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Creative Career Path

Making Your Mark2010.12.13

    Sometimes a very worthwhile custom gradually falls out of favor, and is soon forgotten. When it is rediscovered years or centuries later, it comes back in force with a new perspective. If you have never heard of a commonplace book, then you are about to discover a good example of this process at work.


    A commonplace book is a personal notebook which contains handwritten notes, illustrations, reflections, quotes, and scraps of memorabilia, entered by date and kept in a single place for future reference. They might contain recipes, remedies, and receipts side-by-side, in no particular order, other than their importance to the book’s creator. The custom of keeping such notebooks began in the 14th-century with what was known as a Zibaldone, or hodgepodge book, and developed into an art form with private book production in the 15th-century Italian Renaissance.


    By the 17th-century, particularly in England it had become such an established practice, that it was formally taught to students at Oxford University.Commonplace books were created by philosophers and men of letters like John Locke, Francis Bacon, and John Milton. As a method of study and personal development, as well as a sourcebook for conversation and further research, commonplace books remained popular until the early 20th-century. Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau both learned how to create such books at Harvard University, and writers such as Mark Twain, Thomas Hardy, and Ernest Hemingway all created and kept commonplace books.


    Reflective journaling made for active reading, and served a useful purpose in education as a portable record of things worth remembering. For adults, they were a convenient reference of excerpts, sayings, reminders, and personal comments that could keep the mind active and the conversation interesting. It had become an important way for people to make their mark.


    Commonplace books were the precursors to the almanac, the encyclopedia, and in some ways to the Internet. A very popular book first published in England in 1856 was called, Enquire Within Upon Everything. It was touted as a comprehensive how-to guide for any imaginable aspect of life in Victorian England, and contained advice on whatever you wished to do, make, or enjoy. The book is still in print, and has sold over one million copies.


    Although the contents may be quaint, this book was indirectly responsible for one of the most innovative inventions of the twentieth century. A musty one hundred year old copy of this book was on the shelves of a couple living in London in the 1960s, and became the favorite book of their young son. Intrigued with its promising title and comprehensive contents, he spent hours upon hours exploring it. After graduating in Physics from Queens College at Oxford University in the 1970s, in the 1980s he worked as a researcher at the Swiss Research Laboratory CERN (European Organization for Nuclear Research), where he developed a software program for connecting key words, and he named the program ENQUIRE, after his favorite childhood book. It was at CERN that he recognized an opportunity to connect hypertext to the Internet, and he built the first Web Browser. His name is Tim Berners-Lee and his credited as the inventor of the World Wide Web.


    The list of people who kept commonplace books and reflective journals is a chronicle of genius in many walks of life. While it is gender biased, so were the periods of history in which they lived. You can see impressive samples of the Pocket Notebooks of 20 Famous Men at:, Leonardo da Vinci, Isaac Newton, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, Alexis de Tocqueville, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Lewis & Clark, Ludwig Von Beethoven, Charles Darwin, Mark Twain, Ernest Hemingway, Thomas Edison, Pablo Picasso, George Lucas, John D. Rockefeller, George C. Marshall, George S. Patton, Frank Capra, Petter Jennings, Larry David. While genius is about more than just method, it is interesting to note how many of the productive geniuses of history kept commonplace books.


    A powerful way to revive an idea is to create a system, a method that anyone can follow. It must be useful and enjoyable, easy to start, easy to continue, and quick to produce results. There is such a method called the Idea Marathon, established by Higuchi Takeo, which is currently leading the revival of reflective journals in Japan, and catching on quickly in other countries as well. To learn more about the Idea Marathon and how you can make your mark, visit my website at:


    William Reed


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    Article Writer

    William Reed

    William Reed is a renowned author-speaker who coaches physical finesse and flexible focus for a creative career path. A certified Master Trainer in Guerrilla Marketing and 7th-dan in Aikido, he combines practical wisdom of East and West to help you learn personal branding at the Entrepreneurs Creative Edge.

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