Sacha Chua Adventures In Sketchnoting And Semi Retirement - The Verbal To Visual Podcast

VTV 012 : Sacha Chua – Adventures In Sketchnoting And Semi-Retirement

In this episode of The Verbal To Visual Podcast I chat with Sacha Chua, who is in the midst of a five-year experiment in semi-retirement. We talk about what led to that experiment, what she is learning from it, and the role that sketchnoting has played throughout it.

Notes & Links

Sacha has been documenting her experiments at her site Living An Awesome Life.

One of the early presentations that Sacha added sketches to was The Gen Y Guide To Web 2.0 At Work.

She also sketched out her presentation The Shy Connector: How to get strangers to talk to you.

Here are Sacha’s thoughts on digital vs analog note taking.

Here are some tips from Sacha on how to draw a visual summary of a book.

We talked about the benefits of sharing while you learn, which Sacha outlined in these sketches.

Where you can connect with Sacha:

Thanks to Sacha we’ve got a full transcript of our conversation!

Doug Neill: Welcome to the Verbal to Visual Podcast, a program about bringing ideas to life. I’m your host, Doug Neill. My guest on the podcast today is Sacha Chua, who is in the midst of a five-year experiment in semi-retirement.

She saved up enough money at her job to be able to take five years in order to spend time on whatever she felt like spending time on. During that experiment, she has been documenting the things she has been doing, the things she has been learning, the projects she has been working on and how she is spending her time, and what she’s learning from the whole experience.

One of the things that Sacha has spent her time on is sketchnoting. Back at her job, Sacha first started using sketches in her presentations to clarify complex ideas and got such a great response from her coworkers that she kept doing it. She started sharing some of her sketch slides online, and she has been connecting with the broader community of sketchnoters.

In our conversation we geek out on some of the specifics, the tools she uses, the process, the digital versus analog question of notetaking. We also get into the big picture discussion of learning and sharing at the same time, and the benefits of doing that–not just for you, but benefits to others as well when you learn and share simultaneously. And I think the breadth of Sacha’s knowledge and experience is such that you will definitely learn something from our conversation. So, let’s get into it.

Sacha Chua, thanks for joining us on the Verbal to Visual podcast.

Sacha Chua: My pleasure. Thanks for having me.

Doug: From what I read, you are in the middle of a five-year experiment in semi-retirement. I thought that might be kind of a fun place to start the conversation for the listeners to hear a bit about the background of that. Then we can kind of dive into the role that sketchnoting has played as part of that experiment. Why don’t you start by kind of explaining the story behind that experiment?

Sacha: Ever since I started working, I’ve always saved a large portion of my income because I wanted to learn how to start a business, play around with different ideas and in general, experiment with alternatives to the usual kinds of career paths.

When I tallied up the numbers–I’ve been tracking my expenses and my income since about 2005 or so–I realized that I almost had enough to take five years off without worrying too much about paying bills or making ends meet. So, I told people at work, I turned all my projects over, wrapped everything up nicely. Then in 2012, in February, I started in this five-year experiment.

The idea is to be completely unhireable for five years. It’s so tempting to run back into what’s familiar. In my case, I actually really enjoyed working with a large company. I knew that if I gave myself that option, I might–at the first sign of things being weird, or uncertain, or uncomfortable, I might be tempted to run back into that.

So, I said, “Okay, you know what? You don’t have to worry too much about making ends meet. You’ve got enough savings to keep on going.” In fact, I had a fair bit of a safety buffer beyond that. I wanted to find out what you could do if you had that kind of space, since so few people have that kind of privilege.

In the past two-and-a-half years or so, I’ve had fun with sketchnoting. I played around with that and found it as a great excuse to get into conferences and other events that I wanted to go to. Lately, I’ve been focusing on drawing and exploring things that I want to, whether or not anyone else will pay me for it–hence the interest in using sketches to explain technical topics like Emacs, or just using it to help me figure out what my next steps will be or how I can make most of these moments.

Doug: It sounded like from the beginning of your professional life, you’ve kind of had this plan in mind, this idea of saving up enough money and then taking a break like this – if you even want to call it a break. I guess it’s much more of an active experiment as you have explained it. Was there anything in particular that kind of led you to have that planned in mind?

Sacha: Well, I’d grown up reading personal finance books. Yes, I’m that kind of geek. I’d read all about these good things you could do. As soon as I started working, I made sure that I took advantage of whatever retirement tax shelters there were. 20-somethings, 30-somethings are already thinking about this. The earlier you think about it, the easier it is, actually, and the more advantage time gives you. So that’s one of the reasons why I got into it.

The other reason why I looked at this experiment and decided it was worth going for, was also because I’ve been tracking my time over the past couple of years. I looked at my time. I found out that yes, I do actually sleep a lot, which is good, and I worked a reasonable number of hours, which is also good, and I had enough time to spend in discretionary activities – hobbies, playing games, learning things “just because.”

But when I looked at all the different things that I wanted to learn and I estimated how much time it would take me to learn all those things, I decided that squeezing all these stuff into evenings and weekends, that’s one way to do it, but maybe I can [inaudible] into other ways to play around with that. My financial needs are pretty small. I don’t have any student debt. I can live mostly like a student. In fact, I think my lifestyle now is much better than it was when I was a student, because I get to cook a lot more now.

