LETTER NUMBER 2
The Journey That Led Me to Write a Book on Analog Zettelkästen
Scott P. Scheper
Downtown San Diego, CA
Thursday 12:09 pm
There I was lying on my couch one weekday afternoon during the pandemic of 2020. I had just finished a 3-hour binge, watching the show Billions.
It's a weekday, I said to myself. I should be doing something productive. Look at me, I'm a single 34-year-old with nothing to live for besides my cat (a ragdoll named Brodus Maximus). I felt like a complete slouch, a freaking loser. I was empty and unfulfilled.
Roughly a year prior, I left the cryptocurrency company I co-founded. For two years, I worked eight days a week to launch the company (every Saturday and most Sundays). In record-breaking time, I helped take the company from negative $2.14 million in debt to one of the most exciting high-growth companies out there. We raised roughly $10 million via what is known as an ICO (which stands for Initial Coin Offering). We then raised over $14.1 million in equity during the next six months.
Things were looking great. I was helping people, is what I thought. I was raising money to build ground-breaking technology that would re-shape the way GPS works using cryptocurrency to incentivize individuals. We then held an exciting conference in Downtown San Diego, and I spoke to over a thousand excited investors and customers who were diehard XYO fans.
However, the market proceeded down a slow death march over the next year. Cryptocurrency prices across the entire industry dropped significantly. My own investment and investments made by my family and friends who trusted me were down over 95%. The thousands of customers and investors who once declared their love for the company were disgruntled. They were now practically threatening to bring pitchforks to our offices!
Since I was the face of the company, I took the brunt of it. It felt awful; I was called a scammer and every other awful thing you can think of. Things got even worse. We had to lay off almost half our company in a day (totaling over forty people).
On the day of the layoff, I observed my former employees, who were some of my closest friends, transform from my closest relationships to contentious ones. I felt depleted, yet I couldn't show it because I still needed to lead the rest of the team out of the mess. I pressed on for another six months. When we got the company to a stable point, I knew deep down that I needed to take a break, and I needed to step away for personal reasons. I was empty inside. On top of this, the technology really hadn't backed out; it needed more time to develop. In the meantime, the vision was redirected into something I wasn't proud of. Yet, I was not the majority partner or shareholder. I didn't have the legal control required to do anything about it. Nor did I possess the energy to fight it. I was physically, emotionally, and mentally burnt out.
Fast forward a year later, and there I was, on my couch, laying down in a vegetative coma of indolence watching Billions. I wasn't necessarily suicidal, but I was sad, and I lost my excitement for life. Plus, on top of this, my little shit of a ragdoll cat, Mr. Bigglesworth (Brodus's brother), passed away from stomach cancer. He was only two years old. After suffering for months, I was the one who decided to pull the plug. It may seem ridiculous writing about this; there are definitely more severe travesties in life. But I was single at the time, with only two cats. Yet there I found myself, holding one of them in my arms as they injected him with something to make his breathing stop forever.
I was in a depressed state; I came down with a major case of black ass, as Samuel Johnson would call it. On the surface, I desired to create even more significant success than what I had engineered at the cryptocurrency company. This time, however, I wanted more control over the product and the company's direction so that, in my mind, we wouldn't compromise on the vision.
Yet what I really desired was to serve people worth serving. Sure, there were some excellent people I got to serve at the cryptocurrency company; but, let's face it: The vast majority of them were in it to make money without having to do anything. The people interested in cryptocurrency were there for one thing, and one thing only: to get rich doing nothing. When the market is up, you're Jesus Christ himself; when the market is down, you're the reason for all their problems.
I didn't want to serve people who are get-rich-quickers, and I didn't want to be in the business of wasting my energy with wasteful products. Sure, I wanted to have a significant impact; but I also wanted to provide a product that actually leaves future generations with something useful.
After finishing the entire season of Billions, I decided to sell my 72" big screen TV and spend time brainstorming my next venture. I was still fascinated with cryptocurrency, and I was intrigued by decentralized finance. I saw innovation coming out of that space. But I was leaning towards creating something in my craft of marketing and copywriting. Specifically, I was intrigued by the idea of creating a newsletter, and it would be in a format inspired by my mentor, the late, great copywriter known as Gary Halbert. I began to grow inspired by the idea of creating a newsletter related to marketing, copywriting, cryptocurrency, and whatever else I was interested in.
