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How to Take Notes like Thomas Edison

How to Take Notes like Thomas Edison
Thomas Edison

Famous inventor Thomas Edison is probably the most experienced note-taker in the world. His diary which is still maintained as an important part of the United States historical record contains five million (5,000,000) pages. Important developments such as his work on perfecting the light bulb and electric lighting systems are captured in great detail. He never met a sheet of paper he didn’t like.
What lessons can we take from his work today, a century later? How did his note-taking help him to become the world’s most famous inventor with over a thousand (1093) U.S. patents in his name for a wide range of technologies from movie cameras and phonographs to cement making and electric lighting? In short, what made his note-taking and filing system so great?
Edison’s system was developed to support his life work and was very successful in doing so. The main elements of his system are as follows:

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  1. Any useful or important development was recorded so that no effort was wasted in repeating experiments or efforts unnecessarily. Edison’s method was once described as an “empirical dragnet” by Nikola Tesla, another famous inventor who worked for Edison for some time. Combining Edison’s hard working and hard thinking methods with an effective record creation and retention system was a very important aspect of his work.
  2. Forward-looking. Edison’s notes included the forward-looking things we tend to incorporate in many of our modern personal planners. Things like lists of contacts, appointments, “to do” lists, and actionable items for follow up or later review were all contained within his comprehensive system.
  3. Rearward-looking. The ability to go back and check his written record was useful in several ways. He was able to use his records in various lawsuits filed against him and by him against others as evidence and to substantiate his claims. His competitors were often unable to compete with his records so he often came out victorious in these legal battles. He was always able to review past work and avoid repeatedly going down dead-end roads. He could always review whatever he had said or was told. He never had to remember most things as long as he could remember how to look it up later.
  4. The record system was searchable. Sometimes, from among millions of pages, there would be a key document that would prove invaluable. Unfortunately, with his manual system, he often spent considerable time searching through these records looking for the key item. He did however have a fairly good system of archiving his records by a combination of chronological and subject matter based systems. He created numerous groupings, files, folders, etc. which helped him to get to the right part of his records in a reasonably short time.
  5. Who, what, where, when and how much. These details could be fairly easily retrieved from Edison’s system in relation to any aspect of whatever he was involved with. These included financial records and they formed an important part of his note-taking system. He kept all his incoming as well as copies of all his outgoing correspondence. This was not necessarily easy to do before the invention of the modern office copier.
  6. How and why. Edison’s research laboratory work was a focal point for much of his record system. Patent applications and reviews were based in large part on his notes that needed to include the how and why aspects in sufficient detail so that the patents themselves would be complete and able to withstand any legal challenges. Edison often used his records to defend his position from competitors in his day when patents and technologies were becoming very fashionable and important as they remain today. His system of experimentation and related record keeping has become the basis of the modern industrial research institution – which he is widely credited with having invented.
  7. Extremely powerful memory aid. Edison had an amazing memory. He was well informed on a wide range of topics and always seemed to be able to recall what he told someone or what he was told. Much of this is due to his system of notes. By writing everything down that he thought was worth writing, he was able to free himself of the burden of having to remember it. A strange and almost unexpected thing occurs. The process of writing things down aids in the mental memory retention. The combination of having the confidence in knowing the information is on record and easily retrievable combined with the improved retention from the process of writing it down, creates a winning combination when it comes to memory.

How can we improve upon Edison’s system using today’s technologies? Obviously, we have invented the ball point pen to replace his messy quill and ink bottle so that notes can be written in real time. In his day, he perfected the typewriter. Today, we are no longer committed to getting stuff onto paper as the final form of record retention. Vast portions of Edison’s original archives have recently been digitized and can be viewed online. This eliminates the need for mothballs and maintaining rooms full of old papers that can only be studied by someone showing up and going through them one page at a time.
How does your system compare to Edison’s? His was comprehensive and scalable to wherever his interests lay. Is your system similarly scalable? What about the content? How much of the information in your system has objectively measurable value? Edison kept everything and it all went up in value as his overall fame and power grew. How valuable has the information in your system become (or is becoming)? How scalable is your system as your interests change (whether expanding of shifting to other areas)? Edison always used the best available technology to maintain his records as efficiently as he thought they could be maintained. Have you similarly employed sound technologies for taking and keeping your notes?
Edison certainly subscribed to the philosophy that if life is worth living, it is worth writing about. At five million pages, he was at the extreme end of this. He did live a long, prosperous life. And he lived it quite fully since he always seemed to have something to write about.

