Over the last 18 months I performed an experiment in how I consume content.
I became a father in 2020. It was and continues to be one of the most profound, joyful experiences of my life. I wouldn’t trade it for the world.
But alongside this dramatic shift in my life, I noticed another great love of mine fell by the wayside: consuming content and learning new things.
My previous approach to reading involved sitting in total silence in a peaceful room, classical music playing softly and strong coffee in hand, giving the piece in front of me my full and undivided attention. As any new parent could tell you, this idyllic approach was now impossible.
I sensed I needed an equally dramatic change in my approach to content. I needed a way to consume new ideas more passively without missing out on the richness of immersing myself deeply. So I decided to undertake an experiment:
- I would listen to 100 episodes of the SPI (Smart Passive Income) Podcast, hosted by Pat Flynn.
- I would listen to each episode in order, without skipping any, even if the topic didn’t seem interesting.
- And I would only listen to the podcast during the “in-between” moments of my day: while running errands, doing household chores, or taking walks.
The Listening Experiment
The previous year, I had taken Pat Flynn’s online course Power-Up-Podcasting and used what it taught me to create the first season of the Building a Second Brain Podcast. I was impressed with the course at every step of the way: the production quality, the frameworks presented, Pat’s personable delivery, and the attention to every little detail that makes or breaks a self-paced learning experience.
I kept an eye on Pat ever since, and soon noticed some striking similarities between us. We both had big ambitions – and these ambitions were accompanied by equally strong commitments to our family lives. We both had wide-ranging interests – yet were also drawn to building specific educational products. We both started as independent creators – but over time, chose to build out “real” businesses that transcended our personal brands.
On the surface, listening to a podcast isn’t exactly an unusual goal. But there were 3 unconventional aspects to my experiment:
- I would listen passively, while doing other things like washing the dishes, doing laundry, or driving, and pivotally, without taking notes (Gasp!).
- I would listen linearly, straight through 100 consecutive episodes, rather than skipping around to whichever show or episode seemed interesting.
- Finally, I would travel back in time, to the point in Pat’s business that most resembled my own, rather than starting with the latest episodes.
Why passive listening? If I’m being totally honest, after a decade of meticulous notetaking, I’m getting a little tired of noting every single tip and tactic when I read. I now have 7,500+ notes in my Second Brain. Do I really need one more? The knowledge I’ve already collected could likely last me the rest of my lifetime. It was time to take in new ideas without worrying about capturing every little detail.
I listened linearly because I wasn’t looking for advice on any specific topic. I wanted to absorb Pat’s worldview: his way of thinking through problems, as well as the deeper lessons about what it means to be an excellent husband, father, businessperson, and human being. This meant I needed to retrace Pat’s steps and patiently navigate through the same topics and lessons he experienced, even if the subject of an episode didn’t immediately captivate me.
And finally, I chose to listen 4 years back in time because that was when Pat’s timeline most resembled my own. In early 2016, Pat was on the verge of releasing his book, Will It Fly? In April of 2020, I had just signed my own book deal. I could already sense that the added exposure and attention of a book launch would change the trajectory of my business and my life… and I wanted to see how it had changed Pat’s.
SPI was founded in 2008 so in 2016, when episode #197 first aired, Pat’s company was 8 years old. I started Forte Labs in 2013, so when I started listening to these 100 episodes, our company was 7 years old – almost the same spot in our business life cycle. That meant listening to Pat was like having a business coach in my ear – as he described his mistakes and successes in so much detail that I was able to map his experience onto my own.
I started with episode #197, Behind the Scenes of Writing Will It Fly? (released on January 20, 2016), and over the next 18 months listened to one episode at a time, 100 episodes in a row, until I reached episode #297, Looking Back at 2017—What Went Well, What Did Not (released December 20, 2017). I made no attempt to rush through the episodes or make progress at any particular pace. I listened exclusively while doing other things, which ended up being about 1.4 episodes per week. This was a marathon, not a sprint.
What I Learned
There were 3 powerful lessons I took away from this experience:
- The importance of understanding the evolution of your industry
- The value of removing yourself from the timeliness and urgency of now
- The power of immersing yourself in another person’s body of work
The importance of understanding the evolution of your industry
I teach online courses and sell other educational information products. In some ways, the online ed industry is still in its early days and might not seem like it has much of a “history” – but it absolutely does.
