The Power of Marginalia: Changing Minds and Building Connections



Jun 28, 2023 β€’ 4 min read


The Power of Marginalia: Changing Minds and Building Connections

Marginalia, the practice of leaving notes and annotations in the margins of books and documents, has been a longstanding tradition dating back to ancient times. These scribbles, comments, and doodles offer a glimpse into the thoughts, learnings, and findings of those who came before us. In some cases, these marginal notes have even helped us understand complex concepts better. Fermat's claim, for instance, written in the margins of a book in 1637, is one of the most famous examples of mathematical marginalia. His note contained a proof of Fermat's last theorem that was too big to fit within the margins.

But marginalia isn't just a relic of the past. Catherine C. Marshall, a researcher in user interface design, has studied the phenomenon of user annotation in texts. She found that students in various university departments sought out consistently annotated copies of textbooks at used book dealers. These students appreciated the distillation of knowledge left behind by their predecessors. This research highlights the value we place on the insights and perspectives of others, even when they are expressed in the margins of a book.

When it comes to changing minds, the Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker suggests that our beliefs often serve the purpose of gaining allies and protecting our social standing. We are more inclined to hold beliefs that align with the beliefs of those around us, rather than beliefs that are based on truth and accuracy. This desire to belong is deeply ingrained in us as social beings. Throughout history, being cast out from our tribes has often meant certain death. So, it's no wonder that people tend to prioritize their relationships over facts when making decisions.

To change someone's mind, we must also consider the importance of belonging. Convincing someone to abandon their beliefs means asking them to risk losing social ties. We need to provide them with an alternative tribe, a community where they can find acceptance and support. Creating a psychologically safe environment where individuals can explore new ideas without fear of judgment is crucial to fostering open-mindedness and growth.

Books play a unique role in this process. They allow for conversations to take place within the reader's mind, free from the pressures of external judgment. This internal dialogue encourages open-mindedness and exploration. The closer we are to someone, the more likely their beliefs will bleed into our own thinking. Books offer a way to bridge that proximity gap, allowing us to engage with diverse perspectives and challenge our own assumptions.

Silence, as they say, is death for any idea. Ideas need to be spoken, written, and shared to survive and thrive. In his Law of Recurrence, Clear states that the more an idea is repeated, even if it is false, the more people will believe it. This highlights the importance of championing good ideas rather than tearing down bad ones. Instead of wasting time explaining why bad ideas are bad, we should focus on sharing and promoting good ideas. Sharing is an act of kindness, a way of treating others like family. By developing friendships, sharing meals, and gifting books, we create opportunities for meaningful conversations and genuine connections.

In conclusion, changing minds is not just about presenting facts and evidence. It is about understanding the human need for belonging and creating spaces where individuals feel safe to explore new ideas. By embracing marginalia, valuing the insights of those who came before us, and fostering open-mindedness through books and conversations, we can build bridges and forge connections that transcend our differences. Here are three actionable pieces of advice to help facilitate this process:

  • 1. Create psychologically safe spaces: Encourage open dialogue and exploration by fostering an environment where individuals can freely express their thoughts without fear of judgment or rejection.
  • 2. Share good ideas: Instead of focusing on tearing down bad ideas, invest your energy in promoting and sharing good ideas. By championing positive and constructive concepts, you can inspire others to adopt new perspectives.
  • 3. Cultivate meaningful connections: Develop friendships, share meals, and gift books to create opportunities for genuine conversations and connections. By treating others like family, you can build trust and understanding.

Remember, changing minds is not about winning arguments, but about building relationships and fostering growth. By embracing the power of marginalia and valuing the insights of others, we can create a more open-minded and compassionate world.


  1. "Marginalia - Wikipedia", (Glasp)
  2. "Why Facts Don’t Change Our Minds", (Glasp)

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