Doug: Nice.

Sacha: Yes. I figured, I’ve got this opportunity to try it out, and the time is something that a lot of people don’t have. I should explore this. It’s almost the duty to do that.

Doug: What are the sort of things that you are tracking as part of this experiment?

Sacha: Well, I was very curious about how the way that I used my time would shift–whether I would actually use the extra time for productive activities, or whether I would end up spending it all on video games and the other things that people worry about. They think, “I can’t handle that much free time.” I like to refer to as discretionary time instead of free time, because of course, you only have 24 hours, so it’s up to you to choose what to do with it. That’s one of the things that I’ve been tracking.

I tracked, of course, my expenses and my income over this time.

I’ve been curious about things like: how does this influence the number of sketches I make? That’s an easy number to get. How does it influence the time that I spend in drawing, or writing, or working on open source projects or things like that?

Then I also track other weird things, depending on whatever comes to mind. For example, over the past two months or so, we’ve had this Raspberry Pi, which is a low cost Linux computer with a webcam. We added the webcam too. It’s in the basement furnace pointed at the cat litter boxes. We analyzed cat litter box usage patterns.

Doug: Wow. That’s pretty awesome.

Sacha: Yes. One of our cats poos outside the litter box, so we want to figure out why. Anyway, the nice thing about this is you can come up with all these little experiments and with a little bit of data, with a little bit of visualization, with a little bit of exploration, you can figure things out.

Doug: Is there a software that you have written to go along with the video so that automates the analysis of that? Or do you have to go through and look?

Sacha: Well, it’s one of the things that I do plan to learn. I’ve been teaching myself more Python these days which has a lot of these good image processing libraries. My background is in computer science. I really do like geeking about these things.

But I found out that it takes me about less than a minute to process each video. I speed the video up by ten times automatically–I use a little bit of software to do that. Then it’s just something that I’m doing in the background while I’m watching a movie (which we borrowed from the library) or just relaxing, kind of watching and tracking the data in something like Google Spreadsheets.

Doug: Got you.

One of the trends that I’ve been hearing about quite a bit lately is this increasing number of people who are moving toward freelance work. I’m curious because you talk about having this obviously discretionary time during this experiment. What was the first month or so of this experiment like for you in terms of figuring out how to spend your time, and how to use your time wisely in the way that you would like to, and if that has shifted from that first month when you jumped into this to now a couple of years in?

Sacha: It’s certainly an ongoing process of learning. It’s a skill that you can develop.

I’d been writing about this experiment, leading up to it. When I announced that I was going to do this experiment, be completely unhireable and all that stuff, potential clients for consulting actually stepped forward and said, “Hey, we want to hire you.” I told them that the point is to be completely unhireable. I got talked into doing a little bit of consulting..

So, I said, “Okay, I’m going to phase myself into this instead of quitting cold turkey. Maybe I’ll start with four days a week of consulting.”–or something like that, just to give myself a little bit of time. I didn’t want to shock myself too much. I said, “I like working with people, I’ll do this consulting thing for a couple of days a week. Maybe start off with three to four, then go down to two to three, then go down to two, and eventually phase that out.”

Also, in order to give myself even more of an experience of semi-retirement, there might be some months where I just don’t take any consulting work at all. I’d say, “Okay, I’ll come back and work on this gig.” For example, last year, I think I took all of August and December off. The client got along well without me, and I had enough time to focus on writing, or travel, or whatever else.

One of the things that I found in this transition–as I get further into this experiment–in the beginning, I worried a lot about whether I would do something productive with my time. What would I say in order to justify this five-year break from a traditional career and so forth? But lately, I find that I’ve been giving myself more permission to work on my own things, whether it’s the technical topics as I mentioned before – Emacs, Clojure, all of that–or sketching things just because I want to – or else I’d say, “I’ll just spend two hours walking through the park.”

It is something to learn.

Doug: Yes. How did that shift overall–or did that?–when you started giving yourself more permission to engage in those types of activities? What impact did that have on your life in general?

Sacha: Giving myself permission to focus on my own stuff and not necessarily to focus a lot on building a business, take on sketchnoting gigs or whatever, meant that I could easily refer those opportunities to other people, helping other people build their businesses, building relationships with those people along the way, so that was great.

I wasn’t worried about it. Sketchnoting is fantastic. I think it’s a great idea. But because I can refer people to other people, I know that that sort of stuff is well-taken care of. Event organizers come to me, I can send them off to somebody else. That meant that I could focus on the kinds of things that maybe people weren’t paying for yet, or maybe there were things that I was interested in, just because.

So, that meant I could spend some more time helping people with open source, just chatting with people about whatever they were learning or whatever they were interested in, or doing my personal planning as a series of sketchnotes, and sharing that in Flickr–just because I can.

Doug: Yes. Have there been, within this first couple of years, any other kind of big picture insights that have come out of the experiment thus far?

Sacha: I’ve learned a lot of things that I didn’t know when I started. In the beginning I wasn’t quite sure how everything would work out, but the stock market has been surprisingly optimistic over the past two years. It’s very strange. Even not counting the income from consulting, the fact that the stock markets have been okay has been great. Also, coming to the realization that if there is a correction–which undoubtedly there will be at some point–the stocks going down just means that I can use some of my savings to buy the stocks at a discount. It’s not going to be all that bad either.

