Heading into the Unknown: Cultivating an Explorer's Mindset

Uncertainty causing anxiety? Develop the strategies and mindset to face the unknown with confidence and overcome challenges when venturing into new spaces.

Heading into the Unknown: Cultivating an Explorer's Mindset

An Invitation to all Explorers to Embark on the Sea of Personal Knowledge Management.

Preface — The Invitation

I intend these words for those who heard from far about PKM, for those who know well about it but want to remember why they practice it, and for those who want to reimagine the relationship between life, problems, tools and knowledge.

My admitted goal here is to ignite a desire within yourself to become a truly enchanted explorer, and to provide you clear leads to engage on this life trip!

Problems — The Obstacles to Life

Life is full of problems.

We run into problems all the time: searching for meaning in our actions, trying to make a living, deepening our relationships, and many more. Life is inconceivable without them, and moreover, life is determined by them.

For a long time I was disconcerted by this observation: why the hell should we inflict this suffering on ourselves? Then a simple thought struck me: if we have problems, we are alive.

It is precisely because we are alive and animated by our conatus (our will to live) that we desire to have good relationships, to find a job which pleases us and to seek freedom. These desires emanate from deep within us, they are intrinsic to our being and its needs; they define who we are as beings, as living beings. Ultimately, problems are just the result of those cravings and obstacles in our natural path to satisfaction.

Now, since problems are an integral part of ourselves and we cannot — nor do we want to?— hide from them, what means do we have at our disposal to overcome the problems that arise in our projects, our relationships, our jobs or thinking? Geez, where to start?

Well, let’s start with a metaphor I love!

A navigator has two great sources of power in order to face his problems: on the one hand he got his ship and instruments, and on the other hand he has his experience of the ocean and of navigation. So what instruments can we mere humans oppose to the chaotic and unforgiving sea of causality and how knowledge can help us against the waves of troubles the ocean keeps throwing at us?

Tools — or the Instruments of Knowledge and Movement

Before we start, let's agree on a definition of a tool.

I define a tool as a physical or abstract object that allows us to extend our basic capacities, both physiological and intellectual. For example, we can extend our memory with notebooks, and our sense of organization with frameworks.

Since our existence as Homo habilis, we have been using and creating tools to expand the scope of our abilities, allowing the creation of everything around us that exist nowhere else in the Universe (I know that's a bold statement, but I still struggle with the Fermi paradox).

However, we are not accustomed, in my opinion, to looking beyond the tools we use for our daily tasks. So where to start?

The first tool I’ll talk about is simply notes - well, good notes. Actually, I'll even borrow Nick Milo's words: it really is about making notes.

So, why make notes? Because it is not only a practice that allows us to centralize and store our ideas/our thoughts/the information we receive from outside, but that also forces us to process these inputs, raise awareness, formulate them and link them. Making notes is a powerful tool for reflection, as it enables us to refine our verbs and words on different subjects, and thus refine our thinking: a sharp language makes for a sharp mind.

So what other tool can help us in this process? The obvious choice for me is Obsidian. It is a "note-taking app" that enhances taking, making, storing, linking and retrieving our notes. I could write an entire article about it, but I’ll let you dig this amazing (life changing?) app.

So we have the concept of notes and now we have Obsidian to build and maintain them as we wish. What more can we do? Well, we can consolidate and bridge them with new conceptual tools, such as frameworks!

But what are frameworks?

I define them as sets of methods and structures, providing guidelines, for achieving a particular goal.

Let me present : the "Zettelkasten" method. It’s a framework that consists in conscientiously atomizing the mass of information received, in the form of short notes formulated with our own words, and in linking them into a holistic network of knowledge. No more big long notes in the words of others, welcome short and laser focus personal crafted notes, to the alchemy of learning, to the thoughtful distillation of information.

What’s really important in a Zettelkasten system is that there are no more distinctions between information based on categories such as "philosophy" or "chemistry", but rather a big soup of atomic notes linked together by natural proximity. This proposal invites us to free ourselves from conventions and categorizations of knowledge, from "buckets" as Dr. Sapolsky calls them. Throw away the folders, unleash serendipity and let yourself be guided by curiosity and “Aha-moments” to find unexpected connections in your vast soup of knowledge. There's even more to this elegant method than what I'm talking about here, but I'll let you dig deeper.

If it wasn’t enough, and to give you more leads to explore, there are other tool-framework combinations to solve other problems in life! Some will find their way in Tiago Forte's PARA method, Nick Milo's ACCESS, or my own framework : S.A.P.I.E.N.S (which I built to tackle everything I just talked about!). There is a lot to discover in the world of PKM!

I'll conclude this part by reminding that, of course, all these suggestions are starting points, and it is up to you to build your own magnificent ship, your own toolkit, to resolve your own desires and problems.

