Commonplace Books

A problem:

Creativity means connecting ideas together, but our brains don't hold much at once.

Anyone can be creative — wildly, madly, deliriously creative! — if they can just consider many diverse ideas together, and use them to solve a problem. But, again, our minds didn't evolve to hold many ideas at the same time. Unless you're a supergenius, your working memory can only hold 3–4 thoughts.

There are two possible hacks for this:

  1. Become a supergenius — the sort of person who can hold 7 or 8 pieces of information in your head, the sort of person who looks down on the other MENSA members for being slow to catch up with your ideas.
  2. Keep a commonplace book.

The first option is, for the time being, impossible. The second option has been practiced for millennia, but has lately fallen into disuse. 

A commonplace book is a single book (a "common place") to jot down your observations, questions, and ideas from all domains of your life. It's an empty volume that becomes a hodgepodge of stuff you find interesting and useful. It's a place to draw out what you see, probe what you think, and generate new thoughts. 

A commonplace book is an idea generation engine.

Our basic plan:

Make "keeping a commonplace book" a school norm, among students and faculty. 

Make it easy for students to keep one: help them choose and buy a blank journal that they love the physical feel of. 

Teach with an eye to intriguing students, and prompting them to ask questions. When students' eyes light up, encourage them to jot something into their commonplace book.

Provide time each day to enter new information into the commonplace books, and to page through older information.

The goal:

Adults who not only ask questions, but who carry those questions over time and between domains of their lives.

Adults who stay attentive to clues everywhere.

Adults who occasionally come up with genuinely new solutions to problems. 

If you walk into a classroom, you might see:

Not notebooks — ugly things that segregate topics and which, once a class is finished, rarely get read again. Rather, commonplace books — elegant and personalized books which are made more lovely by students' long-term care.

A child grinning broadly as she awakens to the question implicit in a poem (e.g. Robert Frost's "Fire and Ice"), and walks quickly to grab her commonplace book from the shelf to write: 

What's more powerful: desire or hate?

Then, in all of her other classes over the next weeks, you might see her returning to the question, to write down insights gleaned from history, from literature, from philosophy, and from psychology. Months and years later, you may see her flipping through the book and finding the same question, and adding more recent insights.

specific questions:

When's the best age to start this?

(This idea is currently in beta! If you've thoughts on how to make it better, please shoot an e-mail to Brandon at

Related elements:

New Ideas
Calligraphy & Penmanship
Question-Posing / Answer-Hunting

To Learn More:

The most exciting explanation of commonplacing is in Steven Johnson's game-changing Where Good Ideas Come From: A Natural History of Innovation. A summary of the whole book can be found here, and Johnson also gave a TED talk on the theme!