plasticity and org-roam

· 2115 words · 10 minute read

“The more a thing tends to be permanent, the more it tends to be lifeless.”

— Alan Watts

A few days ago I wrote about Zettelkasten:

In the end, it just wasn’t for me. I tried it, and Obsidian is an excellent tool for organizing your work that way, but I think the problem I had with it was that the ratio of “volume of stuff that’s just there in my head” to “volume of stuff I need to keep in a second brain” didn’t justify the existence of the second brain, or at least not one organized in classic Zettelkasten fashion.

That remains true. However …

In the process of thinking about what to make of old blog posts I realized that one of my bigger impediments to blogging at all was a little personal confusion about what a blog is. In the past year I had a small crisis around my personal domains and realized things had sprawled and gotten a little too tangled up, so I got a new domain that solved a few problems the old one caused, and I went to some effort to establish new email addresses and sites. It was time to do all that, because I was pretty sure I was about to get thrown out of my work nest, and I had some ideas about what I needed to do to be ready for that.

But solving one problem – correcting for a lack of intentionality in my web presence over years – led to another one I only recently figured out, which was about having the wrong intentions once I got more intentional.

The brochure site months 🔗

I got very into the “personal branding” aspects of my web presence. I had some ideas about a small book, I had done some writing about work, and I was feeling defensive about what exactly it was I said I did there. So as I sat down to think about why I wanted to have a website, there was a “professional considerations” piece to it that loomed larger than it ever had, and I was thinking in the direction of “content marketing.”

I built that site and really enjoyed doing it. It was a chance to stretch a few web development muscles, and I really loved the way I’d managed to blend my photography and writing. And I liked the idea of positioning it as a slow-moving, professionally safe space where I could pull in work from past sites, but keep the focus on The Work Persona. I didn’t discount the value of a more personal, faster-moving site, so I focused on fixing up my microblog, too.

Actually maintaining that sort of web presence turned out to be a drag. The second the site was up and running it became a gigantic, statically generated Blank Page Problem. Over on the microblog I was just being me; on the “core” site I was struggling with being the kind of writer I sort of hate to come across out in the real world, trying to sound authoritative and opinionated about matters of professional import. I completely get that some people manage to strike a very authentic balance with writing about what they care about, and what they care about happening to be, in part, their professional life. I couldn’t make myself fill the page, so the site mostly sat.

Then I did get thrown out of the nest, and something I thought was kind of irritating but would eventually be surmountable when push came to shove actually became even more of an issue for me, because what had been a simple but misguided idea that I’d just gradually fill that site up with stuff as it came to me felt inadequately urgent.

I am very lucky to have a supportive partner and some other good voices around me, because after I spent maybe six weeks last fall using a period I’d known for months was meant to be restful downtime doing anything but resting, thrashing around, coming up with Big Projects, I just settled down and actually rested. I just stopped. Or rather, I stopped doing anything I would ordinarily believe I was supposed to do, and let myself do what I wanted to do as it occurred to me to do it:

… I am feeling good because I realized at some point over the past couple of weeks that I am doing all this because it is playing. I used to do a lot of little utility scripts and silly gadgets because it was fun and absorbing, not because it was hugely practical or efficient. It was just playing. I stopped playing for a long while. It feels good to play again.

Since January, I’ve slowly turned back to what I need to be doing, and I’ve been immensely grateful that my friends and network have been there for me as I find my way back to a job because there are parts of The Job Hunt that are a colossal drag – the grind of getting opportunities into the top of the funnel – and there are parts of it, once something works its way down the funnel that are hard in different ways.

The value of this site has played out a little differently than I imagined when I thought it was going to be a content marketing thing. It definitely does come up in interviews, because I’ve done writing for it that is about work stuff, but less HERE IS A BROCHURE OF MY THOUGHT LEADERSHIP and more “oh yeah, you know, I wrote about this very thing a few weeks ago, and found my thoughts changing a little once I thought it out more.” A few people say “oh, I’d love to read that if you don’t mind sending me the link,” but not many. But when they’ve asked there’s been, in funnel terms, a 100 percent conversion rate from top-of-the-funnel to middle-of-the-funnel. That’s great.

But the hidden half of that has been the very real struggle, after ten years in one place, of getting back into the swing of looking for my next thing to do, and shifting from that mode of sitting quietly with your hands folded politely in your lap answering questions as correctly as you can muster, to finding the people who want to have actual conversations and welcoming the opportunity they present.

