Your bad memory might be a good thing

Plato believed speaking was the best ways of sharing knowledge. He hadn’t seen a printing press

Plato believed speaking was the best ways of sharing knowledge. He hadn’t seen a printing press

I’ve recently had some conversations with people about the idea that taking notes is actually worse than using your memory. This was in the context of taking notes about people (to remember them), the argument being that it makes the relationship feel “less personal” or “insincere”. The sentiment being that if someone was actually important to you, you’d remember everything about them… from memory. This argument is particularly interesting to me because I’m building an app for this exact purpose – to take notes about people and build better relationships.

I’ve long had a bad memory for people. Forgetting someone’s name and face until I’d met them several times was common, and there was a near guarantee of an embarrassing re-introduction. To help I started taking notes when I’d meet people, and it helped – a lot. So when someone says making a note about someone feels insincere it doesn’t fit with my experience.

I understand the argument though because it feels true in your gut, just like writing a letter feels more personal than sending a text. But under closer examination, these feelings don’t hold up because they’re romanticism masquerading as reality, and they can hold us back if we’re not careful.

Here are a few examples.

The philosopher Plato believed writing something wasn’t genuine because it wasn't part of you. If it didn’t exist in your mind, it didn’t exist in your soul. He argued that speaking and storytelling were the best ways of sharing knowledge. Today – in a world completely transformed by the printing  press – this idea was foolish, of course, because he didn’t know what was coming.

Here’s another one. The commonly held feeling that writing a letter is more meaningful than sending a text. If you’ve ever messaged with close friends and family and shared photos of new babies or big moments across the ocean, it’s hard to make that argument too.

Or some counter-examples: does writing lists or spreadsheets to plan a wedding make it any less special? Is your vacation tainted because you take pictures (i.e. visual notes) during it? Of course not.

So how does writing notes about people make your relationships less personal? It doesn’t, but we get romantic about things. The past accentuates the positive and the present accentuates the negative, so we think more fondly of how things used to be. People memorized things in Plato‘s time because they didn’t know how to write; people were thoughtful writing letters because they took a long time to send. No one was romantic about writing letters when that’s how you communicated, just like no one is romantic about texting today.

We have to be aware of when we’re being romantic about something because it can hold us back. If you brushed off text messaging and only wrote letters today that would be a problem for you.

It’s worth thinking about the things we’re romantic about and why. If writing a letter makes us feel happy that’s ok, but if it’s a defense mechanism against a fast changing world, well, that can be dangerous.

This has been the train of thought I took from those original conversations about note writing making relationships  “less personal”. I can see it’s romanticism speaking. If someone brought our favorite wine to dinner, or called to wish us safe travels before a trip, or remembered our kids’ names, would these feel any less personal if we found out they wrote a note or set a reminder? No, because all that matters is that we were important enough to be remembered, regardless of how.