One of my great passions is discovering people who are using the same tool we all take for granted – but who are using it in some wildly creative ways. You know – the people that make us go “Woah!” (cue Keanu Reaves voice). Valentin Perez is one of those brilliant people who is using Notion to do some amazing things.
Using his multi-faceted Topics Forest and his innovative Systemic Creativity Temple, Valentin is elevating his creativity to levels the rest of us can only imagine. In this interview, he graciously explains the thinking behind his creative Notion set-up.
Chuck Frey: What’s your background? What do you do for a living?
Valentin Perez: I grew up in Cancun, Mexico and recently graduated from Brown University, where I majored in Computer Science and Applied Math but also learned across 15 different departments (always been curious, that could count as my background).
I’m the co-founder of an education startup in San Francisco, Monthly.
Frey: Why do you believe it’s so important to elevate your thinking?**
Perez: To understand more about the world, to create, and most importantly, to come up with better questions and thoughts.
Thoughts about Notion
Frey: When did you first learn about Notion?
Perez: September 2017.
Frey: When you first started using it, what did you hope to accomplish with it?
Perez: I had been looking for a better note-taking app, to-do list, and an easy way to share notes with friends: through just a link. When I saw Notion I immediately saw its potential for that and more.
Frey: Why do you think Notion is so well aligned with the needs of today’s knowledge workers, entrepreneurs and creatives?
Perez: Because it’s beautifully and thoughtfully designed.
Notion aligns to each person because it’s a canvas where you can create your own, custom worlds.
The collaboration features are also perfect for today’s team (remote or not) needs.
Frey: What is one capability of Notion that you view as essential – but most people don’t even realize it can do that?
Perez: Templates!!! I think they’re a game changer because they enable the sytsemization of processes. If you refine a template for a process, then you can get started with doing it without friction or having to think of the prompts and structure each time.
Another capability that might pass overlooked is the ability to move up and down the ladder of abstraction of thoughts — transforming a text block to a toggle to a page, etc. effortlessly — it’s like magic.
Also, some people are scared of Notion because it looks “complex”. What they don’t realize is that it can be extremely simple — just a simple notes app! You can keep it simple, and it can evolve with you into more complex use cases when you’re ready or think of new ways of using it. Notion evolves with each person, and that’s amazing.
Frey: What is the purpose of your daily questions?
Perez: To get me thinking about the things I want to be thinking about.
I refine the questions continuously, and they help me get in the mindset I want to be, automatically, because prompts prompt thoughts.
Frey: How do they help to shape your day?
Perez: In the morning, they help me get in a grateful attitude, a “looking-forward” vibe, and help me think of what is the most important thing to do in my day.
At night, it helps me reflect on the day and get ready for the next.
I believe that if you own your days, you own your life.
Frey: In your three-minute journal, one of your questions is “What experiment am I going to run today?” What types of experiments do you typically run?
Perez: I try to think of new ways of doing things, or new things to do. This can be simple things like doing an activity at a different time than usual, trying a new food, fasting, messaging people, or even weird things like eating an orange in the shower.
Frey: Why is it so important to run personal experiments?
Perez: Experimentation is a great method for discovering things. It’s what science is based on. I think that running personal experiments can help you discover new experiences that are fun or that could be better than the current way you do things, even if you don’t expect that. It’s a great mindset to approach things as an experiment, so ‘failing is not even a thing to worry about.
Frey: What has this practice done for you?
Perez: It has helped me be in an “experimentation” mindset throughout my day — which helps me question things, try things, and just “go” for things. It’s also fun.
Frey: At the end of the day, one of the things you do is give your subconscious mind a request. How important is this? How has this practice benefitted you?
Perez: It’s good! I don’t know how important it is. I don’t even know if it works, but I think it’s a cool way to fade into sleep and hopefully, my subconscious gets my conscious request and helps with it. Some people like Thomas Edison did this too.
Frey: How often do you review your beginning of day and end of day journal entries? Or are they simply a way of imprinting the idea of being more intentional on your brain?
Perez: They are indeed mostly a way to be more intentional about my days and get me thinking about what I want to be thinking about. I don’t actively go back to review them, but randomly I may go back and open a couple of past ones just to see what I was thinking about or doing, just out of curiosity and gratefulness.
The Topic Forest personal knowledge base
Frey: What made you decide to create the Topic Forest, and how did you organize it?
Perez: It was realizing that it was a great system that would accumulate value over time, serving me at different times in the future. I had taken notes on things throughout my life but hadn’t organized them in a good central place. I had heard about Commonplace books and then a friend told me he had just started his Commonplace book in Notion and I realized it’s such a great idea. I then came up with a fun name — Topics Forest — and started building it!
Like the name suggests, I organize it by topic. So many different sources (books, articles, conversations, videos) can go in the same topic tree. I try to put the actual ideas in text, not just links of things, so they’re easy to refer back to. I then have “sub-trees” for subtopics.
Frey: It seems like it probably took you an enormous amount of time to create the Topic Forest. How long have you been building and adding to it?
Perez: Surprisingly enough, it doesn’t feel like a lot of time, because it’s so sparsed out throughout my days. I add things whenever I’m reading an interesting article or watch a great video or have an amazing conversation about ideas. Or at the end of my week when I’m passing my best notes from the books I read in the week.
