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  • Paul Cumbo

Humility & Legal Pads

I had a meeting with someone recently, and I failed to take any notes. It became abundantly clear to me that this was a mistake. In retrospect, I realized that getting away from taking notes during meetings was an act of unintentional arrogance. Since then, I've rediscovered the disciplined humility of good note-taking, and yellow legal pads are my favorite office technology these days.

The complexity of my work has continued to grow, both in my main job at school and in my small business. Multiple projects. Many deadlines. Competing priorities. Different clients with different needs. Online calendars, notifications, and scheduling apps are great. I use them every day to stay organized and up to date. I spend a lot of time on screens. Technology is a wonder.

But when it comes to attending meetings or sketching out concepts, it's back to basics for me this year. I decided to try this after that meeting-fail I mentioned earlier. That was the kick I needed—but it also led me to realize that as far back as I can remember, every high-octane leader I've met with has always used a simple yellow legal pad during meetings. Not a tablet. Not a laptop. Old school.

Many of these powerful leaders are at least ten or fifteen years older than I am. So maybe it's just by virtue of their age—they are old school. But I don't think it's the case. I thought about it. These are people who use technology all day long, with great agility and fluency. The people in charge of stuff, as far as I can tell, choose to do it that way. There's a reason. And rediscovering the legal pad has convinced me they're right.

I shared this with my twelfth grade students this year, and I'm asking them to experiment in my course with a plain ol' marble composition notebook. I picked up one for each student and assured him it was a valuable gift. As I explained to them, there's a calm, quiet invitation to undistracted thinking that comes with this old school technology. No noise. No emitted-light eye fatigue. This is all the more novel for them, so accustomed as they are to screens, notifications, and features.

(If you're over thirty, just take a moment to appreciate the irony: high school kids these days see a paper notebook as a novelty. It's got retro appeal, maybe the same way vinyl records do.)

I have a new appreciation for good note-taking as an act of humility. It's an affirmation that I don't know everything, and that I won't remember everything, and that good ideas are worth writing down. Learning is a journey, and the humble legal pad is a good, honest companion to have at your side.


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