skip to Main Content

The Illusion of Originality, 3 Keys to Effective Note-Taking, & Organizing Your Project Lists

Resource: All Ideas Are Second-Hand: Mark Twain’s Magnificent Letter to Helen Keller About the Myth of Originality


All creativity is combinatorial in nature. Whenever we appear to compose something original, it is only because we can’t see the connections clearly enough to trace the ideas back to their original sources.

We say things like “she gave a great speech”, but what we really ought to say is “she gave a great rendition and interpretation of a thousand different speeches.”

Our creative work is 90% plagiarism and 10% originality. And even then, the original part is only a matter of slight modifications in phrasing or small inclusions of someone else’s ideas into something those ideas were not previously associated with.

We all should remain modest in the admiration we feel for our creative output. Resist the temptation to be taken away by the flattery and praise others offer towards our work.

You’ll never get around to the business of creating if you’re overly concerned with being original. Originality isn’t possible. Only honesty, modesty, and perseverance is possible. Being a creator means you have to accept the fact that you are immensely and incontrovertibly influenced by other minds.


“The kernel, the soul — let us go further and say the substance, the bulk, the actual and valuable material of all human utterances — is plagiarism. For substantially all ideas are second-hand, consciously and unconsciously drawn from a million outside sources, and daily used by the garnerer with a pride and satisfaction born of the superstition that he originated them; whereas there is not a rag of originality about them anywhere except the little discoloration they get from his mental and moral calibre and his temperament, and which is revealed in characteristics of phrasing.” -Mark Twain

“When a great orator makes a great speech you are listening to ten centuries and ten thousand men — but we call it his speech, and really some exceedingly small portion of it is his. But not enough to signify. It is merely a Waterloo. It is Wellington’s battle, in some degree, and we call it his; but there are others that contributed. It takes a thousand men to invent a telegraph, or a steam engine, or a phonograph, or a telephone or any other important thing — and the last man gets the credit and we forget the others. He added his little mite — that is all he did. These object lessons should teach us that ninety-nine parts of all things that proceed from the intellect are plagiarisms, pure and simple; and the lesson ought to make us modest. But nothing can do that.” -Mark Twain

“Those who do not want to imitate anything, produce nothing.” -Salvador Dalí

Related resource: The bulk of all human utterances is plagiarism


“No doubt we are constantly littering our literature with disconnected sentences borrowed from books at some unremembered time and now imagined to be our own, but that is about the most we can do. In 1866 I read Dr. Holmes’s poems, in the Sandwich Islands. A year and a half later I stole his dedication, without knowing it, and used it to dedicate my “Innocents Abroad” with. Then years afterward I was talking with Dr. Holmes about it. He was not an ignorant ass—no, not he; he was not a collection of decayed human turnips, like your “Plagiarism Court;” and so when I said, “I know now where I stole it, but whom did you steal it from,” he said, “I don’t remember; I only know I stole it from somebody, because I have never originated anything altogether myself, nor met anyone who had.” -Mark Twain


Would Twain make a distinction between legit and illegitimate instances of plagiarism? What’s the difference between being heavily influenced by someone’s work and being a thief who outright steals someone else’s work?

Resource: The Top 3 Most Effective Ways to Take Notes While Reading


Developing a good note-taking system is ultimately a matter of trial and error. You need to experiment and play around with different methods in order to find what works for you.

Taking notes improves recall.

The more physically involved you are in the process of note-taking (ie. writing down quotes versus copying/pasting), the better your recall.

Include your questions in your notes. It’s just as important to document your inquiries as it is to capture your knowledge.

Take notes as you go along. Look at notetaking as the process of carrying on a conversation with the author.

Before you read a book, filter through it by looking at the table of contents, index, inside cover, and back cover. This allows you to get a big picture overview of where the author is taking you, why they’re taking you there, and how they intend to get there.

When you summarize an author’s thoughts, try to make it a personal ass possible. Use your own words, tie the ideas to other things you already know, and even offer commentary on how you can apply the ideas.

Let your books age. After your initial reading and note-taking, sit the book back on the shelf and come back to it later. Go through it again just reading your marginalia and highlights.

Rereading is just as important as reading. It allows you to process ideas with the advantage of new perspectives you’ve acquired over time.

Three step note-taking process: 1) Take notes while reading (marginalia, highlights, and summaries of the ideas. 2) Reread the book emphasizing your previous notes. Take new notes if something new strikes you. 3) Take clippings or make written copies of your notes and capture them in your commonplace book or note-taking app (ie Evernote) in order to make them searchable and retrievable for future research or projects/


“Before you get started: Filter the book by reading the preface, index, table of contents, and inside jacket. This tells you where the author is going to take you and, importantly, the vocabulary they will use.”

“There are three steps to effectively taking notes while reading: At the end of each chapter write a few bullet points that summarize what you’ve read and make it personal if you can — that is, apply it to something in your life. Also note any unanswered questions. When you’re done the book, put it down for a week. Pick up the book again and go through all your notes. Most of these will be garbage but there will be lots you want to remember. Write the good stuff on the inside cover of the book along with a page number. Copy out the excerpts by hand or take a picture of them to pop into Evernote. Tag accordingly.”

