Wednesday, December 13, 2023

The Nerdiest Thing I Do

I stepped up to the end of a growing line of people at work. We were having an end-of-summer event and the line was for ice cream! To make the most of my wait, I introduced myself to the person in front of me. To my horror, he knew me and we had talked before. With prompting, I vaguely remembered our conversation. I wanted to crawl into a small cave and hide.
I have always been impressed with people with great memories: The people who remember others’ names, along with supporting details, after meeting them once. Those people are so dang thoughtful. To my continual disappointment, I cannot do that. I just can’t. Since I cannot remember those things naturally, I try to achieve the same effect through brute force, using flash cards.

Smartphone screenshot. White text on black background. The open app is titled Ankidroid. On the left side of the screen are bolded names of decks of flashcards. On the right are numbers showing the number of expected reviews for each deck.
Screen shot of my Anki decks before studying one morning. 

Over the years I have built a support system to fill in the details I cannot naturally remember. My system has evolved over the years and has led me to be an avid notetaker and information organizer. When I vaguely remember something, I can find the details in my notes. My notes are external storage for my brain, similar to a hard drive in a computer, or records in a filing cabinet.


Unfortunately, my external storage is slow. It's not fast enough to help me in conversation (“Hi Paul! Is Sue still playing soccer?”). It's not fast enough for me to check a calculation or make an estimate.
Thankfully, shoving information into your brain can reduce recall time. Shoving information into your brain is really memorization. While memorization requires hard work and consistency, it does not require any special innate ability. The word “memorization” may trigger painful flashbacks to memorizing arbitrary things in school (why did I have to memorize all the English prepositions?). However, some of that memorization was useful — you cannot do arithmetic without memorizing addition and multiplication tables.
Humans have improved at memorization over thousands of years of practice and learning. One powerful memorization technique is flashcards. However, physical flashcards can become overwhelming — many easy cards can keep you from reviewing the harder cards, which need more attention.
Digital flashcards and the concept of spaced repetition have solved this problem. Spaced repetition adjusts when you see each card: Cards you know well show up infrequently, while cards needing reinforcement show up frequently. This means there are fewer cards overall to review, and you are reviewing the most important cards.

Using Flashcards

Every morning I perform three rituals: I meditate, I play Wordle, and I study my flashcards — every morning. I currently have 8,482 active flash cards. I use flashcards to study everything I would like to know, or anything I don’t know but feel that I should. Examples include people, things I’m learning, and details about my work.
I started using flashcards when my daughter was in first grade. I had trouble keeping her classmates straight, so memorizing her classmastes’ names and faces seemed like a good trial for the technique. With the aid of her class picture I did so and it worked. I remembered her classmates through several years of schooling. We would have dinner conversations and I could ask follow-up questions about her stories from the day. And based on this scaffolding of knowledge, I could understand the new information and remember it. “Wait, you worked with Sally today on that? I thought you and Sally fought over that book?” “Dad, the library had a second copy. Now we’re both three books into the series. It’s so cool.”

Today when I meet someone I would like to remember, l sheepishly explain my challenges remembering names and faces, and ask if I can take their picture. Later, I will add a flash card with their name on one side and their picture on the other. I will also add a separate card for each detail I would like to remember about them so I can appear thoughtful the next time I talk to them.

At work, colleagues frequently come to me with questions about performance testing and performance engineering. Answering questions like these is part of my job. Often, but not always, I can answer their questions immediately. When I have to consult my notes but wish that I hadn’t, I add flashcards for the relevant information.
When I am organizing a project, I feel there are certain facts I should always have available at the tip of my tongue. I add flashcards for them. And when I am learning something new, I add flashcards for my learnings. For example, when I finish reading a book, I review my notes for points to memorize.

This morning I studied 61 flashcards in 5 minutes. The combination of spaced repetition and my consistency means that I only have to review around 40-50 cards most mornings, requiring 5-10 minutes. When I miss a day(s), there are more cards to review and I start forgetting things. That feedback loop is bad. I try hard not to miss days.

I have missed studying four days so far this year. One of those days was while visiting family, and the remaining three were during camping trips. I do my study as Anne Lamott does her writing, as a debt of honor. It is a commitment to show up each and every day. And because I show up each and every day, I know so much more than I did before.

Using My Knowledge

My daily flashcard review lets me do several things that I otherwise could not. I can address people by name when I meet them. I can give a detailed answer when someone asks about our performance testing system. Even when I can’t answer a question immediately, I can think of the answer much faster than before. I no longer feel embarrassed when I don’t know something, because I know I know so many things.

I can estimate better and faster, because I have so much reference information (e.g., the circumference of the earth is ~24,900 miles). As an engineer, being able to make quick and accurate estimates is a requirement.
None of this works perfectly, but it works much, much better than it did before I started using my flashcards.

Being Smarter

There is a still larger benefit beyond recall: I can think better. Thinking involves developing connections between ideas. When we synthesize new ideas, we build from existing ones. When we deduce, we deduce from rules and facts. Having more ideas in my head allows me to draw more connections and to synthesize more ideas. Having more rules and facts in my head allows me to deduce more. Starting with more knowledge makes it easier to learn and integrate new knowledge.
I think of creativity as the exploration of the adjacent possible. Stuart Kaufmann developed the concept of the adjacent possible to describe the development of biological systems, while Stephen Johnson built on that idea to describe all forms of innovation in his book Where Good Ideas Come From. The possible is everything that exists (or we know) today. The adjacent possible is everything that does not exist today, but can be built from those things that do. My possible is much larger due to my memorization, making my adjacent possible larger still. In the end, I am more creative because of my memorization.


While waiting for my ice cream I had a nice conversation with my colleague. I focused so that I could remember his name and some details. Later, I wrote down these details and I created flashcards, especially one with his name and face on it.
These days, when I see him in the hallway, his name pops into my head instantly. I make sure to say hello.

Special thank you to Heather Beasley Doyle for her feedback on this post. Heather is a gifted writer and you should read some of her writing herehere, or here

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