Monday, January 16, 2012

Keeping the Books

His name was Mr. Pepper. He taught my English class when I was 16. It was the class where you wrote your required research or “term” paper. On the first day of class he told us he was going to school at night to get his doctorate degree in English, so in the future his students could call him Dr. Pepper. I laughed out loud at this, above just a few groans from the rest of the class. So you can imagine I might have had a fan in Mr. Pepper from then on, as he had in me, for that semester.

Soon to be amplified by the fact that, for my research paper I chose the topic “Meditation in Eastern Religions,” and it turned out Mr. Pepper had been a practicing Zen Buddhist. (Hey, totally within the range of reasonable for the times. Think That 70s Show.) So I suppose I hung on to a lot of what he had to say. I believed what he was teaching in our English Composition class to be 100% true. And it was.

Because it was the 70s after all, I don’t remember many details after that, except for this bit. He gave us a lot of advice about how to approach the large and long-term task of the research paper. He must have drilled the importance of the process into our heads, or given us a long list of items that had to be included with our final turn-in, that would show we adhered to a specific, smart process. I remember numbered, coded note cards were required for an A. And I remember this quote:

Take copious notes.

Part of that sticks with me because it’s my first memory of not knowing the meaning of a word an English teacher was using. I had a brief moment of silent panic, silly young geek that I was. Copious? What does that mean?...copious… It must mean many…or detailed. Or good. No, he'd never say take “good” notes, that’s stupid….

Naturally, I looked it up later, and now that’s the other part that sticks with me. My first instinct was right—copious means many, or abundant or plentiful. Great advice. Starting with Mr. Pepper, and carried on by me, over time I concluded this was a secret to success not just in long-term projects, but in all of writing, school, business, home, everything.

I can’t tell you how many times copious notes have saved the day, proved me right, made studying uneccessary, got me a refund, showed I am not in fact a crazy person but instead yes we did indeed discuss that and decide that we would in fact do it this way by this date, and this is who I spoke to on that day and what they said they were going to do.

People who say they aren’t good at note-taking, and think it’s too much trouble, have it backwards. You get better at everything, and life is soooo much easier, when you take copious notes. And getting through unemployment to find a new and better job will be, too. So please, be a Pepper. Here’s how my notes looks since I was let go from work:

I started a simple diary-date-style record, handwritten on paper. I prefer legal pads for my notes, but I’d say use a spiral notebook, an old journal, your scheduler if there’s room, whatever works.

For those collecting unemployment benefits, you need room to jot down what you do about looking for work and who you contact when you apply for jobs. In Illinois, it’s suggested your records contain the following: Contact date, name/address of contact, person contacted, method of contact, work sought and results.

Every time I do something related to my old job, unemployment benefits through the state, or a new job, I jot it down with the date noted:
  • If I have to register for something online, I write down the website I went to, my username, password and secret answers, right there on that date.
  • If I call someone, I write down the number I called, who I spoke to or if it was automated, what I pressed, and the answers I got or my next actions to take.
  • If I didn’t do something, or an action failed for some reason, I write down why.
I keep track of some general things that would help me retrace my steps later, if I would want to come back to this time period and put together details. For instance, I took note of when I started this blog, and what my intentions were for it.

I don’t keep track of every action each day like an actual diary, which is a different kind of journal. However, some of those details are actually making it into this blog! But they aren’t for this kind of project-oriented note-taking.
  • I don’t write down each morning, “wrote job-seeking blog.” If something is obvious, like, you shower and dress before a job interview, please, no need to put it in your notebook. People might think you’re insane if they ever get their hands on that thing.
  • If something is applicable, like gas mileage to go on job interviews (job search & interview expenses might be tax deductible), I put it right in there on those days. Bring the notes with you, jot down your odometer before you leave and when you get back. Simple.

Speaking of simple, that’s a good thought to end on with a ToDo4Today. We need to be keeping the books, but we need to be keeping them simple. Otherwise, they start to feel like more trouble than they’re worth, and they most certainly are not. Copious notes are worth every pen stroke. I learned how to research like crazy in Mr. Pepper’s class, and I have the notes, and the eventual writing career—and the fond memories of him—to prove it.

Still working on the meditation, though. (See subtitle to blog… c’mon inner peace, ohmmmm, and all that Zen…)

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