Getting to Philosophy with Roam Research
There's a lot of excitement about the new note-taking tool, Roam Research. Here's my take on why it's so great and the promise it offers.August 9, 2020 | 6 minute read
After a lot of careful thought, I’ve figured out the thing that makes me most excited about Roam Research - and it has to do with Wikipedia’s “Getting to Philosophy.”
If you click the first link of any page on Wikipedia and repeat that step for each subsequent page, you will eventually get to Philosophy. This phenomenon is called Getting to Philosophy, and there’s a Wikipedia page on it, naturally.
Roam describes itself as a note-taking tool for networked thought. Each page of notes represents a thought or collection of thoughts and you can very easily connect each note to any related note through simple linking. It’s a great writing tool. But it’s also a great thinking tool.
For all the talk of Roam having a steep learning curve, the core of what you need is actually very simple. Roam gives you a place to write and a couple of ways to link pages of notes. Create a new page and fill it with content. When you’re ready, link it to related notes through hashtags or through inline links.
You go on adding notes and once you have a substantial number of interconnected pages in Roam, a web starts to form. Roam gives you an interactive view of this graph so you can see the landscape of your own thinking:
Overtime, you develop a database of notes that are all interconnected, sort of like your own personal Wikipedia of notes and thoughts.
The Promise of Roam
The comparison to Wikipedia is fair: you input notes and connect them together through links. Then, you can navigate through the pages of notes, hoping from one page to another. In my own database, I can navigate from a page on binary sort, to a page on Algorithms, to my notes from Algorithms to Live By, to using math to find your ideal romantic partner, to a note on Love. I can go from binary sort to Love in 4 steps.
This is in essence how Getting to Philosophy works in Wikipedia and the fact that you can make similar serendipitous connections in Roam (like binary sort and Love) begs the question: what is your own “Getting to Philosophy?” To what page will any path of links, starting from any note eventually lead? And, what is significant about that page?
My theory is that the note where my linking converges will have a profound impact on how I view myself and my work.
What it all Means
What does it mean that you can get to the Philosophy page from any of the millions of pages on Wikipedia?
Note that there are only some ~600 pages that directly link to Philosophy (compared to some 80,000 that link directly to the United States, for example). So it isn’t that Philosophy is a really large node in the graph with lots of pages linking to it.
So what will the equivalent note in your database mean? I can see two ways of thinking about this.
“Ikagai” is a Japanese term to describe your reason for living. If you are depressed or anxious, the thinking goes, it is probably because you’re not living in alignment with your Ikagai. It’s the thing that will make you feel the most fulfilled and connected to a purpose larger than yourself.
Sounds pretty great, but how do you know what your Ikagai is?
It sits at the center of what you love, what the world needs, what you can get paid for, and what you’re good at. The thing in your life that combines all of these is the best candidate for your Ikagai, so discovering that thing is a process of exploring and reflecting on these four questions. Is it cooking, teaching, basket-weaving, space travel?
If it is true that the central note in my database has meaning, it seems likely that discovering my Ikagai will be the byproduct of a good thinking and note-taking process in Roam. In fact, now that I’ve thought of it, trying to discover your Ikagai without something like Roam sounds haphazard and fraught with bias. I just answer the four questions with the first thing that comes to mind? How will I have any certainty that the thing I think of is really my Ikagai? No, I think the process has to involve more than that.
In a few years, I should be able to explore my database graph, with everything I thought important enough to externalize, and maybe start to see the emergence of some pattern. The process now is to live my life, externalize my thinking into Roam, and then reflect on the note that has the fewest degrees of separation to all other notes.
It’s not fool-proof by any means, but it’s significantly less haphazard than the alternative. My Ikagai is something related to that note and I can be confident in that because it’s related to everything I’ve thought about. The longer I contribute my thinking to Roam, the more confident I can be.
12 Favorite Problems
What if it isn’t one note, but a couple of notes that play this role? If that’s the case then, the implications are only slightly different.
Richard Feynman had this idea of having 12 favorite problems constantly in your mind:
You have to keep a dozen of your favorite problems constantly present in your mind, although by and large they will lay in a dormant state. Every time you hear or read a new trick or a new result, test it against each of your twelve favorite problems to see whether it helps. Every once in a while there will be a hit, and people will say, “How did he do it? He must be a genius!”
So it’s possible the notes that play a central role in my database will be the ones related to my favorite problems. The advantage I have over Feynman is, as a Roam user, I can discover these problems through regular Roam usage and reflection on the landscape of my database. I can not only discover non-obvious connections between problems and domains, I can discover problems I’ve given a lot of thought to without even realizing it.
For instance, I’ve given a lot of thought to what I’m calling Exceptional Pairs: Warren Buffet and Charlie Munger, Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky, Michale Jordan and Scottie Pippen, Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak, etc. I didn’t realize I had so many notes on these relationships until I stumbled across it in the graph view of my database. While the note on Exceptional Pairs is not the Philosophy equivalent in my database, it may be a favorite problem or closely related to one.
I’ve also collected a number of notes on “mafias” like the team that built PayPal (ie the PayPal mafia). I have notes on the team that turned Wells Fargo around in the 1980s, the Wise Men who built the Truman Doctrine and the Marshall Plan, and the Whiz Kids who took over the Ford Motor Company in 1946.
I am very fascinated in how relationship dynamics create an n+1 effect in both pairs and groups and I know this because I looked at my graph and saw a lot of notes to this effect. It is an odd feeling, discovering a problem you’ve spent so much time considering without ever having really done so consciously.
That is the promise of Roam: that I could discover and validate the main concern(s) of all my thinking and note-taking. That after a few years of using Roam as the operating system for my thinking, I could take a step back and see what note or handful of notes is at the center of it all. Perhaps it would change from year to year. Perhaps it will stay constant throughout my life. Regardless, this is what makes me most excited about Roam.