On Taking Notes and Having Ideas

by Site Author

I once attended a unique talk by a top-notch researcher. The talk was unusual—it was meant only for graduate students, and the researcher presented no new work. Instead, she spent an hour talking about the craft of research.

One of the points she made was about taking notes. She advised graduate students to become “compulsive note takers,” and illustrated that advice with an anecdote. The anecdote, for some reason, has stuck with me all these years.

The night before the talk, she had been out to dinner. While eating, a research idea occurred to her. Unfortunately, she didn’t have any paper on hand, and this was before the smartphone era. She had a cell phone with her, but couldn’t use it to take notes. So she excused herself and went to the restroom. From there, she called her office phone and left herself a voicemail, describing the idea.

That anecdote stuck with me for a few reasons. First, her comments echoed the notion that ideas arrive when you are away from your desk. And so creativity is often simply a matter of noticing ideas when they arrive.

Second, I was impressed by how seriously she took the idea. A lesser researcher would have not bothered to make a note. Instead, she felt that the idea was too important to risk forgetting.

And this is a trait that I’ve noticed in top researchers. Many of them (though certainly not all) are deeply modest people who do not take themselves too seriously. But they do take their work seriously. And by extension, they take their ideas seriously.