Secrets of an obsesssive note taker gone bad


Here’s the scene: Ryan Healy and I are going through all the stuff we need to change on our new site. We have ideas to spruce things up. And also we’re sick of all the stuff we do by hand. We need more automation. And we look over at Ryan Paugh, and he’s not taking notes. I say, “Ryan you need to remember this stuff. Will you take notes?”

He says, “I’m taking mental notes.”

If this were a joke, it would not be funny. But Ryan Paugh is serious. Which Ryan Healy and I understand immediately. And we fall on the floor laughing.

I tell Ryan Paugh that mental notes is a joke. No one takes a mental note taker seriously. It looks like they don’t care. “Even if you’re a genius,” I tell him, “you have to take notes to show you are engaged.”

It used to be that note taking was for secretaries. When hotshots didn’t type, hotshots didn’t take notes. But now we know that people actually learn more when they write as they listen, and people learn more when they translate what they are hearing into their own idea nuggets, so it makes sense that writing notes is a hot-shot job now. Everyone takes notes.

Look at the Democratic debates. Every time Hillary or Barack did not like what was happening, they took notes. Not that I believe they need to take notes. I mean, each of them must have practiced their answers to every possible question 400 times. There are no spontaneous ideas in a presidential debate. I think the candidates actually use note taking to get a break while still looking attentive. They can put their head down, scowl, and write something like, “I hate Hillary I hate Hillary,” and then look up, bright and smiley.

Fast-forward to my last meeting with investors, where the guy I’m with, who is a great guy and will probably invest in our company, outlines how he’d like to run the financing. I reach into my bag to get a pen and paper, and I realize I don’t have one. I dig a little, but I actually feel that it looks disorganized to dig too much in one’s purse. And besides, I don’t want to dig and then come up with nothing—that is disorganized and desperate.

So I decide that I can memorize what he’s telling me. Anyway, what entrepreneur forgets how much someone is giving to her company? It’s not a number you forget.

But then he stood up to write more financing options on the white board. I glanced down at my purse to see if a pen materialized. I watched the white board carefully, thinking that he will think I’m very smart that I am one of those people who remembers everything. Like the waiters at expensive restaurants who don’t write down your order and get it right every time.

But then the financing got very complicated, and surely you know, I am not a finance person. Ryan Healy is actually good at finance, and I was thinking he should have been there. Then I thought: he should have been there because he would have brought me a pen.

Then I wanted to ask the investor for a pen. But I thought if I ask now, he’ll know that I am not actually a person who can memorize every little thing, and that I probably have forgotten half of what he said in this meeting, and then things will not be going well. So I just sat, and tried to remember as much as I could.

He picks up an eraser and makes a move to erase the board so he can write more: “Do you have all this?” he says. “Can I erase it?”

I say, “Uh huh.”

He says, “I guess you’re a person who takes mental notes.”

33 replies
  1. Jim Eiden
    Jim Eiden says:

    Why didn’t you just excuse yourself to go tothe Ladies Room? Then ask the receptionist if she has a pen and paper. Then put it in your purse and pull it out once you sit back down.

  2. Matt Bingham
    Matt Bingham says:

    This is like an episode of Seinfeld where George won’t follow his boss into the bathroom but his boss ends up explaining the whole project while in the bathroom and George misses the whole thing. He won’t ask his boss to repeat it because his boss thinks he is attentive and organized.

    I am the type of person to show the vulnerability that I am human and have forgotten something. I would think quick and say something like, “in the anticipation of this meeting I forgot my portfolio, may I bother you for a pen”. The vulnerability will hopefully open things up a bit…that is the number one rule of being liked right?

  3. Dan Schawbel
    Dan Schawbel says:

    I gave up taking notes my senior year of college. You usually only get penalized when you fall up short on remembering something, not when you are actually taking mental notes.

    I walk into meetings at work without a pen and paper. Actually the funny thing about me is that I don’t drink coffee, don’t take notes and don’t really manage a calendar (up until recently with my iPhone).

    Just like everything else I do, there is something special about passion and enthusiasm that voids making this extra effort. It may just be me, but if you aren’t interested in the subject matter, you need to take notes because you will forget it.

  4. Mark W.
    Mark W. says:

    Could use a new category here like light hearted moments, far side, or something along those lines!

  5. Lucas O'Gara
    Lucas O'Gara says:

    You’ve got a mobile phone with a camera right?

    All of the models that I’ve seen have voice recording functionality as well.

    You could have recorded the audio of the meeting and taken snapshots of the whiteboard.

    * * * * * * *

    This strikes me as the James Bond approach to funding. Which I’m surprised I did not consider :)


  6. Joan Woodbrey
    Joan Woodbrey says:

    This post is way too funny! I can litterally see your thought process, which is much like mine.