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Peter Paul Roosen and Tatsuya Nakagawa are co-founders of Atomica Creative Group , a specialized strategic product marketing firm. Through leading edge insight and research, sound strategic planning and effective project management, Atomica helps companies achieve greater success in bringing new products to market and in improving their existing businesses. They have co-authored Overcoming Inventoritis: The Silent Killer of Innovation now available.

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Last Updated on March 14, 2019

7 Questions to Ask in a Job Interview That Will Impress the Interviewer

7 Questions to Ask in a Job Interview That Will Impress the Interviewer

Recruiters might hold thousands of interviews in their careers and a lot of them are reporting the same thing—that most candidates play it safe with the questions they ask, or have no questions to ask in a job interview at all.

For job applicants, this approach is crazy! This is a job that you’re going to dedicate a lot of hours to and that might have a huge impact on your future career. Don’t throw away the chance to figure out if the position is perfect for you.

Here are 7 killer questions to ask in a job interview that will both impress your counterpart and give you some really useful insights into whether this job will be a dream … or a nightmare.

1. What are some challenges I might come up against this role?

A lesser candidate might ask, “what does a typical day look like in this role?” While this is a perfectly reasonable question to ask in an interview, focusing on potential challenges takes you much further because it indicates that you already are visualizing yourself in the role.

It’s impressive because it shows that you are not afraid of challenges, and you are prepared to strategize a game plan upfront to make sure you succeed if you get the job.

It can also open up a conversation about how you’ve solved problems in the past which can be a reassuring exercise for both you and the hiring manager.

How it helps you:

If you ask the interviewer to describe a typical day, you may get a vibrant picture of all the lovely things you’ll get to do in this job and all the lovely people you’ll get to do them with.

Asking about potential roadblocks means you hear the other side of the story—dysfunctional teams, internal politics, difficult clients, bootstrap budgets and so on. This can help you decide if you’re up for the challenge or whether, for the sake of your sanity, you should respectfully decline the job offer.

2. What are the qualities of really successful people in this role?

Employers don’t want to hire someone who goes through the motions; they want to hire someone who will excel.

Asking this question shows that you care about success, too. How could they not hire you with a dragon-slayer attitude like that?

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How it helps you:

Interviewers hire people who are great people to work with, but the definition of “great people” differs from person to person.

Does this company hire and promote people with a specific attitude, approach, worth ethic or communication style? Are the most successful people in this role strong extroverts who love to talk and socialize when you are studious and reserved? Does the company reward those who work insane hours when you’re happiest in a more relaxed environment?

If so, then this may not be the right match for you.

Whatever the answer is, you can decide whether you have what it takes for the manager to be happy with your performance in this role. And if the interviewer has no idea what success looks like for this position, this is a sign to proceed with extreme caution.

3. From the research I did on your company, I noticed the culture really supports XYZ. Can you tell me more about that element of the culture and how it impacts this job role?

Of course, you could just ask “what is the culture like here? ” but then you would miss a great opportunity to show that you’ve done your research!

Interviewers give BIG bonus point to those who read up and pay attention, and you’ve just pointed out that (a) you’re diligent in your research (b) you care about the company culture and (c) you’re committed to finding a great cultural fit.

How it helps you:

This question is so useful because it lets you pick an element of the culture that you really care about and that will have the most impact on whether you are happy with the organization.

For example, if training and development is important to you, then you need to know what’s on offer so you don’t end up in a dead-end job with no learning opportunities.

Companies often talk a good talk, and their press releases may be full of shiny CSR initiatives and all the headline-grabbing diversity programs they’re putting in place. This is your opportunity to look under the hood and see if the company lives its values on the ground.

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A company that says it is committed to doing the right thing by customers should not judge success by the number of up-sells an employee makes, for instance. Look for consistency, so you aren’t in for a culture shock after you start.

4. What is the promotion path for this role, and how would my performance on that path be measured?

To be clear, you are not asking when you will get promoted. Don’t go there—it’s presumptuous, and it indicates that you think you are better than the role you have applied for.

A career-minded candidate, on the other hand, usually has a plan that she’s working towards. This question shows you have a great drive toward growth and advancement and an intention to stick with the company beyond your current state.

How it helps you:

One word: hierarchy.