“Knowledge acquisition from reading is a function of what you read (and how you read), what you retain and connect, and the ability retrieve information and make connections to hypothesize about the future.”

“One of the best ways to better filter and connect ideas is to read with pen in hand so you can take notes while reading. This Marginalia — the tiny fragments that come into your head while reading — is a dying but important art that helps you remember what you read.”

“The first thing I do when I pick up a book is read the preface, the table of contents, and the inside jacket. Often, I’ll glance over the index too. This doesn’t take long and often saves me time, as a lot of books do not make it past this filter. Maybe it doesn’t contain the information I’m trying to gain. If it seems crappy, I’ll flip to a few random pages to verify…When I start reading the book, I have an idea what it’s about, the main argument, and some of the terminology involved. I know where the author is going to take me and the broad strokes of how they will bring me along.”

“While reading, I take notes. I circle words I need to look up. I star points that I think are critical to the argument. I underline anything that strikes me as interesting. I comment like a mad man in the margins. I try to tease out assumptions, etc. Essentially, I’m trying to engage in a conversation with the author. Maybe my questions will be answered on the next page or in the next chapter. Maybe I’ll need to find another book to answer them. Who knows. But I write them down. At the end of each chapter I write a few bullet points that summarize what I’ve just read. When I’m done, I write a brief summary of the entire book and then I do something few other people do. I let the book age. When I pick the book up again, I re-read every scribble, underline, and comment I’ve made (assuming I can still read my writing). I’m not the same person I was the first time I read the book, two things have changed: (1) I’ve read the entire book and (2) I’ve had a chance to sleep on what may have seemed earth-shattering at the time but now just seems meh.”

“To aid recall connect the ideas to something you already have in your mind. Is it a continuation of the idea? Does it replace an idea? Is it the same idea in a difference discipline? I add these connections to my notes and percolate them in my mind. Often I turn out to be mistaken but that’s the process.”

Resource: Getting Things Done by David Allen


You can’t do a project. You can only do the action items that have been placed on your calendar and next actions lists.

Your project list is not where you work from. It’s not a detailed overview of everything that needs to be done. Your project list is a simple sweep of all the projects that still remain open loops for you.

Anything that requires more than one action step to complete is a project.

Your ability to relax and be creative is compromised by unaccounted for projects.

Reviewing your project list every week is essential for staying on top of what you do and don’t want to do about your remaining open loops.

Having a project list is essential for being able to communicate efficiently with other members of your organization.


“A complete and current Projects list is the major operational tool for moving from tree-hugging to forest management. “

“The Projects list is not meant to hold plans or details about your projects themselves, nor should you try to keep it arranged by priority or size or urgency—it’s just a comprehensive index of your open loops. You actually won’t be working off of the Projects list during your moment-to-moment activities; for the most part, your calendar, action lists, and any unexpected tasks that come up will constitute your tactical and immediate focus. Remember, you can’t do a project; you can only do the action steps it requires. Being aware of the horizon represented by your projects, however, is critical for extending your comfort with your control and focus into longer reaches of time. “

“The real value of the Projects list lies in the complete review it can provide (at least once a week), ensuring that you have action steps defined for all of your projects and that nothing is slipping through the cracks. A quick glance at this list from time to time will enhance your underlying sense of control. You’ll also know that you have an inventory available to you (and to others) whenever it seems advisable to evaluate workload(s). “

” It is impossible to be truly relaxed and in your productive state when things you’ve told yourself you need to handle continue to pull at your mind—whether they be little or big. It seems that “I’ve got to get my driver’s license renewed” can take up as much space in your head as “I need to formulate the agenda for next year’s conference” when an external list of such things is not complete and reviewed regularly. “

“The smaller or more subtle things we tell ourselves we need to deal with create some of the more challenging stresses to handle, simply because they are not so much “in your face.” Projects often don’t show up in nice, neat packages. They start as what seems a simple situation, communication, or activity, but they slowly morph into something bigger than you expected. You thought you handled getting your daughter into preschool, but now there’s a problem with the registration forms or a change in the logistical details. You thought the invoice you sent was complete and accurate, but now the client says he didn’t agree to something you billed him for. Getting these kinds of situations identified and into your system with desired outcomes for appropriate engagement creates a wealth of fresh energy with unexpected positive results. “

“As I have indicated in other places, the Weekly Review is the critical success factor for marrying your larger commitments to your day-to-day activities. And a complete Projects list remains the linchpin for that orientation. Ensuring weekly that you’re OK about what you’re doing (or not doing) with a dog for your kids, along with what you’re doing (or not doing) about next year’s conference, is an essential practice. But that Projects list must already be there, in at least a somewhat recent form, before you have the capability to think about things from that perspective. “

“Whether you are in conversation with your boss, your staff, your partner, or your family, having a sense of control and overview of all of your commitments that may have relevance in your relationships with them is extremely valuable. Invariably there are challenges with allocating limited resources—your time, your money, your attention. And when others are involved with you in ways that pull on those resources, being able to negotiate (and frequently renegotiate) those explicit and implicit agreements is the only way to effectively relieve those inherent pressures. Once executives and spouses and staff people get the picture of the commitments of their work and life, it triggers extremely important and constructive conversations with those involved. But it doesn’t happen without that complete list. “

Back To Top