The case for personal wikis and professional journaling

A trend I’ve noticed amongst the most effective people I know is that many of them are keeping a personal knowledge base (which you could also call a personal wiki, a professional journal, or many other things). This is clearly a trend beyond my immediate network, given the glut of new tools at least partially designed with this purpose in mind (e.g., Notion, Craft, Clover, Roam Research, or Obsidian). I started my personal knowledge base in 2010 (using Evernote) and it has been incredibly valuable to me throughout my career, so it has been great to see this trend take off recently.

People have always taken notes at work — this is not new. What is catching on, though, is the idea of creating, revising/maintaining, and structuring these documents with long-term utility in mind. For most people, the notes they take throughout their careers are intended for temporary use (e.g., to ensure you don’t forget decisions made in a meeting). My peers in the personal wiki club are creating long-lived documents on topics, and playbooks for situations, that will come up again in the future. Notably, they put effort into making them easy to rediscover and maintain.

Work is repetitive. Between days, weeks, projects, and jobs, most people will tackle the same, or very similar, problems and tasks multiple times. In the professional services industry, service providers embrace standardisation to improve the ROI of their work. For example, agencies tasked with building e-commerce websites rarely start from scratch — they bolster their process with templates and reusable snippets of code that reduce the need to re-invent the wheel every time they tackle a similar project. Professionals should think about their jobs this way: as an individual providing a service to a client (i.e., your current employer). If you are frequently carrying out similar tasks across different projects, it is common sense to standardise (and potentially automate) this work. By creating and maintaining personal documentation on the various problems you’ve tackled, you can build a playbook for the next time you have to tackle a similar problem. These playbooks should follow you for your entire career. The secret sauce for your effectiveness and success.

Throughout its lifecycle, a company typically builds value in its revenue, partnerships, employee base and intellectual property, and all of these aspects are reflected in its valuation. Throughout your career, the value of your labour will also increase. This is due to the accrual of value in your experience, your network, and aspects of your professional identity. Experience will give you more knowledge and better intuitions for what to do in various situations, and keeping a personal knowledge base makes your experience much more tangible, explicit, and accessible. This will make you a more valuable employee. You could think of your knowledge base as the intellectual property that you build throughout your career†. People with privileged and well-documented experiences could have a highly valuable knowledge base that makes future success more attainable.

Additionally, while it may be a little too cliche to bother pointing out, writing is a critical part of the learning process. Honing in on a specific opinion on a topic is most easily done through writing, and this process will help you to fully understand what you are learning. One added bonus of this: learnings and ideas that are solidified in text are much more easily shared. If you’re trying to understand something complex, I suggest you try by writing an explainer for yourself, and keep it somewhere you can easily access in case you learn more, change your mind, or need to tackle this problem again. Every year, I write a new summary of my approach to product development. This helps me to solidify my ever-evolving learnings and philosophies towards what I do.

The contents of your knowledge base should be your intellectual property (IP), not the IP of any of your employers. Don’t keep data that does not belong to you.

5 December, 2021

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