Obsidian Zettelkasten

218 - Zettelkasten as a Knowledge Explorer

One way to better understand and think about the purpose of a zettelkasten is to compare it to an explorer.

You are an explorer who has reached a new and magical world! The first thing you do is set up “the index”. The index is your original port city, the biggest hub where information is located and a place to branch off from. You aren’t just any explorer though, you also happen to be a cartographer.

  • Setting up outposts for further exploration
  • Refining the Existing Maps

Exploration is the act of searching for the purpose of discovery of information or resources.

Source Wikipedia


Often early cartographers will have made a low resolution map of a new area. Where you are pretty much familiar with all the parts but are unsure how they are connected. When exploring the west, part of your journey will be on paths created by past explorers. Even though these routes aren’t novel, you can still add them to your map. In the zettelkasten, this would be established knowledge that you just haven’t learned yet. As you explore, you might find faster routes between two places then the previously established route. In the zettelkasten, this would be finding a connection between two concepts that people haven’t considered.

At some point you will be charting lands people haven’t discovered or mapped out in a rudimentary way. In the zettelkasten, the equivalent would be your own novel theories or academic research you are part of.

Setting up outputs for further exploration in your new world would be laying out all the different parts of a concept that you know about. Then as you read more books on the subject, you add more parts/dimensions to it. An example of this is when you first start learning about a field of science. You start out with the definition of the field, then start mapping out all the different sub-fields.

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219 - Illustrating Concepts

Analogy - a comparison between two things, typically for the purpose of explanation or clarification.

Simile - a figure of speech involving the comparison of one thing with another thing of a different kind, used to make a description more emphatic or vivid

Metaphor - a figure of speech in which a word or phrase is applied to an object or action to which it is not literally applicable.

Example - a thing characteristic of its kind or illustrating a general rule.

220 - Zettelkasten Output Examples


221 - Communication is the act of conveying meanings from one entity or group to another through the use of mutually understood signs, symbols, and semiotic rules. - Wikipedia

Communication is an important skill to develop in life because it is necessary for cooperation. Whether that be working with others to implement a solution you generated or communicating your contribution to our collective understanding of the universe.

Visual Communication

  • Written Word (Blog Posts, Wiki, Books, etc)
  • Pictures (Photographs, Paintings, Movies, etc) - tell a story through strict visual art to communicate an experience
  • Combination (Comics, Graphic Novels, etc) - my favorite example of this would be the work of larry gonick
  • Body Language (e.g. pointing, shrugs, facial expressions, etc)

Auditory Communication

  • Speeches
  • Discussions
  • Epic Poems
  • Music


  • Communicating through Taste
    • Evolutionary Adaptation (e.g. toxic food, sweet foods, etc)
    • Cooking for Loved Ones
  • Communicating through Smell
    • Evolutionary Adaptation (e.g. rotten food, smelling smoke, etc)
    • Sending Signals (e.g. perfume, cologne, etc)
  • Communicating through Touch
    • Express Emotions (e.g. Hugs, Kisses, and Squeezes)
    • Spatial Manipulation (e.g. Leading someone in the dark, tapping someone on the shoulder)

Illustrating Concepts

222 - What can you track in a Zettelkasten?

In the first case, it is simply tracking where you come across information without the intention to track every existence of it. In a sense, this is what the zettelkasten is about, saving interesting information that may not have immediate use.

223 - Practice

n - the actual application or use of an idea, belief, or method, as opposed to theories relating to it.

v - perform (an activity) or exercise (a skill) repeatedly or regularly in order to improve or maintain one’s proficiency.

  • Massed Practice is …
  • Varied Practice is …
  • Interleaved Practice is …

224 - Zettelkasten as an Idea Tracker

You can think of the zettelkasten as an idea tracker. So for a graduate student, I think of three realms of knowledge that these ideas exist in. The zettelkasten is about tracking the knowledge existing in all three realms. First Realm + Second Realm = Third Ream.

The first realm is established knowledge. This means reading the works of your professors and their colleagues, laying out a map of what the established knowledge on a subject matter looks like.

The second realm is new information. Because creativity comes about from the interaction of your old knowledge with new knowledge, it is important to be taking notes on the new knowledge you purposely expose yourself to.

The third realm is your creative output. Creative Knowledge is the byproduct of mixing the former to realms. It is an important to track this information because it can help keep from retreading areas you’ve already explored. You can make more informed exploratory decisions by knowing where the dead ends have been.

Because our memory systems aren’t designed for the long term tracking of such information, it helps to have an external system that can track all the knowledge/information you are working with. This is why we have books. Books are a form of externalized memory. Zettelkasten is just another way of organizing and engaging with your externalized memory. It is also a way of more easily integrating others externalized memory (books written by others) into your own thinking (zettelkasten).