I guess it’s being able to take a step back and learning that that’s not scary, learning that paperwork is not scary. I do my own accounting, for example. Learning that there are a lot of people out there living very similar experiments that I can learn from. You have all these people who have been freelancers forever, or people who have been shifting back and forth between freelance work and employment, and people who have been interested in financial independence and have saved up for that and made it happen. It’s great to see that, and it’s great to also explore my own little corner of possibilities.

Doug: Yes. Did you only start connecting with other people that are engaging in similar experiments once you started your own, or had you seen before you started that there were these folks out there that were doing this type of thing?

Sacha: A little beforehand, of course. For example, with my interest in sketchnoting… I’m playing around with that. You run into all these people who are sketchnoters, who are graphic recorders. They build these small independent businesses around that, because it’s not really this sort of thing that you join a huge corporation for. You end up creating your own practice out of it.

Doug: Right.

Sacha: So there’s that. I’ve read a lot of personal finance books as I mentioned. Books like, “Your Money or Your Life” or “Early Retirement Extreme” are frequently referred to by other people who are interested in these kinds of ideas. There are communities around that as well. It’s certainly something that I knew going into wasn’t that scary. Other people have figured it out before. I was delighted to find out that I can figure things out too.

Doug: Yes. Now let’s get into the role that sketchnoting has played. When did you first start sketching out ideas and how have you used that skill over the years?

Sacha: In 2008 or so, I was a consultant with IBM and I was giving a lot of presentations on things like social media, social business, using social media inside in corporations. I was looking at things like emerging technologies, demographic trends. I realized that not only did bulletpoints tend to bore people, they also tend to bore me. Since I was giving all these presentations, I might as well play around with it.

One of my friends asked me to help her explain social business–the value of being able to use blogs, wikis, and all these other cool tools inside a company–to these college students that she was talking to on these recruitment tours who were just not getting it. They were thinking, “Why would you ever want to use something like Facebook at work?”

So, I put together this presentation. Instead of translating it to the usual corporate template, I just took my storyboard–which I had drawn on a Nintendo DS–I took that storyboard, and I made that the presentation itself. For some reason, that presentation got wildly popular. I put it on SlideShare and it got tens of thousands of views. It was called, “The Gen Y Guide to Web 2.0 at Work.” [inaudible] There was that and then there was another presentation that followed a little bit later. I wrote about how you connect when you’re shy. This was a presentation called “The Shy Connector,” also hand-drawn.

These presentations got pretty popular. People really liked the hand-drawn style. It helped it be a lot friendlier. Since I was doing all these presentations at conferences, drawing them, and people really responded to that… I figured since I was at these conferences anyway, I might as well start drawing my notes of other people’s presentations.

It’s great because sometimes, if a presentation is well-structured, you want to be able to come back to it later. It’s got a lot of great insights. If it’s not well-structured and you want some way to stop yourself from falling asleep… it works out either way. Those sketchnotes–which I’ve been sharing on my blog and Flickr–helped me also connect to this wider community of people who are doing this, people who draw much, much more intricate, more beautiful, more colorful, and more nicely laid out sketchnotes.

But for some reason, the simplicity of my sketchnotes – well, certainly it makes it a lot easier for me to look at them and review them and so forth–but people also respond well to the fact that my sketchnotes look like they could be drawn by a five year-old.

Doug: Well, that is one of the fun things to see, looking at the broad range of folks who are doing the sketchnoting thing, that there are all sorts of different styles out there. One of the cool things about it is that you can develop a style that’s specific to your needs and your purpose for sketching things out. Then it gets really cool.

Sacha: Yes, and it is important, because it’s so easy to get intimidated by all those lovely sketchnotes that you see in sites like SketchnoteArmy.

But I guess, especially as we look at the [inaudible] and I love how they’ve been [inaudible] for sketchnotes. A lot of people who come to sketchnotes come from very visual backgrounds. These are people who have been doodling since they could pick up a pencil, and probably even earlier. It is nice to show other people that hey, even something simple can help you think. It can help you remember. It can help you share. It doesn’t have to have a lot of images. It doesn’t have to be amazing. As Mike Rohde points out, it’s not art. You can play around with it.

Doug: Right. For those that are interested in your approach, and appreciate your style, and the simplicity to them, what’s your general approach to sketchnoting?

Sacha: I actually tend to go I guess a deeper level of detail compared to most people. When a lot of people sketchnote talks, they tend to bring out maybe one to three key points or a couple of great quotes and focus on that. Since I use my notes as a way to refer to it later–I might want to pull out an idea and refer to somebody, or I might want to take a look at something and then summarize it again later–I’ve got to have that detail there in the first place.

My sketchnotes tend to have a lot of text in them. Sometimes they’ll have a couple of icons to make it easier to find things and to emphasize important points, but I don’t worry too much about developing an elaborate visual vocabulary with like depth, color, and all those other wonderful things. For me, it’s really mostly utilitarian. I want notes that you can take a look at and quickly remember things based on that, and I want notes that I can send somebody and say… I read a lot of books, but I know other people don’t, so instead of telling them to read this entire book for the key point, I might just send them a summary of the book. The sketchnotes work really well for that.

