Recently, I ran across a forum post in which someone mentioned feeling intimidated by one of my books.

My texts do tend to be rather long. I thought I’d take this as an opportunity to describe my thoughts on textbooks…


Confused in Class

Sitting in class, bored out of my mind, I remember struggling to figure out how people could manage to make it to the end of a semester, let alone a class.

“How are you actually learning here?”

I’d wonder of my peers.

Questions about whatever the teacher was talking about would come to mind. Actually, it would be more of a foggy confusion really. If I made it to creating questions, I was ahead.

Being a rather shy kid, I was rather worried about raising my hand. Of course, the common refrains that well-meaning adults would say included:

  • “Others in class are probably just as confused” and
  • “It never hurts to ask”.

However, having grown older and presumably wiser, I’ve discovered that:

  • Only sometimes do others not know what’s going on, and
  • Asking reveals ignorance which can be used against you by ill-meaning parties.

While a better answer is to learn how acknowledging ignorance can be used as a strength, this isn’t that story. I wasn’t that psychologically mature at the time, and I think it’s a lifetime practice anyway.

Here, I’m focusing on the time it takes to think.


The Time to Think

Only in retrospect, do I realize that it took me time to think. The very time I would use to digest the material, to have an idea come to mind, to have it flow and merge with other things I knew to somehow grow into my fiber of knowledge, would be trampled over by the next 5 sentences any teacher said.

As a result, I naturally gravitated towards the saving grace of any of my classes:


A Good Textbook

I stress the word “good”. There were often those that just seemed to be written for some reason other than teaching, for what I have no idea.

But those solid ones–those books that started off with an introduction that welcomed you, that gave you a table of contents that was clear, that didn’t assume you knew much of anything–those were excellent.

To this day, one of the most important steps I take with a non-fiction book is to memorize its table of contents. I take out a piece of paper and try to reproduce it. I then return to the contents to see where I forgot things, then do it again until I get it right.

Well, in all honesty, I don’t always do that, but it is an ideal I aim for. When I do, I create a sort of mental clay for the words I’m about to read to meaningfully shape as I go forward.

Each step then builds on the last. At any point, if I feel lost, a good text gives hints to find my bearings, be that through the chapter itself, the table of contents, or the index. Generally, I don’t have to go elsewhere, but if I do, it often suggests where.

Most importantly, I could take my time. I could form questions, find answers, and genuinely feel like I got somewhere. I could set it aside, play a video game or whatever, while the back of my mind went to work on what I’d just read.

Even the large textbooks that seemed intimidating at first glance, really weren’t once I cracked them open, so long as they were good. Instead of being intimidating, I got the sense of “look at all the stuff I get to learn!”

Those have been my aims in the books I’ve written. For example, Creating Flow with OmniFocus, starts with the simplest ideas of running a system, only unfolding into more advanced concepts as needed. I wanted to write something that allowed the reader their time. You can go as far or as little as you want. Meanwhile, I hope that each step invites you to the next, allowing you to play with the ideas in your world at your pace.