It took getting all the way to the end of one very mechanistic, flat, incurious hiring process to flip a switch in my brain.

One of the interviewers as good as said “well, you’re coming from this environment you were in so you probably are this certain way” in the midst of a “here are nine questions, prepare your three-minute responses, we are not permitted to have a conversation that deviates from you answering this question” session. It was incredibly belittling and frustrating, and it finally sparked the thing that I guess you have to have sparked if you’re going to continue the process of going around asking people to give you money in exchange for having to use Outlook or whatever, which was a sense that my background – the places I’ve been, the things I’ve seen, and the work I’ve done – adds up to something more than a collection of self-published pamphlets about businessing.

Anyhow, the switch that flipped was, “this could get harder before it gets easier, but it’s going to suck hard and it’s not going to end well if I keep looking over my shoulder.” I, er, contain multitudes, and I have come to believe that the best way to get across who I am is to quit trying to draw a circle around me.

(I do not, by the way, have a “so I told that guy to shove the job” story to tell. I got declined, apparently very narrowly. I definitely would have taken the job, because I’m fine working against expectations. You cannot go from “studied philosophy” to “worked at a newspaper” to “administered UNIX systems” to “volunteered for airborne school” without feeling comfortable being misunderstood by everyone around you.)

So this site is now the way it is, instead of the Brochure About Mike it was meant to be, because this, more or less and as much as I’m willing to disclose, is me.

Okay, but something about org-roam? 🔗

Right. As I was saying. A few days ago I wrote about Zettelkasten, related some reasons I decided at the time it was not for me, and then gently defended what I took to be a mild challenge from someone who wished I’d given it more of a chance.

But if the point of this site is less to represent me as a unit of productive capacity and more to think out loud about my preoccupations as they emerge (and hence become its own sort of representation), then it did its work in this case, because over the weekend that post ended up being just a thesis that I applied to what I thought I’d want to use a Zettelkasten system for, flavored in part by my natural (and not always flattering) skepticism about why people get into these things.

But like all good theses, it is subject to dialectical forces – new contexts, conditions, or information.

In the process of trying to salvage something from hours of over-preparation, I realized I had a bunch of good material about what I think about certain things that was suffering from being stuffed into the mold of a very rigid and dysfunctional interview process that nevertheless had forced me to rethink my value proposition and set my sights a little higher than they were going in. And I also realized I have a few opportunities coming up – and will no doubt have more – to use that material very soon.

As I killed a little time waiting for Al to get home, my mind first went to “well, turn it all into a couple of very thoughtful essays about IT, inclusion, etc. the better to stock your website with brochures.”

Then I thought, “we told ourselves we don’t like doing that.” Or as a friend put it, “I thought you said you were over the idea of writing weird shit for LinkedIn.”

Then I thought, “but wow, it can’t stay in this form, because it’ll always smell like the janitor’s closet at the county jail when you try to get any good out of it.”

I realized I wanted to do with it what I’d sworn 48 hours earlier didn’t really make sense to me, which was to sort of draw dashed lines on the surface of that big, strangely shaped accretion of thought, then go at it with a hammer until I had a bunch of chunks I could label and repurpose. So I took some time to re-read the org-roam manual, look at some half-understood config I’d put in place when I was giving it a try post-Obsidian, and clear my head of the idea that I was going to some day write eight-dozen books about management thanks to Zettelkasten, or do anything particularly public at all, really.

Having done that, I started chunking out the ideas in that writing and “inserting nodes,” in the org-roam parlance.

I didn’t get too much into linking anything for now, preferring to start at the level of tagging. I once went to a talk then years later had an interesting exchange with the guy who invented the term “folksonomy,” and his ideas about free-tagging have stuck with me since. People often screw it up by assuming that free-tagging is somehow antithetical to “categorization” or other ways of making associations … oh, just read this for the problem with that. Briefly, I have gotten hung up in the past with the advice to build MoC pages, etc. but was encouraged by that guy to think instead of tagging as cow-pathing. Eventually, you will want to put up lights and signs, and before that you may even want to make a map of the best ones. For now, I am just being careful to tag. When there is a nugget in something that I didn’t manage to break down or separate from something close to it, I am giving it its own heading so I can make it a node with a tag.

Anyhow, I’m giving the whole thing another try because I have a practical thing to do try it out on, and it is already helping me: I have a presentation coming up and it’s great to go through that previous work shorn of a little of the original context.