Doug: It looks like you do your sketchnoting all digitally. Is that correct?

Sacha: It’s actually been a mix. I started off digitally, because the nice thing about a computer is it allows you to pretend that you know how to draw. You can always erase things, and you can move things around. Especially when you’re sketchnoting a speaker, a presentation, or some other thing that you can’t control, it’s so nice to be able to re-arrange things into some kind of logical order, or make sure that the white space is nicely spread out. It’s hard to do that on paper.

But I’ve actually been working more and more with paper now as I’ve become more comfortable with it. In the beginning, I started out with mostly digital. The work was pretty sweet. You can erase things. You can change all the colors and all that stuff. Then I realized that if I also became more comfortable with drawing on paper, then I could use sketchnoting as kind of a low-energy activity. When you’re just sitting in bed, you’re going to be thinking about stuff, and you don’t want to be looking at a screen because then you’ll have a hard time sleeping. But you just want to think through your plan for the week, or your plan for the next year, or the decisions that you’re working out, and sketchnotes work very well for that kind of personal thinking as well.

Doug: Yes. That’s interesting. There was a period of time when I played around with sketching on an iPad and I enjoyed the benefits that you described, being able to erase things, move things around, play around with layouts. But because I was doing that on a digital surface and then spending quite a bit of time looking at a screen in any way because of blogging and other things, I just realized that I wanted to cut down the number of hours spent in front of the screen. Then it was kind of a certain number of hours within a day when that’s necessary, just because of the work that I was involved in. That’s part of what kind of made me explore more using paper only.

Because of that, it’s now definitely the go-to resource. I have found myself using a visual style of really for anything that requires brainstorming, or planning, or any kind of idea-generation at all, going at it on just within a sketchbook with a pen. I’m surprised at how quickly that has become my natural response to try to get things out of my head and onto paper.

Sacha: I like it because it allows you to think non-linearly. If you have a decision to make or if you’re considering several approaches, you can list them in columns, and then you can write, you can draw, you can doodle, you can draw little connecting arrows between related concepts and so forth.

And the other thing I like about it is that if you’re working on paper, you can spread the sheets out. I’ve got several sheets taped up on the wall near my computer, for example, and even more along the closets lining the basement. Even on the table, I might have three or four sketches that I’m working on at the same time as I bounce between them and think about different aspects of the situation.

Doug: Have you noticed regarding the difference between sketching on a screen versus sketching on a paper? I think just the last podcast or a couple of podcasts ago, I started looking into the research into handwriting and the benefits of even just, like, writing words out by hand. But I haven’t seen anything related to the difference between writing on a digital surface versus writing on an analog surface and if you have any insights, qualitative insights on your experiences with those two different media…

Sacha: I actually reflected on this in one of my blog posts. It was some time ago. The realization I came to was that when I work digitally, I tend to work very zoomed in, so everything is detailed. I have enough space to squeeze things in. I can resize things as needed. For me, it’s a great way to capture the keypoints from a speaker’s presentation, or a book, or whatever. But when I’m thinking on my own, I tend to want that overview.

The particular tools that I’m using–I tend to draw on a Lenovo X220 tablet PC, so I use AutoDesk Sketchbook Pro, which has this lovely pen-based interface. I do that when I’m drawing digitally, or I’m drawing on a Cintiq 12WX which is a screen that also is a tablet. So in general, I’m always working where I can see the thing that I’m drawing, right as I’m drawing it.

But even with that, I find that with paper, it’s so much easier to keep an eye on the big picture as well as have enough control to draw the small things. When I’m working on paper, I do find that it’s easier to get that sense of scale, the sense of how things relate to each other, since you’re not constantly zooming in and out to have that kind of control.

Doug: Interesting. What’s your preferred paper notebook style, and pen or pencil combo? What materials do you use for your analog sketching?

Sacha: Well, I learned the hard way that I should probably stick to 8½x11 paper because once you get the 9 inches, it’s hard to get a regular scanner to pick that up.

Doug: Yes.

Sacha: I usually draw on just those 8½x11 sketchbooks that they sell for cheap at art supply stores. I pick up a whole bunch of them. I draw one thought in one side of the page, maybe another thought on the other side of the page. I rip the pages out as I finish them. That way, I can easily scan them using a Fujitsu ScanSnap. It’s a sheet-fed scanner. I can just [inaudible] all the pieces of paper and turn that into scanned images, which I can then share in Flickr or whatever. In terms of pens, I’ve settled on really liking the Pilot Hi-Tec-C 0.4s. I’ve been on 0.4 millimeter for a while now. I like drawing that in black. I just order the refills off eBay because it’s inexpensive to do that.

I also like having a slightly thicker width, maybe in blue, and that’s the Pilot Hi-Tec V5. I’m never good at yelling with the subtleties of pressure, line width, whatever. For me, it’s almost… I can get things done quickly. It’s not scritchy like a ballpen and it doesn’t blot. I like fountain pens, but I always end up with inky fingers.