In this state, I began to form a habit. For the next several months I would sit on my patio in the sun, smoking cigars and reading. I ended up smoking way too many cigars. I got up to three per day, and it was so bad my lymph nodes kept flaring up, screaming at me to quit (I finally did).
Anyway, I began to read all day on my patio. I read psychology and philosophy books. I would sit there in the sun and shade, take a few puffs of a cigar, read, and then use a commonplace book to take notes (a Moleskine notebook). I had used a commonplace book in the past to store notes, but I ran into limitations. After a few days, I was reminded of those limitations.
I also had used notecards in the past. I began writing notes on notecards roughly fifteen years prior and, I had been pretty consistent at taking notes for books using 3x5" notecards. Yet, these notes had become large and unruly because they were organized in silos. Each concept on the card was difficult to find because they were clustered by the title of the book. Nevertheless, even with these limitations, I inexplicably found notecards to be the best tool for learning and retaining information.
Yet, using notecards proved difficult. I was on the patio smoking cigars in the sun during this time. It was hard enough to read a book with the wind constantly blowing, flipping the pages. Using notecards was even more annoying, and they flew everywhere. For this reason, I stuck with using a commonplace book.
Yet the problem I was running into with the commonplace book was the silos of information I was creating. I read books and then wrote my thoughts out and came up with great ideas; however, they were disconnected. It was turning into a swamp of excellent knowledge, yet it turned mucky because it wasn't connected to a river of clean water.
If I read something new that would develop and evolve a previous concept, my previous ideas would remain locked inside a random page in the middle of my commonplace book. The idea would become stale and disconnected.
Yet, while reading, I felt there was an incommunicable power to also take notes by hand—whether that be in my commonplace book, or on notecards. Writing things down by hand developed my mind and understanding of what I was reading. It increased my retention of the concepts I wrote down and evolved my thinking. It helped me form new ideas, which were far better than typing notes into my laptop. Plus, a laptop workflow doesn't work so well when you read in the sun while smoking cigars. It gets hot and ashy and dirty. And then there's the glare factor.
I was aiming to begin organizing my thoughts and knowledge to turn them into something that helped me form my next venture. I felt the urge to connect my ideas as I spotted many patterns in my readings. These were patterns across disciplinary fields of psychology, philosophy, and marketing. I turned to a surprising tool that, in retrospect, yielded some surprisingly good results. I started using Microsoft Excel to link my ideas. I also used it to diagram concepts and connections between them. It proved handy in organizing information at a high level.
I have tried out every tool you can think of. This includes notetaking apps like Evernote, mind mapping software, the reMarkable Tablet, and many other tools. The closest tool I found for helping me organize my knowledge was Trello. Yet, even Trello was lacking compared to good ol' Microsoft Excel.
Several months went by, and I continued along this way. I settled for a mishmash workflow: using my commonplace book, Microsoft Excel, and sometimes notecards.
One morning I woke up and did what I usually did—I checked a website called Hacker News. This site serves as a hub of user-submitted stories in which the best ones get upvoted. That morning, at the top of the page, was a submission titled, "Foam: A personal knowledge management and sharing system for VSCode." I clicked on the link and began exploring. I learned that Foam was a "personal knowledge management sharing system," and it was for "organizing your research, [and] keeping re-discoverable notes."  I learned that all of this is just a fancy way of saying it's an application for creating markdown files and linking to other markdown files within the text of the note. This is done by using two square brackets known as wikilinks, for instance: '[[Example Link to Some Note]]'.
I also learned from Foam's website that it was based on something called Roam Research ("Roam"). Yet unlike Roam, and unlike something called "Zettelkasten," one could "use Foam without joining a cult." 
I had no idea what Roam or Zettelkasten was, nor did I care. I had enough on my plate (like trying to figure out what to do with my life). Plus, the idea of joining a cult didn't sound appealing. And after googling "Zettelkasten" and exploring the top results, I found the content way over my head. With that, I continued experimenting with Foam without bothering to understand all the other stuff.
After downloading Foam, I recall quickly picking it up. The lightbulb went on in my mind. It became clear how novel it was to create notes and then link them together. My enthusiasm continued to grow when Foam presented me with a nifty-looking bubble graph showing how my notes connected to one another. I was blown away. It was official, I thought to myself, I've entered the Matrix, and there's no going back.
