“It’s very important to take ideas that you had and then confront them to the world, share them with the world, and in this way, even enhance them and augment them with the feedback that you’re going to get from other people.“
– Anne-Laure LeCunff
About Anne-Laure LeCunff
Anne-Laure is a writer, researcher, and educator, and the founder of Ness Labs, a mindful productivity community. She formerly worked for Google in UK and Silicon Valley and is currently undertaking a PhD in cognitive neuroscience at Kings College London. Her Ness Labs newsletter on mindful productivity has over 75,000 subscribers, and has recently sold her forthcoming book Liminal Minds,Predictable Success in an Unpredictable World: A Field Guide to Transitions.
What you will learn
- Journey from tech to neuroscience (03:00)
- Transition from a student’s hobby to a professional endeavor (05:52)
- Understanding what Metacognition is and its parts (06:44)
- Mind gardening as a metaphor for nurturing and cultivating ideas (11:02)
- Transitioning from passive note-taking to active, intentional note-making (15:53)
- Introducing the concept of bidirectional linking to connect ideas effectively (17:54)
- Sharing your mind garden’s bounty/diverse avenues for expression (20:54)
- The value of utilizing AI as a thinking partner (22:52)
- The capabilities and limitations of AI in the field of writing (25:50)
Ross Dawson: Anne-Laure, it’s a delight to have you on the show.
Anne-Laure Le Cunff: Thank you so much for having me.
Ross: You were in tech, and I suppose you still are in some ways, but you discovered this passion for neuroscience. We’d love to hear about that journey.
Anne: Yes, I started my career working at Google, first in London and then in San Francisco. In my last job there, I was working on the digital health team. I absolutely loved my job, loved my team, loved the mission, but somehow felt like knowing the exact steps that I had to take to be successful in that career journey made it a lot less interesting for me. It was a very linear career in front of me. It felt like a ladder to climb, not something very fun, and where I could express myself creatively.
So I left and I decided to do what everyone who left a big tech company at the time would do in Silicon Valley, which was to start a startup. I did that, followed the playbooks and it didn’t work out for all sorts of reasons. I did a second startup and it also didn’t work out. But this time I’m very glad I did it because we stayed really good friends with my co-founder at the time. I met so many people. That was a really good experience. I’m really glad I went through building those two companies. But I realized that building a startup was not really what I wanted to do, except that for the very first time in my career, I didn’t have a next step. I didn’t know what I should do next.
I went back to the drawing board and asked myself what was something that I wanted to explore and learn about, regardless of status or success, or money. If I removed all of that, if that was not part of the equation, what was something I was interested in? For me, that was the brain. I have always been interested in how the brain works.
Ross: Isn’t it a marvelous thing?
Anne: Exactly. It’s just incredible. The fact that we’re able to feel things, imagine things, connect with people, learn different languages, to create is just absolutely fascinating. I went back to school and that’s how I shifted from being in tech to being more in the psychology and neuroscience space by just going back to school. When I was 28, I went back and studied for a master’s degree and I’m currently doing a Ph.D. That’s the journey.
Ross: Fabulous. I always say the brain is the most extraordinary thing in the known universe. It’s worth learning about it and how to use it.
Anne: Exactly. I don’t think I’ll ever be done learning about it. It’s one of those fields where it’s really fun to know that your teachers are still learning themselves. Something I’m learning right now may become obsolete very quickly in a few years. There are some parallels between tech as an industry and neuroscience as a field of research.
Ross: Now you share with tens of thousands of people your insights on how to think better.
Anne: Yes, I started writing a little newsletter when I went back to school to write about what I was learning and specifically turning the science that I was studying into practical advice and insights that people could apply to work better and think smarter and be more creative. That was originally a little bit of a side project as a student, but that grew pretty quickly and that became my current business, which is called Ness Labs, where I share a lot of resources around these topics.
Ross: I’d like to dig into that and learn from you. One of the things you talk about is metacognition, it’s a phrase that I use and I think that’s really important. Some people have different frames on it, so explain what is metacognition. Why is it important? How should we bring that into our experience of the world?
Anne: Metacognition simply means thinking about thinking. Meta is about and cognition is the thinking part. Thinking about thinking. It’s very easy when you go through life to just think your way through problems without ever thinking about that actual experience of thinking. You could solve the problem and just move on. Metacognition is a strategy that encourages you to think about the thinking. It has several parts.