Doug: Yes. I imagine that there will come a time when I will nerd out on pens and get in a broader exploration of the fancier pens that are out there. But right now, I’m with you that I get pretty basic simple easily-refillable pens for sketching.

Sacha: Yes. Won’t cry if I lose them. Can always just buy a gazillion of them and have them in every bag, so I always have one handy.

A lot of my sketches these days have maybe black and blue. Sometimes when I scan them in, I’ll add a little bit more color.

Doug: Okay. Yes, that’s one of the nice things, even if you choose to sketch things out on paper. You can still scan them in, and then once you learned really not all that much in Adobe Photoshop, Illustrator, it’s pretty easy to digitize hand-sketched notes. Then you can still do things like play around with color and scale. Do you find yourself spending much time doing that?

Sacha: No, actually.

Doug: That’s good.

Sacha: I tend to use AutoDesk Sketchbook Pro even for my post-processing, because really, all I’m doing is adding a quick highlight of something, or maybe erasing something. Although usually I just leave the mistakes in there because that’s part of the story.

I just add a layer, say like, “Multiply this” or whatever the technical term is for the way that it’s blending the colors on top of it. Really, all I’m doing is just adding kind of like a highlighter, except this way I don’t have to worry about the highlighter messing up my ink.

Then I save it to directory, then PhotoSync–which is an application that you can use to synchronize, on Windows, a folder with Flickr–kicks in and pulls that in. It also gets automatically imported into Evernote, which lets me sort of search the handwriting.

Doug: That’s convenient.

Sacha: Yes! Because Evernote will try to do this handwriting recognition, which has saved my bacon a couple of times. It will actually look for the text inside your images. This is one of the things that has trained me to write in clear print.

Doug: So that will recognize it?

Sacha: Yes, right. I end up writing so that the computer can recognize it.

Doug: Interesting.

Sacha: Hence also the lack of fancy layouts. There’s that. Sometimes I’ll pull the sketches into my blog, or maybe I’ll have somebody actually type in the text for all of the important sketches and whatever else. There’s so much you can do with it once it’s digitized.

Doug: Yes. Any other tools that you’re currently using or enjoying related to getting ideas down, and shared and used for your purposes in general?

Sacha: I used to do a lot of mindmapping, but a lot of that has moved to just having lots of different sketchnotes. The way that it basically works now is: I might sketch a couple of ideas, maybe three or four related to a topic that I’ve been thinking about. Then instead of creating this mindmap that links everything together, I just take those sketches and I turn them into a blog post that ties those sketches together. I can then create more sketches or blog posts that link several of these blog post togethers. That’s a way for me to break out these complex ideas into more  chunks that I can easily work with.

Doug: It sounds like you’re getting pieces of information contained within individual sketchnotes which then you can connect those within one blog post, but then you can use multiple blog posts to connect even further ideas. It sounds like you’re using your blog as – I’m just thinking about the interesting combination of how you use your blog and your sketches, and how there’s all these linking going on to make this both digital and analog map of all the ideas that you’re thinking about and processing.

Sacha: Right. It’s because you can only hold so much in your head. If you’re going to think about something, if you’re going to think about it over an extended period of time, you’ve got to have a way to pull that together. I find that combining the sketches with some text means that I can find the sketches more easily, more reliably. It also allows me to start flushing those thoughts out or connecting them together, where just a photo album view might not get that right. That blog post lets me glue things together. It also makes it easier for other people to come across them. Maybe they’ll add their own perspectives, and insights, and then we’ll all get to learn more.

Doug: Yes. I found that even the process of looking back on your sketchnotes and putting just some simple reflections, or doing some sort of writing while you’re looking at and thinking about the sketchnotes in addition to the benefits of having that digital record, also just a process of doing that kind of helps solidify in your brain even further which is cool.

Sacha: I got a good story for you.

I end up putting together my sketchnotes collection. I’ve done this before. Following the example of Eva-Lotta Lamm, I think, who also has a sketchnotes collection, I put together all of my sketchnotes for 2012. I made that available before as a Powerpoint file and PDF. I actually imported all of them, one by one, because I think the photo album just [inaudible] a little resolution. Anyway, I had all the high resolutions of that in the Powerpoint, and then I manually created a table of contents for it which involved a lot of linking.

Then for my second version of this, “Sketchnotes 2013”, what I did ended up being this clever mix of using Emacs (which is a highly technical text editor, although it is super awesome), and LaTeX (which is actually a tool for scientific publishing). But the nice thing about it is I can give it a list of the sketchnotes that I have in different directories. I categorized them into sections. It makes it easy for me to create a PDF of all these sketchnotes, formatted as a book with page numbers and everything.

Then I used CreateSpace, which is this print on demand publisher to create this sketchnotes collection in prints. So, I can say, “Here is a hundred pages or so of sketchnotes.” I ordered myself a copy and I took it to the Visual Thinkers Toronto to say, “Hey, you can do this.” But of course, on the way there, I was flipping through my sketchnotes and starting to make margin notes, because you can say, “This is no longer valid,” or, “I should think about this some more.” I was annotating it in the margins. At this Visual Thinkers Toronto Meetup, somebody insisted in buying that copy off me. So, I’ll have to order myself another copy if I want to annotate it, and then go mark it up again.