At this point, I ditched the mashup of my commonplace book, Excel, and notecards. I was convinced I had discovered the new and better world of linked notes.
After a short stint using Foam, I stumbled across a similar tool called Obsidian. After using Obsidian for a brief time, it became apparent that this tool was better than Foam. It was slicker and packed with more features. For me, the killer feature was its ability to dynamically update all links. With this feature, if you changed the filename of a note, the other links pointing to the file wouldn't break.
I found myself so enthusiastic about Obsidian that I would spend my evenings watching YouTube videos on its best practices. In doing this, I came across a particular YouTube channel with slick, well-produced videos. Its creator was a sharp guy in his mid-to-late twenties who spoke very clearly. After watching a series of these videos, I learned that he created a six-week-long online course purporting to teach his methods.
I signed up for the course and spent the next several weeks learning more principles. I learned things like how one should not copy-and-paste anything into their notes. I learned that folders were "rigid" and "bad." I learned that one should instead embrace tags and create files that act as a Map of Content for their notes. I learned more advanced things like the concept of workflows and using templates for creating new notes. I began exploring all of the plugins Obsidian came with. I then installed new community plugins and began enhancing my Obsidian editor's color scheme and layout. I continued to learn the ins and outs of notetaking best practices. I learned about the concept of taking something called "atomic notes" and laboriously breaking apart my monolithic notes into individual components. I learned about setting up different hotkeys and macros to speed up my notemaking process.
After several months, I became a pretty advanced user of Obsidian. I had custom commands and macros that were fed inputs and spit out nicely formatted starter templates for my notes. I used these features charitably. I had dozens of hotkeys I would use for various things to save time. I became what I like to call a "workflow warrior" or a "hotkey junkie."
Nevertheless, discouraging thoughts would arise in my mind every now and then. The thoughts centered around the fear that all I was really doing was busywork. Deep down, I felt like I was probably just majoring in the minor. "Never mistake activity for achievement," as John Wooden would say.
At this point, I was looking at a folder size of 105 MB, with 1,272 items in it. Almost all of the files were notes, and there were a few images and template files. After this much work, I imagined I would feel more tranquil and organized—or at the very least, closer to what I was trying to accomplish.
I had set out to use Obsidian to map out all the concepts from the books I was reading. My goal was to organize them into a cohesive whole that would become greater than the sum of its parts. I hoped to use the concepts to produce a book or a newsletter on marketing, copywriting, and cryptocurrency. Yet I ended up with a rat's nest of 1,272 linked files, and a nifty diagram presenting me with a bubble graph of the mess!
In brief, I felt hopeless and like I had ventured further away from making sense of my readings. Even the mishmash of my commonplace book and Excel felt more helpful than the mess I created with Obsidian.
At this point, a book showed up in the mail. I heard about the book in the online course I had taken. The book was titled, How to Take Smart Notes, written by an academic named Sönke Ahrens. I began reading the book and soon encountered the same term which I recall coming across on Foam's website. It implied that this term had a cultish following—the term was Zettelkasten.
Yet as I read the book How to Take Smart Notes and learned more about Zettelkasten and its creator, Niklas Luhmann, I started to gain a clearer understanding of what it was actually all about.
Ahrens provided more explicit detail on how a Zettelkasten worked compared with what I had found researching online. In addition, Ahrens explained how an analog Zettelkasten worked. Although a very sparse and raw description, it was the only description I had come across that explained how an analog Zettelkasten works.
Oddly, however, Ahrens seemed less interested in describing how an analog Zettelkasten worked. Instead, he spent most of his time preaching that Luhmann's system could be refitted for the digital age by using digital apps possessing note-linking capabilities. In this spirit, Ahrens seemed to invent new concepts for doing this (inventions like Fleeting Notes, Literature Notes and Permanent Notes).
Although Ahrens's notion sounded intriguing, from my experiences, it created a digital mess. Instead, I decided to give the analog version—the original version—a good solid try first.
