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The Power of The Blue Pen: My Most Powerful Learning Tool

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Accelerate Your Learning With Note Taking

I used to fear reading. In my youth, there was something about picking up a book and following the words that felt like a monumental, insurmountable task. In 3rd grade advanced reading class, I watched the movie instead. 7th grade book project? I asked my best friend (he’s at Yale now) for help. 8th grade English class? Sparknotes.

Somehow I meandered my way into teenagehood surviving off of Diary of a Wimpy Kid and a few other DCF reads. 

In the summer before 8th grade, a trip to New York City to see my beloved Yankees placed Derek Jeter’s biography into my hands. Yet, like most books I enthusiastically bought, it gathered dust in my room. 

In October that year, 2012, the infamous NECAP exam week, which all New England kids will be familiar with, rolled around.

“Once you finish, no electronic devices are permitted,” my teacher, a young ex-college football player read off the NECAP instructions

“Welp, Derek Jeter’s biography it is,” I thought. 

Read a Book, Dammit

Hearing Jeter’s story, his humble upbringing, his struggles through the minor leagues surpassed by his determination to become shortstop for the New York Yankees, and then of course all the struggles he faced during his career, left me pondering his lessons for weeks.

I began to see books, not as an allusive chore adults seemed to strike through with ease,  but as access to tombs of collected knowledge, a portal into a different world.

Over the years, free time in study halls and before bed morphed from iPhone games (I will still demolish at you at Subway Surfers, Jetpack Joyride, and Doodle Jump) to books.

By the end of high school, the list of books I yearned to read outpaced what I could consume. In my first gap year after high school, I finally chipped away. I read Robert Greene’s The 48 Laws of Power on long hockey bus trips. I devoured Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows in two days, unable to unstick myself from my living room couch. I pondered on each page of Mike Boyle’s New Functional Training for Sports in early winter mornings under my bedside lamp before hockey practice.

When I read a book, it would stay at the top of my mind, but then it would fall from my mind before I could internalize the lessons. Tim Ferriss’s Tribe of Mentors, for example, contained ample wisdom on each page, and couldn’t be harvested in one sitting. 

One morning as I sat in my room’s black futon, hunched over, flipping through Tribe of Mentors, unsure of where to begin,

I Resolved to Extract The Note-Taking System I learned in School, And Apply It To My Self-Made Gap Year Education.

A 400-page size ten font Robert Greene book, however, is not a simple undertaking. Each of Greene’s books covers enough content for a whole college class. So, I started with Ferriss’s much more manageable debut book, The Four-Hour Workweek.

Fortunately, I had already developed the habit of highlighting books. Any book I read in my junior year of high school or later was covered in neon yellow, orange, or pink marks. 

This habit alone highlighted the foundation for my note-taking organization.

I could start with books where I’d already distilled the essential. 

The best shitty notebooks.

Grasping an old marble composition book from middle school, I tore out the pages containing the ancient arithmetic processes of my younger self. I wrote “The 4-Hour Workweek by Tim Ferriss” at the top, and copied the pink neon words.

Then, Anytime I needed to Reread a Book, I Could Just Go to My Notebook

This worked for a while, but the process became mundane, a copy and paste system that lulled my eyes to rest and my head to spin on distracted thoughts. And even though it was great to have the highlights, without the context and stories of the book, the lessons didn’t punch like they did when reading through it

There’s a reason books aren’t just a collection of highlights. The narrative puts the lessons into context.

I kept on reading, and now note-taking, but the valuable information flew out of my head as fast as it went in. 

Enter: The Blue Pen

One day on my commute to the gym, I listened to a Jim Kwik podcast on note-taking. The problem with traditional note-taking, Kwik elaborated, is the textbook or teacher’s words rarely resonate with us. Notes must be translated in our brain’s unique way of thinking. Although we can’t squeeze the context of a book into a notes journal, we could add context from elsewhere in our life to ground the material.

So I followed Kwik’s method—split the paper in half—and morphed it. Rather than dividing the page into “author’s words” and “my thoughts,” I added my thoughts in blue pen instead of black underneath.

Note-Taking blue penThe moment the cap clipped off the shitty BIC blue pen, my mind raced. The marble composition book was no longer confined by the author’s words, but a free-flowing, connection-making extension of my thoughts.

“This is like Dumbledore in The Half-Blood Prince when…”

“Reminds me of Fear-Setting.

Sometimes, I’d shortcut terms that encompassed entire stories and complex concepts.

“Spotlight effect.”

“Always on brand.”

“Two crappy pages.”

“Karpov through Kasparov.”

“Radical open-mindedness.”

“Incentives.”

“Success…Uncomfortable conversations.”

“The Power of Myth.”

These examples flood my notebook and relate the lesson of that book back to a previous experience. 

Now I Had The Distilled Information, And I Had It In a Context I Understood.

The review process became an active thinking task of connecting one text to another or to other experiences in my life. It stretched me to think about how I was actually going to apply all the lessons from these tombs of information. 

A book as dense as The 48 Laws of Power took nearly a month to fully review, each law often taking up more than a page. But the process of reviewing was active, along the way it was like rereading it. 

I thought I had this whole note-taking thing down. That was until I realized some books had probably half of the words already highlighted. The pages of Tools of Titans for example, were half neon. So, while living in El Salvador in 2018, I reread it. This time, I highlighted the book with a pink highlighter. I realized there were lessons that weren’t applicable to me when I first read it in early 2017, that I couldn’t believe I skimmed over.

Many yellow highlights, conversely, I had internalized. They were no longer ground-breaking. Then, there were the yellow highlights that had become even more important and needed to be underlined in pink. These double highlights were then placed into the notebook of notes. 

It’s Not What You Intake, It’s What You Absorb.

Taking the time to internalize a few pieces of work will be more valuable than grazing the surface on many. Spend three months of your life reading, highlighting, and note taking The 48 Laws of Power and soon you’ll engrain the lessons of Robert Greene’s extensive research and study of human nature. 

The power held within a book is the wisdom of years, perhaps decades of research and experience. To expect to fly through it in a week is unrealistic, and surface level. To really absorb, apply, and lead to the impact you want requires dissection, pondering, journaling, note-taking. Whatever systems and methods you use to do this, the principles are what’s really important. Imagine only seeing the shore without ever exploring the depths of the ocean.

About the Author

David is a writer and strength coach and co-owner of Roman Fitness Systems. In addition to helping run RFS, he's also the head editor for prohockeystrength.com, the official website of the Strength and Conditioning Association of Professional Hockey.

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