225 - Note Sequence vs. Latticework for Creative Output

Placeholder Text - write about how the magic of a zettelkasten comes not just from creating note sequences but the interaction between note sequences and how they contribute to each other. See multiple storage and abstracted concepts. This is important to keep in mind with the pizza note sequence because it is just one note sequence. So you won’t see the true utility (link) of the zettelkasten. But it is still useful example to have.

226 - Prior Knowledge in Public Notes

One of the core issues with sharing information over the internet in the form of a blog post, wiki, or zettelkasten, is that of the users prior knowledge. This issue becomes heightened when the user doesn’t necessarily want to take the time to fill in their prior knowledge gaps. Users will be more likely to engage with the material if you make the acquisition of the prior knowledge as easy as possible. This is why clear, concise and structured writing is so important.

Structured content allows the reader to more easily structure build a mental model on which to hang new information as they come across it while reading.


227 - Connections that are Surprising or?

Surprising connections can be ones that people have previously discounted but end up being right or ones that haven’t been thought of. That could mean connecting two concepts that people didn’t realize were connected. The more informative, the better.

Placeholder Text

228 - Zettelkasten as a Box of Legos

Think of your zettelkasten as a giant box of legos, with each individual lego being a piece of information (concept, commentary, reference, etc) in the form of a note. As you collect more and more legos you organize them (zettelkasten workflow) in such a way that when you want to go build something you are able to get all the pieces you need.

You can then take these legos (information building blocks) and organize them into different structures to create a bunch of different things. What you end up making are made up of all the same thing (information) but are different depending on how you structure them. These different structures are blog posts, books, presentations, and wikis.

You collect and organize the legos until you have enough to build a structure. In the same way you collect and organize information in the zettelkasten until you have enough notes to use for a wiki entry, blog post, or book. In this situation, the difference between a wiki and zettelkasten is that you might not use all the information on a topic for the wiki entry that you have in your zettelkasten. Zettelkasten is your loose collection of information, sometimes it includes incorrect information that you later correct in your research process.

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229 - Zettelkasten isn’t a Catch All

I think how successful a zettelkasten user is depends on the person and how they communicate with their zettelkasten. Luhmann published prolifically with his zettelkasten. His output was a byproduct of the interaction between what he put in the zettelkasten, his default brain, and how the two communicated with each other.

Just because you create a zettelkasten, doesn’t mean you’ll somehow create great work. It is just a tool. Some people suck at using tools and others create amazing masterpieces with them.

In the same sense, you can think of your brain as an information processing program and the zettelkasten as a plugin. Plugins don’t guarantee success, but powerful ones can act as a great multiplier in the knowledge work you do.

230 - Summarization and Paraphrasing in Note Taking

231 - Recenter Focus - what are the high yield activities and low yield activities regarding knowledge work?

  • High Value
    • mastering general skills (e.g. deliberate practice guitar playing)
    • mastering desirable yet specialized skills (e.g. integrated circuit design)
  • Low Value
    • mediocre general skills (e.g. average guitar player, which there are a million of)
    • mastering specialized skills that are undesirable (e.g. masters in obscure literature, see Note)

Note: I often still think a lot of the masters in obscure literature are still valuable, its just harder for the average person to find a job with that skillset. But if you are productively contributing to our global knowledge base, then that is good. Same goes with Philosophy degrees, there is so much bullshit literature produced by PhD students, but if done right, the philosophy degree will give you a great thinking tool set.

Goal/Focus is High Yield Knowledge Work

  • High Yield Knowledge Work
    • Thinking Skills
      • Critical Thinking
      • Creative Thinking
      • Three Dimensional Thinking
      • Philosophical Thinking (Different?)
    • Learning Skills
      • Knowing what to Learn
      • Knowing how to find Material
      • Knowing how to Process Material
      • Building a Learning Loop (Testing & Learning)
  • Low Yield Knowledge Work
    • Suprisal and Utility Lens
    • Poor Study Skills
      • Massed Practice
      • Highlighting
      • Rereading
    • Productivity Busy Work (Think Deep Work by Cal Newport)
  • Uncategorized Yield
    • Reading
    • Writing
    • Note Taking
    • What other Activities?

Future Skills and Abilities

Future Roles

Future Industries

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232 - Career Focus

  • Career Preparation
  • Career Option 1 - Excel at Common Skill
  • Career Option 2 - 80,000 Hours Framework
  • Career Option 3 - Anywhere, but Contribute

233 - PKM Components

Breakdown and analyze all the different components of the PKM process

  • Finding Sources of Information
  • Capturing Information
  • Placeholder Text
  • Placeholder Text
  • Deciding on New Information


234 Luhmann Conceptualization of Zettelkasten was geared towards a grand theory. That is why he was focused so much on abstracting concepts from books and connecting them. Because this isn’t everyone’s goal, they should be careful about hyper focusing on concepts as what they wanted abstracted.