But the idea of being able to quickly refer to those sketches… it’s a great way to trace your development over the year. It’s a great way to look at the decisions that you made, or reflecting on the questions, checking your goals. I find it to be tremendously helpful both digitally (because I have all these things in Flickr and on my blog in ways that I can easily refer to and refer other people to) as well as in print, and have all these originals lying around. The collections are nifty too.

Doug: Yes, I like that a lot. Only recently have I started to put out my sketchnotes and other sketched ideas on the walls. I  have very much enjoyed that process of having them not just either stuck in a blog post or in a notebook that I maybe have already filled up. So, I’m not going to open that notebook up anymore. I’m intrigued by this idea of capturing all those either in book form, or throwing them up on the wall.

This is one of the questions I’ve thought about as I sketched things from all sorts of different sources like some books, some TED talks, some other random podcast and interviews… Do you worry about copyright at all, like if the content that you are sketching comes from a copyrighted source? Have you looked into that? Because that’s something that I have been curious about, but haven’t personally looked into.

Sacha: I have thought about it. If you think about sketchnotes, they’re really in a sense creating a derivative work and I’m not well-versed enough in copyright a lot to say, “Hey, this is transformative.” or whatever else. You should talk to a lawyer etc., etc.

But what I find so far is… I’m always happy to take things down if anyone requests, not that anyone has ever requested. Usually the reaction to having a sketchnote of a presentation, or a book, or whatever else, has been absolute delight from the author, or the speaker, or whatever. They proceed to share with everybody they know. Sometimes if you’re lucky, the publisher will send you more stuff.

I guess that’s kind of the approach that I’ve been taking so far. It’s certainly a lot of concern around copyright. If you create something that’s too substantial, a copy of somebody else’s work, then they have no incentive of course to go read the book or whatever. I know that Cliff’s Notes, for example, do arrange for summarization rights or whatever the appropriate legal arrangement is.

But I guess, for sketchnotes, they communicate the key points, they can’t go into a lot of detail and they definitely encourage people to think about the presentation, or buy the book, or whatever else… So far, the response has been universally positive.

Doug: Yes, to the point of getting sent books, it sounds like.

Sacha: I find that I’m a little bit more hesitant now to accept sketchnoting requests because I always feel guilty about books… That it’s a good book but it’s not quite – I don’t know. Sometimes you struggle with a particular one. Also, because we have one of the most amazing library systems in the world. They’ve got this huge collection. So, I’ve got this tremendous backlog of all these other books that I could be reading. It’s hard to just take a chance. You feel guilty if you say no. But I have received some real gems through this review process. Sometimes, if somebody suggests a book that looks particularly interesting and I think that a visual summary of it will help a lot of other people out, then I’ll say, “Hey, no promises but I’ll see what I can put together.” And I can read a book pretty quickly. It’s really just maybe two hours of my time to read the book, draw everything, post it, and make at least a few people very happy.

Doug: So it’s your process for sketching out a book? Do you read through the whole book first and then go to sketching? Or do you sketch as you read?

Sacha: I have a lovely blog post explaining this process because it’s something a lot of people ask me about. I find that it’s a lot easier for me to draw the book as I’m going through it, and to do this digitally so I can change things around in case I mess up. Some books, they promise one things but they actually end up going different directions–which is good, sometimes, in a great direction–but then you have to re-arrange things to make sure of the space.

So I find that by doing it while I’m reading… I’ll read the table of contents first. Maybe I’ll flip through it. But if I’m doing it at the same time as I’m reading it, it actually cuts down on the time that I need. I still manage to pull all the important points out because most authors are really good at emphasizing the key points from each chapter or whatever.

Doug: You mentioned going to a Vis-Think meetup in Toronto. What’s the community of visual thinkers like there and what sort of activities go on within that community?

Sacha: There are quite a few sketchnoters, graphic recorders, visual artists, people who are interested in the field, people who are exploring all these other ways of visualizing information or sharing that. There’s a whole range of people, which is wonderful. Then in terms of activities, sometimes there’s a talk – actually the main organizer these days, she brings a large sheet of paper and lots of markers and encourages everyone to get into the exercise of drawing this out.

So, we’re on the floor and we’re drawing this person talking about stuff and other people are sketchnoting it or whatever. Then, people often head out to the pub afterwards and have this lovely chat. Somewhere in the middle (which of course I’ve forgotten to mention because brain thinking non-linearly etc., etc.), there’s a bit of an open space so people can bring whatever they want to show and they can share it with other people.

For example, one time, somebody brought a book of subway maps. That was incredible too, just looking at the different designs. People break up into these small groups to discuss whatever it is they’re particularly interested in.

Doug: That’s fun to see. Even as easy as it is to share things online and become part of that community of sketchnoters, doodlers, and visual thinkers via blogs and Twitter and all that, it’s cool that there are still in-person meetups related to specific fields, which probably I think we’ll continue to see on a broader level no matter what kind of interest you’re getting into.