The first one is metacognitive knowledge, just knowing what you know, and being aware of what you know and what you don’t know. We often assume that we either know more than we actually do so we can be overconfident. But sometimes also we have a lot of intrinsic knowledge that we got through just interacting with the world that we don’t necessarily know we have because we never explicitly expressed it. Metacognitive knowledge is connecting with your own knowledge, and being aware of the knowledge that you have in the knowledge, and that you don’t have.
Then there’s metacognitive regulation, which is through the experience of thinking, just analyzing how it feels to work through a problem. Instead of just going through a problem and feeling like, oh, this is terrible, it’s just taking that step back and asking yourself, OK, this part of the problem feels really terrible and miserable for me to work my way through it. Why is that? What is the reason? Why this is more difficult than maybe other types of problems? From this, again, you can learn to maybe adapt the way you approach problems in the future so you don’t have to have that much friction.
Then the metacognitive experience is just looking back after you’re done with solving a problem and looking at the way you thought your way through it in its entirety, and again, asking yourself, what do I want to change in the future? What would I do differently? As you can see, it may take a little bit longer to solve a problem when you do this, when it comes to that specific problem, but if you keep on applying those metacognitive strategies as you work your way through problems, it’s going to become easier and easier because you’re basically building a thinking toolkit for yourself. Not something that you could learn through tutorials or through listening to someone giving you advice, something that you have designed yourself based on your own experience of solving problems.
Ross: Absolutely. The meta as in being able to look above, to think about how it is we’re doing them, and doing those things better. I think there’s the classic story of Einstein, who said, if you’ve got a problem, you’ve got a period of time, you spend 90 percent of it working out how to do it, and then you do it. As you say, then you can apply those techniques for all those questions moving forward. One of the other things you talk about is mind gardening, which is a lovely phrase. Where does that come from and what for you is mind gardening? How can we take care of the gardens of our minds?
Anne: Thank you for asking. This is one of my favorite concepts to write about. It’s an expression I came up with during the pandemic when I felt very overwhelmed with all of the information that I was receiving, very often contradictory – since you wrote a book about it, you would completely understand – but that feeling overloaded with information and not really knowing how to navigate this, and also being cut off from the outside world, not being able to go outside to disconnect from that overwhelming experience of contradictory information coming from all sides.
My dad loves gardening. If you come to our house, it’s a mini jungle. There are plants everywhere. It’s like a little curtain of plants in the kitchen. Sometimes you have to push them aside to open a cabinet. It’s everywhere, absolutely everywhere. There are many things about gardening that I think can be applied to the way we treat our minds. Having this slow approach to growing plants.
You basically are intentional in what seeds you’re going to plant in the garden. That’s the first thing. In the same way with your mind, you can be intentional with the kind of information you plant in your mind. What information do you consume? what kind of books do you read? What kind of videos do you watch? What kind of thought leaders do you follow as well? What kind of podcasts do you listen to? All of these are going to be the seeds that you plant in your mind and you can make choices there.
The second part is the growth part, the nurturing part of the plant. In the same way here, you’re going to want to do this intentionally. You want to grow branches. You want to form connections between ideas. It’s the same when you take care of a garden, you can’t consider the plants in isolation. You have to consider the different plants that you have. Some of them work really well together. Some of them can even protect each other, whereas some of them can be bad for each other. It’s the same with your mind. There are ideas that may grow off each other, that you can connect together, and that you can generate insights from, and you can be intentional about this.
I personally do this with a lot of note-taking. I consider writing as one of the most powerful thinking tools. Just taking two ideas and asking myself, wait, what would happen if I connected those two ideas together? Or what could happen in that space, at that intersection between two ideas, and just exploring that? Finally, in the same way, that in a garden, if you do all of this properly, you’re probably going to have some nice produce, or you can take from your garden fruit and vegetables, etc.
It’s the same here. I think that there is no point in cultivating your mind garden if it’s for all of those ideas to just stay in your mind. To me, the goal here is to actually harvest that produce, those ideas that you have and then share them with the world. That can be in the form of just posting on Twitter or doing a podcast like we’re doing here and sharing those ideas, a blog post, and newsletter, or having interesting conversations with your peers. It doesn’t really matter. But I think it’s very important to take those ideas that you had and then confront them to the world, share them with the world, and in this way, even enhance them and augment them with the feedback that you’re going to get from other people. That’s mind gardening.
Ross: That is such a rich metaphor, all of the aspects of it, it’s really well developed and really strong. I’m pretty blown away by all the parallels with Thriving on Overload, where I talk about the Tree of Knowledge and how all the connections are formed, and also about how we have to plant seeds and nurture them. This idea of how ideas come together, the insight. It’s not something that’s in the dark and we give it the right nutrients and it comes forth and blossoms. I’m very aligned with that. But you’ve really captured it very neatly in all of that one strong metaphor.