Second Zettelkasten

Over the course of his forty years of academic work, he developed a universal theoretical framework — i.e. sociological systems theory — capable of covering nearly the entire spectrum of social phenomena. In doing so, he placed great emphasis on conceptual and terminological consistency and was receptive to theoretical developments not only in sociology but in other academic disciplines such as philosophy, law, theology, biology and cybernetics in particular.

Whereas his initial publication activities were more strongly focused on the fields of administrative and organizational studies, he turned to developing the key elements of his sociological work in the period from 1962 to 1997, which involved considerations on the methodological and theoretical foundations of a theory of social systems, a comprehensive theory of society, as well as studies on the link between the structures and self-description of modern society.

The later collection (c. 1963–1996) covers the major part of Luhmann’s publication activity and, from the beginning, clearly reflects a sociological approach.

Luhmann never explained why he started a second collection in the early 1960s that was largely intended to replace the first one – which can be assumed from the fact that the numbering of the cards started with number one again. One can suspect that this had to do with his turn toward sociology in the early 1960s and his first drafts of a universalistic theory of the social, which required re-conceptualizing the structure of the collection. Accordingly, the two collections are only loosely connected, i.e., there are relatively few references between the collections where even the same (key) concepts are involved (such as role, informal organization, institution).

Source - Johannes F.K. Schmidt

235 - Plant Breeding and the Zettelkasten

"Plant breeding is the science of changing the traits of plants in order to produce desired characteristics.[1] It has been used to improve the quality of nutrition in products for humans and animals.[2]

Plant breeding can be accomplished through many different techniques ranging from simply selecting plants with desirable characteristics for propagation, to methods that make use of knowledge of genetics and chromosomes, to more complex molecular techniques (see cultigen and cultivar).

Genes in a plant are what determine what type of qualitative or quantitative traits it will have. Plant breeders strive to create a specific outcome of plants and potentially new plant varieties." - Wikipedia

Zettelkasten Concept Breeding

Remixing the plants and creating new variations in hopes of creating something better. If you think of the plants being pieces of written work, then what would be the seeds? What would be the traits that make the seed?

The seed would be the primary idea you find within your zettelkasten, and you get that idea by copying, transforming, and combining different concepts within your zettelkasten.

Good point about keeping in perspective the particularities of Luhmann’s own theoretical commitments! What is distinctive about his sociological “Systemtheorie” is at least the following:

  • he was convinced that abstraction is the path to insight (his seminal book “Social Systems” opens with a comparison of his theory to flying above the clouds and only occasionally glimpsing the land below);
  • he was suspicious of what he dismissed as “old European” assumptions about what happens in the social world being a matter of individuals engaging in intentional actions for reason. Rather, according to Luhmann’s systems theory, structures reproduce themselves and interact with one another via “autopoetic” processes that have nothing to do with people understanding or consciously guiding what they are doing.

I think that especially this second point is related to the tendency among some Zettelkasters (and, perhaps, Roamans) to hype the idea that the well-ordered ideas will magically form themselves, bottom up.

One thing I really like about the way in which many on the Obsidian forum approach PKM – and I’m especially thinking of @nickmilo and his LYT approach – is the acknowledgement that there is plenty of intentional thought that has to go into curation of notes, to thoughtfully pruning the garden, as it were. Maybe this approach worked automagically for Luhmann himself, but I doubt it works for many people. What must of us need are tools that encourage a mix of intentional curation and unintentionally connection.


@AutonomyGaps yep, I’m still trying to work out my thoughts around to what degree Luhmann’s system is specially designed for his project (abstraction of abstractions) and how much of it should be emulated. On one hand I can see how his system & workflow is advantageous for his specific project, but at the end of the day it is still a system for managing information, therefore I think it can be emulated to a degree. Remix you might say.

abstraction is the path to insight

There is a lot of truth to this generally speaking. Abstraction allows us to get more utility out of concepts and models (See Notes 41, 40, 39, and 38). You just have to be careful about running the risk of over abstraction, whereby information becomes meaningless/useless.

Regarding the second point, I imagine its a mix of hidden systems and people acting intentionally. I actually created a note about this the other day titled “Intertwined Concepts” because I notice a bunch of people acting like some concepts (e.g. nature-nurture debate) are battling each other when in reality they are intertwined.

encourage a mix of intentional curation and unintentionally connection

Yep I agree with this, I’m more interested in how to facilitate the unintentional connections. I thought of creating a program to help facilitate connections but I don’t have any programming skills unfortunately.