Tools of an Entrepreneur: The Notebook

Recently I was reading Professor Wallingford’s course post-mortem where he makes some closing remarks about his Intelligent Systems course. In his course he required his students to keep an engineer’s notebook. Unsurprisingly, this idea is met with resistance from students.

Speaking as a student, I’m not entirely sure how I would have embraced the requirement. I mean, a weekly journal sounds like homework, and who wants to do that? Like all students, I too don’t really like doing what I’m told to do most of the time. However, I’ve always been a writer in some sense. In fact, I still have my project log from my 10th grade honors English class where I wrote a 2D game engine from scratch using the Win32 API. (If you click through the link, don’t laugh too hard at the grammar or the code. I was 15 and… well, it’s the Win32 API :) )

Speaking as an entrepreneur, I have to give a ‘wag of the finger’ to the students. Writing is powerful. Writing is useful. Writing is helpful. It may take some time for that to sink in; I know it did for me.

I think part of the problem is that students approach the use of a notebook and writing too formally. When students think of writing they think of papers, essays, sentence structure, proper grammar, proof reading, and spell checking. These are things we do for school, and we don’t do it for fun.

Writing in the real world is totally different. Maybe you need to write down a reminder to yourself. Maybe you need a todo list. Perhaps you need to make a small graph or write down some basic equation to understand something. Maybe you are bored and you have some paper and a pencil handy. Maybe you are like me and writing helps you think. When you step outside of academia and into the real world you see that writing is helpful, chaotic, and messy. It includes graphs, boxes, lines, random words, phrases, names, bubbles, stars, dots, circles, and anything else you throw into it. Nothing is drawn to scale, and there is no ‘works cited’ section. You may not even have a single complete sentence, and there are probably spelling errors everywhere. There is probably no beginning, middle, or end. You see, the notebook is there for you to record your ideas, your thoughts, your questions, your understanding. In practice, the notebook can be whatever you want it to be.

Before I began my entrepreneurial journey, I was pretty sure I had myself mostly figured out. I was sure I did my best work in front of a computer, and I was definitely the most linear of thinkers. Well, it doesn’t take long in entrepreneurship to discover things about yourself that you didn’t know. For me, that included figuring out my optimal process.

I’ve never been much of a note taker in school. I always felt like I didn’t bother to write things down because I preferred to keep it in my brain. But then, one day, I realized that I’m always within arms reach of a writing utensil. I have pens and pencils everywhere: on my nightstand, my desks, in my backpack, in my office, in my car, and generally anywhere I happen to spend time. My desk has six different types of scratch paper (ranging from sticky notes to full blank sheets), and there is a hefty pile of lists, messages, drawings, and… well… notes. I even have a giant eight foot by five foot whiteboard on the wall in my room.

Also, I’m not sure when it happened, but somewhere over the last two years I began carrying around two notebooks with me everywhere. One is labeled “Book Hatchery” and contains many todo lists, ideas, thoughts, and random scraps of paper relating to my company. The other is labeled “Thoughts, Ideas, and Other Random Things”. It contains ideas for web services and programs I’d like to make, business models I find interesting, thoughts I’d like to explore more, drawings of various systems, and, like the name says, other random things.

No one told me to start these notebooks. They merely evolved to fill a need in my life. You see, I don’t think best in front of a computer. I think best wherever I happen to be thinking a lot. Sometimes this is in my car, my office, my bed, my couch, or wherever. It is disruptive and damaging to have to find a medium capable of recording my thoughts in a way that I will (hopefully) understand at a later date. Paper is an incredibly capable resource, and I don’t like to forget things, so it follows me everywhere. Without knowing it, I started my own engineer’s notebooks, and they are important to my way of life.

Of course, I love sandbox/open world types of things. I’ve always viewed the world kind of like a child does: anything is possible until proven otherwise. When I see a blank piece of paper, a blank computer screen, a bag of Lego’s, or a map on Minecraft, I see endless possibilities. It is an opportunity for you to express yourself, your thoughts, your opinions, and your designs. It can be anything you want it to be. Few things are that maleable and useful to an entrepreneur.

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