    All through college up until my senior year I was a mental note taker. I figured if you are in class you will remember the important things. It’s pretty much true unless it’s real technical stuff or dates and details.

    Now at work I take notes on the meeting so that I can immediately forget about what was just talked about until I’m finshed working on whatever I was originally working on and then I can go back and focus.

    Hopefully, you remember the important stats.

  7. Melanie
    Melanie says:

    I would have done the same thing as you Penelope. I’m normally a note taker but there has been a time or two when I forgot a pen and had to take mental notes. It’s not nearly as effective. I can’t tell you the number of times I thought I would remember something and actually didn’t.

    One trick I’ve used is doing a brain dump directly after a meeting or session before I do anything else, while it’s still somewhat intact in my brain! Plus, you’re totally right that writing down things helps remember it, so take notes just for the sake of fortifying your memory!

  8. Gene Shiau
    Gene Shiau says:

    There is a time and a place for note taking. For the life of me I can’t take notes in class and learn at the same time. Whatever the professor teaches will go right over my head if I try to copy notes from the board or the slides.

    Taking notes in a meeting is equally frustrating for me. I can’t sit there without actively thinking what’s been said and how I should contribute, but my notes reflect more on what I capture and what I think than what has been said. (Yup, I am the type that pretend to take notes of your words but actually take a mental trip down a separate path.) Thankfully, often times that’s the only kind of notes you have to keep.

    * * * * * * *
    I like hearing that there is a part of the world that is taking notes about something completely irrelevant to what’s being said. It is somehow comforting — that there is a parallel and perhaps more interesting universe, at least on our notepads…


  9. Tiffany Monhollon
    Tiffany Monhollon says:

    Oh, I am an obsessive note-taker too, and I don’t operate well without pen and paper. Or at least pen. I probably have at least 7 pens in my purse at all times. I kid you not. I empty my purse out every week and make sure there are just 3 pens in it because I’m trying to de-clutter my life. And then by the end of the next week, there are like 15. That’s probably why this week my fiance told me, as we started to put the furniture back in my bedroom he’d painted for my birthday, that we were going to have a garage sale just to get rid of pens. Because they are everywhere in my house.

    Thanks for the story. A great, lighthearted end to a busy, crazy week.

  10. JenFlex
    JenFlex says:

    OK, so when you say “the guy I am with,” are you meaning you already have a BF? And that he’s maybe going to be an investor?

    Wow. That was fast.

    * * * * * * *

    That would be a great story, right? But if it were true, of course I’d have already written fifty blog posts about it :)

    Alas, the guy is just a guy. Who I was with.


  11. ongrowthtrack
    ongrowthtrack says:

    Pen and paper works best for me, and I am never short of a pen. Its great for discussion to get on the same page.

    "Do you have all this?" he says. "Can I erase it?"

    I say, "Uh huh."

    He says, "I guess you're a person who takes mental notes."

    Good details there, so things register well with you.

  12. Jonathan E.
    Jonathan E. says:

    This is why you bring at least one other person to meetings as you describe. You simply can’t talk, listen and take notes all at once. You also need someone else to debrief and get their take on things, as you’re too busy crafting Q&A responses, etc.

  13. Robert W.
    Robert W. says:

    A few years ago I needed someone to build a Help file for a small piece of software I had written. It wasn’t a big task but is something I abhor doing. A colleague of mine, hearing of my need to find someone, insisted that I hire his new girlfriend. So I did.

    She came across the water on a ferry, which I paid for, about a 3 hour trip each way. I met her, did some small talk for a bit, and then we sat down to the task at hand. I went through my software application, explaining to her out it worked. Within seconds I noticed that she was rather still and asked, “Aren’t you going to take notes?”

    “No, that’s okay, I have a photographic memory.”

    Uh huh. The rest of the session went on like this. We spent about 2 hours together and she didn’t take one note.

    About a week later I received an e-mail from her, asking me to write out everything I had gone over with her in person.

    I concluded our business relationship on the spot.
    I paid for her transportation, as per our agreement but did not pay her one cent for her time.

    I don’t know whatever happened to her or to that colleague of mine . . .

  14. Walker Bell
    Walker Bell says:

    – the New Site – has better more substantive, UI; quick copy visual priority but the stock images make the bland-o-meter peek off the chart.

    If you say ‘keep it real ‘ shouldn’t you actually keep it real?

    ..just my two cents.

  15. Andrea C>> Become a consultant blog
    Andrea C>> Become a consultant blog says:

    I never used to take notes. When I was in my third summer job, my boss noticed that I never took notes — and proceeded to chastise me. He said that no one could possibly remember everything. I said I had a photographic memory. He said that, even if I had a photographic memory, it made me look like I wasn’t paying attention when I just sat there. He told me to write everything down so that, if some future boss had an argument with me, I could show them my notes. This was the only thing that convinced me. After all, I was 20 and these “old people over 40” didn’t seem to remember anything. I could see one of them forgetting what they’d told me.