All organizations have levels of work and authority—executives, upper managers, line managers, the workforce, and so on. Understanding the hierarchical structure gives you power, because you can decide if you can work within it and are capable of climbing through its ranks, or whether it will be endlessly frustrating to you.

In a traditional pyramid hierarchy, for example, the people at the bottom tend to have very little autonomy to make decisions. This gets better as you rise up through the pyramid, but even middle managers have little power to create policy; they are more concerned with enforcing the rules the top leaders make.

If having a high degree of autonomy and accountability is important to you, you may do better in a flat hierarchy where work teams can design their own way of achieving the corporate goals.

5. What’s the most important thing the successful candidate could accomplish in their first 3 months/6 months/year?

Of all the questions to ask in a job interview, this one is impressive because it shows that you identify with and want to be a successful performer, and not just an average one.

Here, you’re drilling down into what the company needs, and needs quite urgently, proving that you’re all about adding value to the organization and not just about what’s in it for you.

How it helps you:

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Most job descriptions come with 8, 10 or 12 different job responsibilities and a lot of them with be boilerplate or responsibilities that someone in HR thinks are associated with this role. This question gives you a better sense of which responsibilities are the most important—and they may not be what initially attracted you to the role.

If you like the idea of training juniors, for example, but success is judged purely on your sales figures, then is this really the job you thought you were applying for?

This question will also give you an idea of what kind of learning curve you’re expected to have and whether you’ll get any ramp-up time before getting down to business. If you’re the type of person who likes to jump right in and get things done, for instance, you may not be thrilled to hear that you’re going to spend the first three months shadowing a peer.

6. What do you like about working here?

This simple question is all about building rapport with the interviewer. People like to talk about themselves, and the interviewer will be flattered that you’re interested in her opinions.

Hopefully, you’ll find some great connection points that the two of you share. What similar things drive you head into the office each day? How will you fit into the culture?

How it helps you:

You can learn a lot from this question. Someone who genuinely enjoys his job will be able to list several things they like, and their answers will sound passionate and sincere. If not….well, you might consider that a red flag.

Since you potentially can learn a lot about the company culture from this question, it’s a good idea to figure out upfront what’s important to you. Maybe you’re looking for a hands-off boss who values independent thought and creativity? Maybe you work better in environments that move at a rapid, exciting pace?

Whatever’s important to you, listen carefully and see if you can find any common ground.

7. Based on this interview, do you have any questions or concerns about my qualifications for the role?

What a great closing question to ask in a job interview! It shows that you’re not afraid of feedback—in fact, you are inviting it. Not being able to take criticism is a red flag for employers, who need to know that you’ll act on any “coaching moments” with a good heart.

As a bonus, asking this question shows that you are really interested in the position and wish to clear up anything that may be holding the company back from hiring you.

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How it helps you:

What a devious beast this question is! On the surface, it looks straightforward, but it’s actually giving you four key pieces of information.

First, is the manager capable of giving you feedback when put on the spot like this? Some managers are scared of giving feedback, or don’t think it’s important enough to bother outside of a formal performance appraisal. Do you want to work for a boss like that? How will you improve if no one is telling you what you did wrong?

Second, can the manager give feedback in a constructive way without being too pillowy or too confrontational? It’s unfair to expect the interviewer to have figured out your preferred way of receiving feedback in the space of an interview, but if she come back with a machine-gun fire of shortcomings or one of those corporate feedback “sandwiches” (the doozy slipped between two slices of compliment), then you need to ask yourself, can you work with someone who gives feedback like that?

Third, you get to learn the things the hiring manager is concerned about before you leave the interview. This gives you the chance to make a final, tailored sales pitch so you can convince the interviewer that she should not be worried about those things.

Fourth, you get to learn the things the hiring manager is concerned about period. If turnover is keeping him up at night, then your frequent job hopping might get a lot of additional scrutiny. If he’s facing some issues with conflict or communication, then he might raise concerns regarding your performance in this area.

Listen carefully: the concerns that are being raised about you might actually be a proxy for problems in the wider organization.

Making Your Interview Work for You

Interviews are a two-way street. While it is important to differentiate yourself from every other candidate, understand that convincing the interviewer you’re the right person for the role goes hand-in-hand with figuring out if the job is the right fit for you.

Would you feel happy in a work environment where the people, priorities, culture and management style were completely at odds with the way you work? Didn’t think so!

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Featured photo credit: Amy Hirschi via unsplash.com

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