The Hidden Benefits of Taking Notes (and the Dangers of Not)

When I decided to get my act together a few years ago, I sought out mentors and read a few books on “how to be successful.” One of the common tactics people recommended was to take notes on everything. The reasons success gurus said to take notes weren’t too different from the reasons my high school teachers said to take notes. They both said taking notes is a good idea because:

You retain more knowledge when you take notes (sort of a muscle memory argument).

You create relevant reference materials when you take notes.

You can share your notes with others to provide value (teachers said this less often than the success gurus).

So I started taking notes. The points the teachers and success gurus made about note-taking were true. Yes, taking notes had the aforementioned, obvious benefits. But the biggest benefits of note-taking weren’t so immediately obvious.

Most had to do with signaling.

Think about the people who never take notes, claiming that they can remember everything (this is different from looking up from your notebook to listen and pay attention). There’s a certain arrogance that this attitude of supreme memory conveys. Whether it’s true or not, the act of not taking notes in situations where you’re expected to take notes (e.g. classes, important meetings, etc.) is alienating. Especially if the other person in the room is somehow in a position of greater power than you (e.g. teacher, mentor).

And usually it’s subtle. It’s the student who has been smart enough to ace his classes on memory alone. It’s the upstart entrepreneur who thinks her Harvard degree or her earthshakingly innovative product alone will earn her respect from investors. Nine times out of ten, these prodigies can wing it and fly by the seat of their pants. But on those 10% of critical interactions when the student requests a recommendation letter or when the investor is deciding where to allocate funds, it’s character that matters. And believe it or not, whether someone takes notes or not tends to be a pretty accurate signal of character.

It’s not perfect. Lots of non-notetakers have achieved some degree of success, and lots of diligent note-takers fail to achieve their dreams. But on balance, it’s the note-takers who win the big pots.

Note-taking signals patience, diligence, and humility. It shows that no task is too large and no task is too small. It shows attention to detail. It shows you don’t want to let things fall through the cracks.

Not taking notes won’t necessarily kill you, but neither will taking them. In a world where others are taking notes, it’s important to ask what you’re gaining by refusing to pull out that notebook.

 
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