How Note Taking Can Help You Become an Expert

This is Part 2 in a series on learning in ill-structured, novel domains. That said, this post may be read as a standalone.

This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at

Enjoyed this post greatly @cedric, as did one of my friends I shared it with. It helped resolve some of the discomfort he had with his appreciation for the case learning method used when he got his MBA that didn’t square with his love of principles and abstraction.

When you or I (that is, non-doctors) think of a heart attack, we probably imagine a prototype of a heart attack in our heads. That is, we imagine what we think is an ‘ideal’ heart attack, where a person falls over and clutches his or her chest. Expert doctors do not do this . They do not reduce a concept like heart attack to just one prototype. They instead have a collection of prototypes in their heads, that they can assemble fragments from.

The above has crystallized for me over the past year as I read How Emotions are Made and came to better understand LFB’s definition of a concept. She talks about how the Darwinian view of population (Population Thinking | Lisa Feldman Barrett) does not really allow for an ideal - it’s made up of variations around a mean set of characteristics and traits. If you had never heard of a dog I showed you a chihuahua and told you it was a dog, and then showed you a great dane and told you it is also a dog, you would be understandably confused. But if I showed you a chihuahua, 100 other examples of different dog breeds, and then a great dane, it wouldn’t be much of a leap as the concept variance is significantly more established. It’s only natural to think the same would happen for other concepts.

How do you construct a CFT hypertext system for yourself?

This seems like a ton of work, I’m looking forward to hearing about your results. I wonder if there’s a lighter, looser version based on this that leverages the interstitial journaling process to “backlink your life” by creating a record of your experiences (free of fuzzy memory retrieval and hindsight bias). This way you can go back to related instances and experiences as needed and reference them as a kind of streaming decision journal. It wouldn’t be CFT, but I think it might be something interesting.

I started my first role as a Product team leader today, so maybe now is a good time to try to kick something like this off.


Well, you could certainly try! :grin: But I think part of CFT’s claim to fame (or at least claim of expertise acceleration) is simply that you get to look at many rich, hard cases which in real world experience would take years to encounter. Certainly some of the more interesting business manoeuvres I want to study took a few years each!

I plan to write a post in a few months based on what I’ve learnt implementing a CFT learning system. In the meantime, I’m currently digging into the system implementation papers to see why it did or didn’t take off. :slight_smile:

1 Like

Agreed, it wouldn’t be for expertise acceleration, I was thinking it would be more akin to metacognition training. What was I thinking/feeling/doing/saying in prior instances like this? Definitely adjacent to expertise acquisition, and useful if you’re trying to improve those metacognitive abilities that seem to be critical in later stages of adult development.

I also meant to reference in my first comment how Ray Dalio talks about in Principles how everything is “another one of these” - having a wide range of cases broken down into conceptual fragments would be critical for that pattern recognition.


@cedric, I appreciate you using your Judo learning experience and stories in this context, as it’s very relevant and relatable for me! A resource that comes to mind I think could be purposed for this for BJJ is called “MGinAction”. A giant database of live rolling from one of the all time greats, broken down and linked by techniques and positions. I wonder if a database like this already exists for Judo players, or could be developed.

I think I’ll tag along with you in your exploration of CFT, and setup experiments with it for BJJ. Looking forward to more!


@connor MGinAction looks really cool! The equivalent in Judo is probably — which is really high quality and really comprehensive.

That said, what I tend to do is to look at snippets of competition video, instead of instructionals. I talk about this in my old post on learning tacit knowledge from Youtube, and I’ve found that watching a competitor execute a throw in a variety of fight scenarios usually yields a lot more information than watching instructionals. I’m particularly interested in what some coaches call ‘precursors’ — which is the sequence of feints, grips, and setups before doing a particular throw. And that tends to be very context dependent, since the precursor for one player is dependent on the opponent they’re fighting (Russian vs Japanese?), the handedness (lefty vs righty?), and is usually very integrated into their fighting style (what other throws are available to them during the grip sequence?).

A very interesting article (which I should re-read after another coffee, just woke up). By the way, point 3 in the second numbered list in the Using CFT section made me instantly imagine Captain Kirk with the Kobayashi Maru. After all, being in TOS probably needs highly adaptative pattern matching.

1 Like

@cedric: Thank for this post. Do you have any references for these CFT studies that try to accelerate medical education? I am in the process of constructing my own case library for medical clinical reasoning.

I note you referenced “Jonassen, D. H., Ambruso, D. R., & Olesen, J. (1992). Designing a hypertext on transfusion medicine using cognitive flexibility theory.” (after exhaustive searching I concede this might not exist in electronic form) but are there any other references?

1 Like

Hi @Tim.Alexander, sorry for the late reply — I was bogged down with the site redesign. I do have some references, though a lot of it is locked in journals that either aren’t digitised or aren’t easily available through <that academic paper website that must not be named>.

I’ve linked to the Google Drive folder as well as the collaboration document in this topic:

I’m not linking it directly because that topic is private to members only, whereas this discussion topic is public (since it’s a blog comment thread).

I’ve reached out to Rand Spiro, but he’s currently on summer holiday, so I’ll only be able to update you on the state of some of those papers once I hear back from him in August.

@cedric, no worries at all for the timing of your reply and thank you very much for the link to the Google Drive folder.

1 Like