Sacha: I do like a mix of both. For example I’m quite active in a couple of local meetups in Toronto. Visual Thinkers, I go to every so often. There’s another one for people who like tracking and visualizing data, so that’s called Quantified Self and there’s this entire movement. I’m active in Quantified Self Toronto. But I’m also very interested in virtual ways to connect with people with similar interests, like a way that you might use Google Hangouts on Air to bring together maybe ten people to show stuff off, or record things, and then share that with an even wider audience. I like that because it allows you to reach out to people who are beyond your geographic location, people who might be interested in one thing or another.

Podcasting is a great way to do this as well because you have this lovely conversation. What’s good about that is that it’s not just limited to the two of you, and it’s not just limited to that time and place. If it’s recorded, it can stay around and other people can learn from it. That conversation can grow from there.

A lot of people are huge fans of face-to-face meetups, of course, and that’s great. I also think that virtual meetups and these online connections can be amazing as well.

Doug: Yes. I’m going to be curious to see how that dynamic plays out over the next ten or twenty years. I guess I think a lot about the world of education because that’s what my background is: in-person versus online options that are out there, and just what things will look like down the line. I think where I stand right now is definitely along the lines that you were talking about, having the balance between the two, because they each offer distinct advantages and benefits.

Sacha: I think of it a little like the way a bookstore is different from searching for stuff online. Online, you can easily find the things you’re looking, but sometimes in real life, you find the things that you didn’t know that you were looking for. As the conversation grows online like the way that Amazon suggest things to you and Netflix suggest things to you, and also as you share what you’re learning and what you’re interested in learning, that opens up the possibility that other people will say, “Hey, you should check this out.” Or, “You should meet this person.” Maybe you can have that conversation that you might never have had in real life, either because you might be in the same city as they are, or you just might never have ran into each other. But online, you have that opportunity as well.

Doug: It sounds like you’re moving a little bit toward – I guess maybe not as much sketchnoting for other folks–but instead, digging more into your own interests. I’ve noticed you posting a lot about Emacs lately. I’m curious to hear, as somewhat digitally-literate person but not so much in the programming world, what you’re working on these days and the types of ideas that you are sketching out now.

Sacha: Yes. That shift has been particularly interesting for me. The shift from working on other people’s tasks and other people’s content, to try and dig through my own, learn more about my interest, ask my own questions… It’s so easy to just focus on what other people want and need because of course, not only are they paying for it, but you also get their appreciation. You’ve got these clear tasks to work on and you’ve got a clear idea of what you need to do.

Working on your own stuff is a lot more vague sometimes. You have to figure out a lot more. But I’m finding it pretty interesting. I’ve figured, if people are interested in having their events sketchnoted, or their book reviewed, or whatever else, there are lots of other people who will be happy to do this as part of building their business.

Since there are plenty of people who can do that, then I can focus on the things where there are fewer people to do them. Emacs, for example, is this text editor. It’s like Notepad on steroids, and not very visual if you think about it that way. But what I like about is it’s very extensible and you can really play around with it. You can adapt it to whatever it is you need.

So over the years that it has been around, people have written code for it to turn it into all sorts of things – calculators, day planners, games even. There is in fact a way to play Tetris inside this text editor, and somebody has written something that plays Tetris for you. This is a lovely bit of insanity and awesomeness all mixed into one. I like playing around with it. I’m spending some time doing so.

But yes, in addition to that, I’m also curious about what can you do if you take sketchnoting– because a lot of the time, we think about sketchnoting as recording somebody else’s content–you take sketchnoting, and you use it as a technique for living an awesome life, figuring out what it is that you want, figuring out how you can get there, observing the things that are going on around you and being able to pay attention to things that you would have otherwise missed, being able to puzzle things out using visual thinking and all of these techniques and tools. Maybe we don’t see enough of this yet because a lot of the sketchnotes are really focused on what sketchnotes are. They’re really recordings of other people’s stuff. But it will be interesting to see more of these visual thinking examples as technology and the community grows.

Doug: Yes, I agree. In the conversation that I had with Mike Rohde on this podcast, I think I mentioned how, for me, I went through a period of time when I only sketchnoted other people’s stuff. Then at some point, probably just because it became a habit, then I started using that technique to sketch out my own ideas and work through my own problems, trying to figure out my own life. Then it’s like, “Oh, yes!” It’s a pretty useful tool for that as well. But why did it take me so long to start using it for those purposes?

Sacha: Yes, for sure. It’s a lot of fun. It’s great to see your progress as you’re unpacking a complex issue or you’re figuring out the decision. And you can go back to it afterwards as well.

It’s certainly something that I’d love it if more people could explore this. Give themselves permission to try it out and then they’ll discover that it becomes a habit, it becomes one of those tools in your toolboxes and it’s a lot of fun to use.

Doug: I think when you remove the context of trying to make something that accurately represent someone else’s idea or represents it in a visually appealing way, because you know you might want to share it online… Once that pressure is off and you’re just doing it for yourself, for me, that makes the experience itself more enjoyable, because I’m not so stressed out about how the final product would look. Because even thinking about it as the final product as opposed to just another tool, an initial sketch or initial something, what do you want for yourself that…

Sacha: And you’re not worried about keeping up, matching someone else’s pace, making sure that everything is spelled properly… You can slow down, you can do things as you like.