Anne: Amazing. Yeah, I do think that there is really nothing new in the idea of mind gardening. If you look even through different ancient philosophies, this idea of being intentional with the ideas that you have in your mind and cultivating that inner garden, there’s really nothing new here. I guess it’s kind of meta. But that concept of mind gardening is actually an example of mind gardening, where I just connected existing ideas together to come up with this insight.
Ross: Can you just talk a little bit more about some of the very specific techniques that enable you to nurture your mind garden?
Anne: I mentioned note-taking. I think note-taking is very important. I think even better than note-taking is note-making, being intentional at that level of capturing ideas in your note-taking system. Instead of just highlighting and copying and pasting random bits of paragraphs from articles that you’re reading, just capturing what you can already connect to some of your existing ideas in your mind garden, augmenting some of your existing ideas, and taking just a minute to rephrase it in your own words and really being explicit about how this is a valuable idea, and how it connects with what you’re working on?
This is a really good filter, even for the idea of planting seeds, in terms of, again, thinking about what works with what I already have in my garden, and what doesn’t. Especially if you’re someone who’s very curious and interested in lots of different topics, it’s very easy to start almost like hoarding information, just reading a bunch of things and adding them to your note-taking system and feeling like you’re being intellectually productive because you’re saving all of that information which you will never really use, then your garden turns into a junkyard.
Instead of doing this, asking yourself those questions, being intentional, and being ruthless. If something you read about is interesting, but has no connection whatsoever with the ideas that animate you, the kind of things that you’re constantly thinking about in your mind garden, if there is no use for that idea in terms of cultivating it, growing it, connecting it to other ideas, then it’s completely okay to read something and feel like, oh, that’s interesting. Great. Let’s move on. I don’t need to save it. That’s a tool, note-taking, and even better if it’s intentional note-making.
Another very important thing is to actually connect the ideas together proactively. I personally have found that note-taking tools that offer bidirectional linking are best for mind gardening because they allow you to very quickly see your existing connections inside of your note-taking system. At the stage of capturing ideas, you can very quickly see, can I fit this? Can I connect this with something that is already in there or not? Then at the second stage of growing those branches, it is also a lot easier to do when you can make connections from both sides, from two different nodes in a bidirectional way.
The existing tools that do that very well, there’s Obsidian, there’s Roam, and there’s Logseq. Notion has added bidirectional links, but I think they’re too basic and too rigid to be able to really do that and feel like you’re gardening. It still feels like more of an architect rather than a gardener tool to me. Those would be some of the tools that I would recommend if you want to start applying those principles.
Ross: What tool do you use?
Anne: I use Roam. I’ve used Roam for the past three years and a half now. I was a fairly early user of it. I know several other tools have been created, but I think there’s so much compound interest in continuing to build your mind garden in the same tool that I haven’t found the need to switch. I also use Obsidian for different types of work. When I want to think without spending time online and not being influenced by what I may be reading externally, when I just want to take some existing notes that I have and just work on them offline, I think Obsidian is great.
With Roam, because it’s in my browser, I will always end up looking up something and I will always ask myself a question and check Wikipedia and check Google Scholar and StackOverflow, etc. When I’m in output mode, this is really good for me to do this. It’s just faster and I can check references. But sometimes when I’m exploring more personal topics, where the truth I’m looking for is not a factual type of truth that you can look up and get an answer, it’s more about how do I feel about this, what do I think is right or wrong with this approach without being influenced by other people, I really like just taking some of those notes, putting them in Obsidian, and working on it completely offline.
Ross: Anything else which you think is top of mind and must share?
Anne: The last thing I would say, for the last part, is to share the produce of your mind garden. There are many different ways to do this. We live in an age where it’s become easier than ever to share your ideas online. I’ve seen a lot of people create Substacks or create little podcasts or youtube channels or even sharing little videos online. It’s not a specific tool here, but I would just encourage people to not feel constrained by the format they have to use to share this.
Mind gardening itself in the capturing and thinking phase is pretty much a text-based technique. But when it comes to sharing the output, sharing your insights, again, if text is where you’re more comfortable, tweet away, write a blog post, or maybe write a book. But if you’re more comfortable just expressing your ideas in the verbal form, you could do a video, you could do a podcast. There are so many ways to express those ideas. You could create little illustrations. I love following accounts where some people who are very creative, very visual show us their ideas in this way. Experiment, and try different mediums and different formats. There’s no limitation in terms of the way you can then share these ideas with the world.