    And so I’ve taken obsessive notes ever since. It’s just to CYA. Of course, now that I am in my 30s and I have kids, it’s the only way to CYA. I’m lucky if I remember to put my shoes on when I’m heading out the door! :)

  16. another gal
    another gal says:

    Sorry, but forgetting to take pen AND paper to a meeting with an investor *Is* disorganized. It’s borderline enough to keep an investor from investing. I would wonder if you were organized enough to take care of *my* money.

    Also, because you didn’t *fess up* immediately, I’d then question your honesty about it.

    I could imagine this translating into making a mistake with *my* money, then being afraid to tell me about it.

    Sorry, inexcusable behavior for a CEO. You were in the wrong here in several ways. Hopefully you’ll never forget again, or learn to always keep a small notepad and many pens in every purse and briefcase you own.

  17. sifi
    sifi says:

    I am INFP but somehow I have learned to make meetings work for me. I carry a beautiful spiral bound notebook (3″ by 5″)and a favorite pen into meetings. I focus on what is being said and jot down key words as the meeting progresses. If it is a small meeting I gently take it over! Then, after the discussion I ask the participants to work with me for ONE minute to craft bullet points from the meeting. I write these down word-for word. (Most meetings of any consequence only cover 3-5 items.) After the meeting, I send a list of action items within 24hrs. I have been told repeatedly that I “give good meeting.” Thanks for the fun post. LOL!

  18. Chris Yeh
    Chris Yeh says:

    My habit of taking and keeping notes (as well as email) has served me well in my career. If you’re around long enough, you’ll always end up in some kind of legal wrangling. It’s always a lot easier to win those if you have it in writing.

    There is another school of thought that says that you should have a policy to delete all email…that that, I say, if you don’t do anything wrong, you have no reason to have such a policy.

  19. Andrea
    Andrea says:

    When this happens to me, I just slash the artery in my thumb with a paper clip; a little bloodletting really shows how invested I am in what I’m doing.

    This one’s free, Penelope.

  20. Benjamin Strong
    Benjamin Strong says:

    I am so crazy about note taking. I really liked Luca’s idea of using your mobile phone. I have actually taken photos with it and converted them to pdf files. It works!

    I have also invested in a cheap digital voice recorder. If I feel a meeting is important enough I ask if I can record it. Often the people I am meeting with understand the importance of the meeting and agree.

    Otherwise I stick to pen and paper.

  21. Kristina Summers
    Kristina Summers says:

    Very funny! I too have learned that if I don’t write it down then the info goes in one ear and right out the other. In my line of work, details are crucial so I have taken my note taking a step further. I scribble notes at every meeting (working for the government means A LOT OF MEETINGS) and when I get back to my desk I re-write those notes on my PC and re-organize my thoughts. I find I usually remember more this way and then I have my meeting notes filed awway by date in a format that won’t leave me scratching my head wondering if I wrote down an “L” or an 1….

  22. JohnMcG
    JohnMcG says:

    A perfect microcosm of Brazen Careerist’s advice — do whatever is possible to look smart and delay being exposed as a fraud for as long as possible.

    I suppose it’s worked so far…

  23. Dale
    Dale says:

    Hey, whatever is agreed to in a meeting is going to be in the contract at the end of it all. The only problem I forsee is having to rehash stuff you seemingly agreed to in principle beforehand.

  24. Stephanie West Allen
    Stephanie West Allen says:

    Read one of the books by Harry Lorayne, do what he suggests, and your memory will be astounding. Read YOU CAN’T TEACH A KID TO RIDE A BIKE AT A SEMINAR and you will see that the author suggests asking for a pen in a situation in which you are trying to persuade someone.

  25. mitch
    mitch says:

    Ryan must be thrilled. Although he is good at finance and the finance aspect of the discussion was getting a bit complicated – you wish he were there so that he could have brought you a pen. And perhaps a cup of coffee?

  26. Lin Poissonnier
    Lin Poissonnier says:

    Setting in a meeting with out paper or pin can help. But if you don’t have it. You take the chance that some one will see your not ready. Notes can be taken with out pen and paper. There are some great memory classes you can take that help peg information arount 20 Items that you place them in. If your interested I will send you the information on a couple of good ones.

  27. Anonymous
    Anonymous says:

    I definitely agree. I am also a person who forgets everything ten minutes after the meeting, so I rely heavily on my notes to remind me of what happened, what the big picture is, etc.

    Especially when you try to remember what happened at the meeting a week after.

    I used to not take notes because I thought they had to be perfect and that was a psychological barrier for me. But now I just write down anything and everything that I have the time to write down, so that looking over the notes later fires up the right neurons in my mind. Really helpful to recreate the setting during which I was taking the notes.

Comments are closed.