Another nice thing about it is knowing that you’re going to revisit these thoughts. You might not solve a question for all time the first time that you draw it. You can keep coming back to it. You don’t have to get everything perfect, and you don’t have to get everything right. You just have to keep making progress. You ask yourself a question. You find out where that question takes you. When you come back to that question, you’ll find that maybe you’ll get a little bit further, or maybe you’ll go down another interesting path.

Doug: That’s great. I’m glad that topic came up. Is there anything in particular that you’re looking forward to digging into the near future that you haven’t mentioned yet, or is there part of your experiment in semi-retirement, or unrelated, or anything at all?

Sacha: Well, in terms of the open source stuff that I’ve been working on, I’m looking forward to helping figure out what helps people go from intermediate users to being advanced users. A lot of the stuff we’ve been working on has been focused on helping people when they’re at the beginner level. But I’m curious about–in general, not just for Emacs or other technical topics–what does that geekiness look like? How do you get people to the point where they’re doing these things that maybe were previously unimaginable with it? If you think about that in terms of sketchnoting, what does that look like for people to go from beginner-level to intermediate or advanced? How do people’s individual skills, interest and all of those things emerge with practice, curiosity, and maybe a little bit of help? That’s something I’m curious about, which you might relate to because you have a background in education.

Doug: Yes, that’s very interesting.

Sacha: And you know, there are all these other things that I’m playing around with. How can you make the most of the time that you have? How can you play around with? How can you share all the good stuff that working on and you’re learning, so that other people can learn from that as well?

There are always things that I’m playing around with, thinking about learning, and sharing and trying to look at how you can scale up, how you can go beyond the limits of 24 hours in a day and the fact that you’ve only got this one life and only so many experiences and opportunities…You can reach out, perhaps tap other people’s time, and skills, and opportunities, to make something even bigger happen.

Doug: Very cool ideas. Related to that desire to share what you’re learning about as you come across it – because I think nothing quite compares to the first time you come across a new idea or a new person who’s doing something really interesting and the excitement of that, but also whatever that kind of extra link adds to your chain, and knowledge, or skills, or the way that fits into the stuff you’ve been learning about. And because of that, there’s this desire to share it with other people in some way.

But what I found is that there are some times when I try and strike a balance between taking effort and attention away from my own immersion in that topic to go share it, which then pulls away the momentum from my learning, but I am able to share it in some way and try to find the balance between that.

Have you found a process or a method related to sharing in a way that doesn’t take you too far out of the thing you’re learning about? How do you approach that?

Sacha: I have a sketch about this topic because I was reflecting on what they often say–it’s the kind of how brain surgeons learn. You learn one, and you do one, and you teach one. It’s so very tempting to focus on step one and step two of that cycle, you learn one and you do one, but you’re so excited. You want to learn the next one. You want to do the next one without teaching it. That’s also my temptation. I want to keep learning things and, I think, “Oh, it takes some time to sit down, share things, or whatever.” But what I find is that if I’m writing and drawing in the process of learning things, then sharing becomes much easier because you’re just taking your notes and you’re putting them up on the web–maybe with a little bit of tweaking, but you’re sharing as you go. That’s tremendously helpful.

The other thing I find is that if I’m sharing as I go, then I feel less guilty about being distracted by new shiny things that I want to learn because I know that those notes are something that I can come back to. The next time I’m interested in a topic, I don’t have to start from scratch. I don’t have to dig up those things that I’ve forgotten. I could find my notes and I can build on top of that.

Actually, taking a little bit of time to share as you’re learning saves you a lot of time later on, especially if you’re easily distracted like me. If you’re doing that, chances are that as you’re sharing, you’re helping other people out. Some of them might even be inclined to help you. They’ll suggest some resources. They’ll point out some things you’ve missed, or some things that you don’t know about. So it’s actually a very selfish[ly useful] thing to do, which is why you should do it. Sharing helps you learn more effectively.

Doug: That looks like you have set up a good system for you to do that – your blog.

Sacha: I’ve been blogging for more than 10 years.

Doug: That is a great resource. I think if people haven’t checked out your website, I think they should definitely do that to see and obviously get a first-hand look on the way you are structuring both the experiment but also this process of learning and sharing. It’s cool to see how you have set that up.

I guess to wrap things up here, where can people find you? Where is that website and any other places online where you’re sharing your stuff?

Sacha: Well, my name is a little hard to spell, it’s Sacha Chua and the consonants always get mixed up. You can find my blog instead at, or you can find it as the shorter URL called I’m also on Twitter, sometimes in Google Plus, but really the blog is the place where everything comes together.

Doug: To see how that all comes together on Sacha’s website and to check out all the other posts and resources that came up during our chat, head on over to the show notes for this episode which can be found at

Special thanks to Sacha for joining us on the podcast. It was great chatting with her. I think one of the things that stood out for me in our chat was how intentional Sacha is about how she uses her time. That doesn’t mean that she’s working every second of the day – quite the opposite actually. This experiment in semi-retirement is giving her an opportunity to take some time for herself and pursue some interesting projects that she might not have had time to if not for this experiment.

So I encourage you to think about what interest and topics you might feel like exploring that you haven’t had the chance to yet, and also maybe try to find some ways to both learn about something that you’re interested in and share it at the same time.

I do hope you learned something from my chat with Sacha. I will talk to you again next week. Until then!



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