As soon as I began using the Zettelkasten in analog form, I recall saying to myself, "Ahhh, so this is how all of this stuff is supposed to work!" I remember thinking how different it was compared to the digital apps I had used—and how much better the analog version was! The next day I wrote by hand for nearly 12 hours straight. I wanted to stop but simply couldn't. I had so many ideas I felt needed to be developed. For much of the prior months, I spent most of my energy linking notes, formatting them, and making them "atomic." Now my thoughts were pouring out. I remember writing so much that a callous formed on my index finger. Thoughts were being developed on paper and flowing from my mind. Yet, I could actually see myself using the knowledge and internally evolving it over the long term. This experience was exciting.
Yet Ahrens's description of how an analog Zettelkasten worked was rather wanting. It was missing a ton of detail and was vaguely outlined in several paragraphs. But to Ahrens' credit, his vague description was perhaps the best out there of how an analog Zettelkasten worked. To compensate for the vagueness of Ahrens's description, I began researching online. Soon, I came across something fascinating: a special project was commenced at Bielefeld University in Germany. This is the same university where Luhmann was tenured. The project entailed digitizing Luhmann's entire Zettelkasten and uploading it online for all to view. This comes out to roughly 90,000 notecards!
I began to scan Luhmann's Online Archive and even started writing out the translated versions of his notes by hand. Using Luhmann's actual Zettelkasten as a guide, I began building out my own analog Zettelkasten over the following months. I also began porting over the notecards I had taken for the previous fifteen years. I started installing them into my analog Zettelkasten. I began to observe how the notecards I had taken for over a decade began to surface patterns I would have otherwise not seen if they remained organized by book title. It was very exciting to observe the power of such a system.
The experience and the journey I went through helped me realize that the magic of a Zettelkasten—and indeed the magic of knowledge management—rests not in the idea of creating notes; just as important is the medium one uses to create the notes. The magic does not stem from taking atomic notes and linking them together to make pretty graphs showing connections. Rather, the magic rests in the analog thinking system Luhmann created. One built of pen, paper, and... your brain.
Over the following months, I began to see some encouraging results using the analog Zettelkasten. From studying Luhmann's archives, I discovered there were four key principles that serve as the foundation of Luhmann's system. These four principles comprise the acronym "ANTI." From there on, I began using the term "Antinet" to describe the system. I was progressing on the project related to marketing, copywriting, and cryptocurrency. I began to see my knowledge compounding, which helped me produce content.
I was gaining a ton of momentum and making progress. I also began using an analog weekly planner to manage my todo's and my goals. I found my productivity skyrocketing during this period. It also helped me detach myself from the digital distractions brought forth by phone and laptop.
More importantly, my mind felt like it was actually being stretched, and it was growing again. If I'm not learning and growing, I'm not the happiest person to be around. This system started bringing me happiness and joy again.
I've since introduced the magic of the Antinet to my Little Brother, who I mentor (initially, we met through the Big Brother Big Sisters mentorship program, and I've continued mentoring him beyond). I've seen him go from starting fights in clubs to literally bring his Antinet into the library and growing his mind all day. He reads and develops his notes from his readings well past the time the sun goes down. He's learning copywriting and marketing with my help. He'll also soon be the first to graduate from college in his family (of over twenty relatives and cousins). Like myself, he named his Antinet (he named his "Huncho"; mine is named "Stewie"). Luhmann himself described the magic of the Antinet as "an alter ego with who we can constantly communicate."
After discovering the power of the analog Zettelkasten (aka, the Antinet), I began sharing my material online with people. I've met some incredible people through my website, Reddit, YouTube, and Twitter. I've started to see the transformation of others who use analog thinking systems. There are some fascinating people out there who are having success with this tool. For instance, Stephanie Williams uses an Antinet to teach her deaf son, who has a unique learning style.
The Antinet helped me achieve what I was missing—a system that possessed the power of writing by hand and thinking on paper. It helped me retain the power of writing by hand without it turning into a disconnected knowledge swamp (which is created using commonplace books). It helped me to finally make some progress in my projects and develop them to fruition.
Yet something odd happened early on in my project related to marketing, copywriting, and cryptocurrency. I felt this compelling desire to share the power of the Antinet. After all, I had to discover the system the hard way, and others would have to go through the same slog I experienced to discover the true power of the Zettelkasten (in all its analog glory).
