What Are You Optimizing For?

I won’t lie to you. It was a pain in the butt to start this article.

Why? Well, I knew exactly what I wanted to write about. I knew exactly which quote I wanted to feature. I knew who wrote it; I knew which book it came from. I just didn’t know where it was physically.

murch quote

Whenever I come across a quote that might be useful later, I write it down on an index card and file it away in my “commonplace book”—a small box of ideas that I’ve subdivided into several categories. Beyond that, there’s little organization. Any time I want to find a quote, I have to figure out where I’ve filed it (a lot of the categories run together, like “writing” and “creativity”) and then flip through all the other cards in that stack to hopefully get to the one I’m looking for.

commonplace book

Were my commonplace book digital, this would be a much easier, faster process. But I don’t optimize my commonplace book for speed. I optimize it for accidents.


In his 2001 book, In The Blink of an Eye, film editor Walter Murch writes about the huge leaps made in editing hardware and software between from the 1980s to the 2000s. When he was starting out, he had to work on a machine called a KEM, which was linear. To get from the third scene to the sixth scene, he’d basically have to fast-forward through the fourth and fifth scene, rather than just jumping ahead or searching for what he wanted, like you’d do today.

KEM Editing Machine

But to Murch, this inefficiency was a feature, not a bug:

“The [newer, digital] machine gives me only what I ask for, and I don’t always want to go where I say I want to go. Wanting something just gives me a starting point. I expect the material itself to tell me what to do next.”

In a recent New York Times interview, author, Leila Slimani, said something similar:

“I don’t organize them [my books] at all. They are a total mess. But I like that. It takes me a long time to find the book I need, and very often I find another one I had totally forgotten about.”

There are a ton of other quotes in this genre, but they all boil down to the same point—true moments of creative insight are often happy accidents. When you unintentionally stumble upon something you didn’t even know you were looking for. And that’s what happens when I am forced to excavate my commonplace book.

There are a lot of ways to get from Point A to B. Google Maps will optimize for speed; it will show you the shortest route. But maybe that’s not what you should be optimizing for.


Each Monday, I share strategies to help you pursue your passions. Try it. You’ll like it.

Header photo by Vadim Sherbakov on Unsplash


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