I had taken notes on things (but not as many as I do now) since I can remember (previously in Evernote) but this version of my Topics Forest started a bit over a year ago.
Frey: What are the benefits of creating a knowledge base like the Topic Forest? What benefits does it provide to you?
Perez: It helps me easily go back to the best ideas I’ve found for any given topic. So there may be things I “forget” about and remember when I visit the tree, or it may help me find something I remember but want the exact wording or source. I think this is very useful when referring to things when sending ideas/links to friends, for writing articles, or later when writing books.
Frey: How do you use your Topic Forest and journal entries to fuel your writing? Can you give me an example?
Perez: I’ll give you an example right now, right here.
Most people start writing with a blank page. They expect ideas to magically appear in their mind.
Do the opposite.
Start with TONS of information. Quotes, pictures, paragraphs. You name it.
Then, start writing.
New ideas will SPRING into your mind.
“Writer’s block just means I don’t have the ammo” — Sebastian Junger
Whether your work requires you to learn how to lead a team, invent a new product, or write something that moves people, many of your best ideas are likely to come to you over time. Thomas Jefferson kept ivory tablets and charcoal on his belt for taking notes during the day that he would transfer in the evenings to his commonplace book. Emily Dickinson scrawled lines and ideas on salvaged scraps of paper.
Whether you’re a Moleskine person or you talk into a digital recorder, or you embrace one of the many great note-taking apps out there, we now have more tools at our disposal than ever before for keeping our own file—and keeping track of the thoughts and events whose value is yet to be known.
It’s difficult to get things done when your mind is bogged down trying to remember trivial details. By organizing your knowledge outside your head, you free yourself to execute more effectively in the moment. You can spin up and complete your projects far faster, because you’re starting with a collection of valuable material and reusing work you’ve already performed, instead of a blank page.
We live in an economy driven by creativity, and yet for many people, creativity is something unpredictable and mysterious. Immersing ourselves in a pool of rich triggers, associations, questions, and ideas we’ve collected over time, we can more reliably spark our own inspiration and creativity when we most need it.
I accessed all of that info super quickly, in like 1-2minutes just by going to my Topics Forest and taking some relevant, useful ideas.
Frey: How does the Topic Forest enable you to see connections between ideas? You mention this aspect of it in your video, but how it actually works isn’t clear to me.
Perez: Because the ideas come from various different sources at different points in time (I could be adding to the same “topic tree” a year later) so as I’m adding a new idea, I see a previous idea and can see connections. I usually also add ideas to different topics in the same session (articles and books often talk about many different ideas), so as I’m navigating between different trees, I can identify connections between ideas because they’re fresh in my mind from just having looked at them or written them.
The Systemic Creativity Temple
Frey: Your focus on creative thinking and problem-solving is quite impressive. How did you develop this approach?
Perez: Thank you! Mostly over time from various different influences. One big one was a class I took in college at the Rhode Island School of Design about “Computer Utopias” where the assignments were often like “brainstorm 100 new different ideas for a camera” or “invent a new type of computer.” I saw how powerful deep brainstorming could be, so I started doing it every week, as a ritual. Then some friends ran a workshop on “systematizing creativity” where I also learned a ton of useful prompts, now in my Systemic Creativity Temple.
Frey: Why do you think it’s important to take a systemic approach to creativity?
Perez: I think it’s just a smart, useful way of being more creative if that’s something someone wants.
Frey: Why do you call it a “temple?” Does that reflect the incredible value you place on creativity in your life?
Perez: I thought it was a cool, fun name for it. I think it’s fun to create “digital spaces” so naming specific pages in ways that make them feel like a physical space helps me do that. And yes, “temple” came from my subconscious but it is probably because I do like creativity a lot.
Frey: I see you make extensive use of creative prompts. I’m a big believer in using creativity tools, techniques and prompts as catalysts to get me thinking in fresh directions. But a lot of other people don’t seem to “get” why that’s so valuable. What’s your take on it? Why is it so important?
Perez: I agree, prompts catalyze thoughts. Like, if I tell you about a pink elephant in a mountain eating ice cream rain drops, that image will come to your mind. And it would have been extremely hard to think of that without my prompt.
Certain questions or thought exercises often generate useful ideas, so I think it’s useful to collect good ones so you don’t have to remember all of these prompts and easily go through them, at least review them to see if some new useful ideas come to mind.
Frey: How do constraints and identities help you to develop and strengthen your ideas?
Perez: Constraints often breed creative solutions. From not being able to do things in a certain way, you have to think of a new way to approach something. Identities also help simulate how a certain person would approach something.
We often look at the world through our worldview or sense of self, but if we put that aside and try to simulate how other very different people would approach things, we can often think of something that’s outside “our” way of thinking or identity, breeding “creativity.”
Frey: How do you turn promising ideas into action?
Perez: I reflect on what’s high leverage relative to time, value, and interest, and then try to create a system around it, or simply just schedule it.
Frey: What’s next for your Notion workspace?
Perez: I’m really looking forward to the API and a way that I could put custom domain names/ see analytics, so I can create blogs from within my Notion and build cool, useful things.
One thing that I may do is switch my Re Human daily/weekly process writings (I’m learning across ~15 different areas every week) from my Re Human Medium blog to Notion.
Frey: Where can my readers find your work online?