiting for and from whom. Your role is to review that list as often as you need to and assess whether you ought to be taking an action, such as checking the status or lighting a fire in some way under the project. ”

“You’ll probably find that it works best to keep this Waiting For list close at hand, in the same system as your Next Actions reminder lists. The responsibility for the next step may bounce back and forth many times before a project is finished. For example, you may need to make a call to a vendor to request a proposal (which then goes to your Waiting For list). When the proposal comes in, you have to review it (it lands in your Read/Review tray or on your At Computer list). Once you’ve gone over it, you send it to your boss for her approval (now it’s back on your Waiting For list). And so on.* ”

“It’s important for this category in particular to include the date that each item is requested for each entry, as well as any agreed-upon due date. Follow-up is much more meaningful when you can say, “But I placed the order March twentieth” or “You’ve had the proposal now for three weeks.” In my experience, just this one tactical detail is worth its weight in gold. ”

“You’ll get a great feeling when you know that your Waiting For list is the complete inventory of everything you care about that other people are supposed to be doing. ”

“The primary reason for organizing is to reduce cognitive load—i.e. to eliminate the need to constantly be thinking, “What do I need to do about this?” ”

“Whichever option you select, the reminders should be in visibly discrete categories based upon the next action required. If the next action on a service order is to make a call, it should be in a Calls group; if the action step is to review information and input it into the computer, it should be labeled “At Computer.” Most undermining of the effectiveness of many workflow systems I see is the fact that all the documents of one type (e.g. service requests) are kept in a single tray or file, even though different kinds of actions may be required on each one. One request needs a phone call, another needs data reviewed, and still another is waiting for someone to get back with some information—but they’re all sorted together. This arrangement can cause a person’s mind to go numb to the stack because of all the decisions that are still pending about the next-action level of doing. ”

“Many people have found it helpful to set up two or three unique folders on their e-mail navigator bars. True, most folders in e-mail should be used for reference or archived materials, but it’s also possible to set up a workable system that will keep your actionable messages discretely organized outside the “in” area itself (which is where most people tend to keep them). ”

“If you choose this route, I recommend that you create one folder for any longer-than-two-minute e-mails that you need to act on (again, you should be able to dispatch many messages right off the bat by following the two-minute rule). The folder name should begin with a prefix letter or symbol so that (1) it looks different from your reference folders and (2) it sits at the top of your folders in the navigator bar. Use something like the @ sign or the hyphen, whichever will sort into your system at the top. Your resulting @ACTION folder will hold those e-mails that you need to do something about. Next you can create a folder titled “@WAITING FOR,” which will show up in the same place as the @ACTION folder. Then, as you receive e-mails that indicate that someone is going to do something you care about tracking, you can drag them over into the @WAITING FOR file. ”

“It takes much less energy to maintain e-mail backlog at zero than at a thousand. ”

“Distributing action triggers in a folder, on lists, and/or in an e-mail system is perfectly OK, as long as you review all of the categories to which you’ve entrusted your triggers equally, as required. ”

“In order to hang out with friends or take a long, aimless walk and truly have nothing on your mind, you’ve got to know where all your actionable items are located, what they are, and that they will wait. And you need to be able to do that in a few seconds, not days. “

Back To Top