Ross: That’s awesome. You’ve been looking at AI and its potential for creativity. One of the phrases you use around AI is to enhance our creativity or to emulate our creativity. I’m more interested in the enhancement. I’d love to hear about any approaches that you use or the way you think we can use AI to enhance our creativity.
Anne: I’m just going to share my favorite prompt because I could talk about this at length. But I’m just going to share my favorite prompt that I use all the time. What I’ll do is I will write something that I’m working on, it could be a paragraph that could be for my book, that could be for my blog, that could be a script for a youtube video, could even be for a research paper for my Ph.D., I will do my best to write the best version possible of what I think covers everything. Then I will copy and paste it into ChatGPT and I will ask, what am I missing? That’s it. That’s the prompt. What am I missing? Every single time, there will be at least one thing, one blind spot, something that I forgot to address.
Some of the things that ChatGPT will come up with, I’ll be like, well, that’s not really relevant so I’ll just ignore it. But there will always be one thing where I’m like, huh, oh, wow, that’s really interesting. So I’ll go and I’ll research this and I will augment the final piece with that aspect that I completely didn’t see in the first place. In that sense, I can use AI as a thinking partner. I can get to the same result very quickly that I would get, and I still get, and that’s not replacing it because I enjoy doing this, but having a long conversation with a friend, where you’re telling them, hey, I’ve been thinking about all of these things and then you spend a whole evening together discussing those ideas.
I often actually take notes after spending an evening with a friend chatting about different things, because by the end of the evening, there will be several questions the friend asked, several topics that you ended up exploring that you didn’t even imagine were connected with what you were discussing in the first place. This is a shortcut to that. It’s a thinking partner. It’s a lot faster. I do feel that my work is a lot better in the end than if I just relied on just me thinking about everything and every angle.
Ross: Yes, I think that’s one of the best uses for it. Similarly, I also say, okay, this is what I’ve thought, what else is there? Or similar. I think GPT for red teaming, as in challenging, you bring and say, well, what’s wrong with my argument? Or how could it be improved? Or what’s missing? Or all of these other things, I think are one of the strongest ways to do it. Two broad approaches. One is you say, Okay, let’s start GPT to do something and you can work on it if you’re having writer’s block, whatever, but the other is you come up with everything, and then you throw it in and you see what can be added to it.
Anne: Yes. In both cases, I think it’s paying off your strength and its strength. I think, at this stage, at least, it’s not a really good writer. I haven’t seen any AI right now that can write like a human being does. It can write a basic, SEO-level type of article, but if you want to write something that really moves people, that makes them feel connected, at this stage, we’re not there. It’s interesting, I don’t know if we’ll get there, because the way it’s trained is on everything. So you get to this average level of writing that is not necessarily the best that can be produced by a single human being that really pours their heart into something. But as a sparing partner, a thinking partner, red teaming, as you said, I think it’s excellent, absolutely excellent. This is for me, one of the top ways it should be used.
Ross: Where are you going from here? You’ve got this wealth of things that you are working on and thinking and researching and sharing. What excites you about your journey forward? What are the things you’re going to dig into more from here?
Anne: I’m really excited about the fact that I have no idea where I’m going. That was the main reason why I left Google because I knew exactly where I was going. I actually don’t know. The only thing I keep an eye on is how excited I am when I wake up in the morning. Currently, I feel very excited every morning when I wake up, I have all of those very interesting projects, all of these questions are still unanswered, all of these people I get to connect with and have interesting conversations with. I don’t know exactly where this journey is going to take me but as long as this remains true, that I’m excited to wake up in the morning, I’m just happy to keep going.
Ross: Fantastic. Any final advice or tips or recommendations you have for your listeners?
Anne: I would say maybe try to build your own little mind garden, just do that for a week, use your note-taking system, be intentional with what you put in it, try to rephrase the information that you’re capturing, and try to play with it, use it as a little sandbox, connect ideas together, and maybe at the end of the week, try to post a little something that is entirely yours about a connection that you made that you haven’t seen somewhere else and that could be a little tweet, that could be something else, but share that with the world. If you like it, keep going. If not, you’ll still have that little artifact of thinking that is just yours.
Ross: Awesome. Where can people go to find out more about your work and subscribe to your newsletter?
Anne: The easiest way is to go to nesslabs.com/newsletter. This is where you can enter your email address. I send a weekly newsletter where I discuss all of these topics and more. I’d love to see more people read it.
Ross: Fantastic. It’s been a true delight to speak with you, Anne-Laure. Thanks so much for your time and your insights.
Anne: Thank you so much, Ross.