At this point, I stopped and listened to my heart, not my head. If I had learned anything from my previous cryptocurrency experience, true fulfillment comes not from chasing money but from genuinely creating a product one can be proud of. Sure, there's more money in creating a newsletter or book that provides money-making insights for entrepreneurs, marketers, and crypto speculators. Yet, in my heart, I felt less passionate about doing such. I felt more compelled to explore the seemingly absurd idea of teaching people about an analog thinking system. Let's be clear, getting passionate about an analog Zettelkasten seems quite absurd. It's a seemingly outdated system of notecards devised by some dead academic whose books are nearly impossible to read. Yet I couldn't resist. I felt drawn to sharing what I had discovered. I interacted with some fascinating people in the online course I had taken on Obsidian. I weighed these feelings and then made a decision. To hell with taking the safe route and creating some crypto project to serve entitled speculators who want to get rich without lifting a finger!
I decided to do the risky thing—some would say the crazy thing. That is, I decided to spend a year of my life reading and writing all day about an analog notebox system—the Antinet.
I've been working on my book like a dog; however, I've done so without burning myself out. I now have an amazing girlfriend I love deeply and a gorgeous daughter. I am energized writing about something that I know can help amazing people, academics, and knowledge workers develop their minds. It hasn't been easy. I've been living off my investments and savings without making a penny off this work. Yet I don't care. I sleep soundly at night knowing I haven't sold my soul, wasting people's lives with wasteful, speculative products that bilk people out of money. Somehow I ended up doing what I wanted to do all along—and I found it in quite an odd vehicle. I decided to do something that was missing in my previous ventures, and that is this: serving people worth serving.
If the idea of an analog Zettelkasten system sounds interesting to you, I'd love for you to join my private newsletter.
Whenever I release new content or new videos on the Antinet I'll let you know. I'll also send you private content and thoughts I do not publish on my website.
In brief, when you join my newsletter, you're becoming a part of my journey. I'd be honored to have you, but please only join if you're committed to growth and learning.
An Antinet is for those who wish to read more effectively, take valuable notes from readings, and transform them into potent long-term material that significantly impacts your field.
However, please note that what you're signing up for won't be easy. You're choosing to do things the hard way—the best way—the only way.
I look forward to sharing my work with you.
If this sounds interesting to you, please signup for my newsletter below. And who knows, perhaps I'll even make available a free copy of the book when it's released (Hint, hint)!
Scott P. Scheper
"PART II," accessed February 15, 2022, https://www.sec.gov/Archives/edgar/data/1577351/000119312518143726/d579201dpartii.htm. ↩︎
"PART II," accessed February 15, 2022, https://www.sec.gov/Archives/edgar/data/1577351/000119312519133301/d689828dpartii.htm#fin689828_5. This was done through making use of the U.S. Security & Exchange Commission's Program for startup companies that was enacted as part of the Jumpstart Our Business Startups Act (JOBS Act), known as a Reg A+ Offering. ↩︎
"San Diego Blockchain Startup XY Lays off 40 People, Losing Half Its Staff," San Diego Union-Tribune, June 4, 2019, https://www.sandiegouniontribune.com/business/technology/story/2019-06-04/san-diego-blockchain-startup-xy-lays-off-40-people-losing-half-its-staff. ↩︎
"Foam," Foam, accessed February 10, 2022, https://foambubble.github.io/foam/. ↩︎
"Principles," Foam, accessed August 27, 2021, https://foambubble.github.io/foam/principles.html. ↩︎
Sönke Ahrens, How to Take Smart Notes: One Simple Technique to Boost Writing, Learning and Thinking: For Students, Academics and Nonfiction Book Writers (North Charleston, SC: CreateSpace, 2017), 18-20. ↩︎
Johannes Schmidt, "Niklas Luhmann's Card Index: Thinking Tool, Communication Partner, Publication Machine," Forgetting Machines. Knowledge Management Evolution in Early Modern Europe 53 (2016), https://pub.uni-bielefeld.de/record/2942475, 292. ↩︎
“Zettelkasten Online Paper by Niklas Luhmann: Communication with a Notebox (Revised Edition),” accessed August 3, 2021, https://daily.scottscheper.com/zettelkasten/. ↩︎
Stephanie Williams, "#deafed #usao #zettelkasten Filing the Courses I Plan to Take into My Analogue Zettelkasten Aka #antinet Https://T.Co/UjoX8sQFVW," Tweet, @utheol (blog), January 30, 2022, https://twitter.com/utheol/status/1487584728064606208. ↩︎