It took me years to figure out what I wanted and what worked for me.

At the end of the day, everyone has their own mode of operation. The important thing is just to avoid sophisticated procrastination with our tool-toys, over-engineering or guilt ourselves in the sight of others’ ways of proceeding.

Be intentional in your approach, follow your needs, keep your destination in mind, and everything will be fine!

Speaking of destination, let's now go to our second one.

Knowledge — or the Necessary Foundation of Reason

By employing the tools and methods I just presented, it becomes easier to gain a huge amount of quality knowledge, enabling us to regain control over the problems that arise. It is now time to talk about the other half of the picture: knowledge itself.

I define knowledge as all the conceptual and sensory information we have about the world, stored within us, as a part of us, in the form of memories and intuitions. It is the core of our model of reality, which serves as the very platform from which our reason analyzes the world. It is from this foundation that we draw inspiration, ideas, and creativity to effectively address and solve our problems.

Our mental model of reality is kind of a living being to be nurtured and grown, information after information and experience after experience. We must take care of it and ensure that it is as precise and as close to reality as possible, because it is the prism which allows us to analyze all events — thus conditioning our emotions, our predictions and our decisions, in summary our relationship with the world itself.

A knowledgeable explorer is much more than a ship of tools advancing straight ahead. He is a discerning and conscious navigator.

We are fortunate to have access to many resources that allow us not only to develop our knowledge, but also to cultivate our critical thinking. I highly recommend Julia Galef's book, "The Scout Mindset", of exceptional quality, which perfectly presents the stakes and the challenge of composing with our emotions and to have a clear thought, capable of evolving.

A system cannot be isolated from its environment so being capable of reacting sharply to events gives us much greater freedom in our life.

We now have the key idea: knowledge provides freedom.

According to the Spinozist vision — that I put forward in this whole article —, by the knowledge of things we allow ourselves the understanding of their influences on us, thus allowing us to choose, thanks to reason, how to react to them. We allow ourselves to take an active part in our choices, to collaborate with our affects rather than undergo them. This is the origin of Nietzsche’s idea that, in order to live fully, we need to be active in the face of life’s events, instead of being reactive.

It’s impossible for me to evoke Spinoza and Nietzsche in an article about knowledge, without inviting you to immerse yourself in philosophy.

Engaging with philosophy since high school has repeatedly transformed both my worldview and self-perception. I cannot recommend it enough if you are a curious mind and if you want to bring your thinking to another level. Here are some starting points for your explorations : Epicureanism, the ideas of Spinoza or Sartre, or spiritualities such as Buddhism (I highly recommend the book "What the Buddha taught", by Walpola Raula).

Today, I hold in my head my refined model and I have in my hands my own map — admittedly still small and approximate compared to the expanse of the world, but of which I am proud — and equipped with this map, my journal, my ship, and my compass questions, I can fill my sails with curiosity and move forward through life in ways I never imagined possible.

In the end, knowledge is not an ornament, it is not about what we can recite or parrot in a mundane set-up, it is about connected and assimilated bits of information about us and the world that have the power to change a whole life for the better.

Conclusion - The Bloom

As I said, we cannot circumvent the problems in life. Let’s admit their presence and use the good tools and the knowledge at our disposal to tackle them with efficiency and serenity!

I hope this short introduction offers you a good start to engage in curiosity and to tackle your problems with a new proactive mindset and a whole new set of equipment!

At the end of the day, the best thing with what I’ve talked about in this article is that each step of building enchanting knowledge and your ship of tools can be wonderful; each step passing through the joy of (self-)reflection and the pleasure of application can be freeing. We have a whole world to explore, why not take advantage of it?

Before I end this article, I would like to say a word on collaboration. Not all problems are individual, not all journeys are made alone, and especially not that of Life. I am convinced that it is by acting as a community, by pooling our tools and our knowledge, that we will find the means to build a peaceful and fulfilling life. All we have to do is to nourish ourselves with the joy of learning and creating, and to surf on the pleasure of sharing, so that, all together, we become a fleet of explorers ready to map everything that moves, ready to solve all the troubles that the sea will send us.

Take part in new approaches like Collider, create "digital gardens" to share your journey with the world, craft with the workshop's door open and invite passers-by to rush in!

To end this article, I want to thank you very much for reading my humble words, and I invite you to remember that we all have great power.

So let's hoist our tools high, let’s get our knowledge maps out, and let’s head into the unknown!


Quentin Maillard is an insatiable explorer of knowledges, who dives into diverse realms from hard science to philosophy. For some time now, Quentin's life has revolved around coding, teaching PKM in schools and writing fables and essays. You can connect with Quentin at https://twitter.com/KentinMaiar

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