Pat’s business is only 5 years older than mine. But on the Internet, 5 years is a generation. It was eye-opening for me to hear about an entire “era” of online education that I hadn’t been a part of. This era is reflected in SPI’s name – Smart Passive Income – illustrating that it emerged on the scene at a time when many people were first being exposed to the possibility that they could sell things online to make money – as they say – “while you sleep.”
Flash forward to 2013, when I launched my first course. The business model that Pat helped pioneer was now well-accepted, and the frontier had moved to a new question: Can you start an online business that isn’t just “passive,” but competitive, profitable, and meaningful? The bar had been raised. People’s expectations had adjusted, and they now wanted to know if their online side gig could provide a real living.
Pat’s podcast allowed me to travel back to the peak of the “self-paced” course era when excitement and enthusiasm about “MOOCs” (Massive Open Online Courses) was at an all-time high. This helped me understand why people loved the cohort-based model that I had stumbled upon, leading me to write The Future of Education is Community: The Rise of Cohort-Based Courses describing this evolution in detail.
I understood why the crux of my kind of business was audience-building. Millions had flooded the market with information products over the previous decade, and it was no longer enough just to post a course to your website. Competition has shifted to marketing – with an emphasis both on growing the size of your audience, but even more importantly, your engagement with the buying psychology that leads people to purchase.
Even more eye-opening, I noticed how each cohort of successful online personalities rose together: how they supported each other, shared lessons and resources with one another, and promoted each others’ offerings. I noticed the same cast of characters appearing on Pat’s podcast, and him on theirs, again and again.
This made me realize I needed to invest more in relationships with peers in my field. That we were no longer an obscure little blog no one had heard of – the next chapter of our growth would be all about partnerships and collaborations with some of the biggest names in productivity, self-improvement, and online education.
The value of removing yourself from the timeliness and urgency of now
The second lesson was that there is tremendous value in removing oneself from the urgency and hype of the moment, and going back in time to the recent past.
The current online media landscape is strongly oriented towards NOW: the latest episode, the latest meme, the latest headline, the latest controversy. We get interrupted from reading a piece of content that dropped 5 minutes ago… by one that dropped 5 seconds ago. It’s an endless race to the bottom of our already short attention spans, each channel trying to be louder and more sensationalist than the last.
Listening to podcast episodes from several years in the past, I soon noticed I was developing a powerful immunity to the manufactured urgency of the moment. Once I committed to listening to a historical, pre-published library of high value content, I no longer had to pay attention to the ceaseless notifications buzzing at me while I scrolled an endless social feed for new content. Instead of swimming through the chaotic stream of NOW, I could wade peacefully through a deep pool of ideas that Pat had carefully curated for me on his podcast, years before I needed it.
If Pat mentioned an upcoming event, product launch, or change in strategy, I didn’t have to wait for it. I could simply “time travel” to the present moment and see how it had all played out. I knew that in only a few short episodes, I would hear everything he had learned from the experience, neatly organized for my consumption.
When authors were interviewed about their book launch strategies, I didn’t have to wonder if I should do the same. I could immediately look up how well their book ended up selling. Listening to the podcast was like taking in someone’s entire learning journey at 2x speed, skipping the waiting and going straight to the distilled wisdom.
Learning in this way also allowed me to gain tremendous perspective on how trends work. When a new kind of technology or hot platform first emerges, it always seems like it’s going to take over the world. Everyone’s talking about it and its future dominance seems inevitable. But if you follow the most-hyped trends closely, you’re always going to be jerked in one direction after another…and never actually arrive anywhere.
It was so gratifying to hear Pat talk about exciting trends of the time – digital magazines for iPad, Slack replacing email, and crowdfunding revolutionizing product development – and to know that those trends didn’t pan out. Or that some trends such as “live video” took many years to mature and ultimately fragmented into multiple distinct products, such as Zoom, Twitch livestreaming, and live broadcasting on social media. That observation gave me the confidence that many, if not most, of the trends of today will ultimately go nowhere, and therefore I don’t have to chase them.
The power of immersing yourself in another person’s body of work
There’s so much content available online these days – and so much more new content coming out every single day – that it tempts us to pick and choose only the morsels that happen to be most interesting or appealing to us in the moment.
We click on intriguing thumbnails, headlines that promise the moon, and whatever happens to be getting the most likes and replies that day. There’s nothing inherently wrong with this, but over time I’ve noticed that this “grazing” approach to reading and listening can keep us in superficial waters. The most attention-grabbing content also tends to be the most shallow, sensationalistic, and hyperbole-filled. Deeper ideas take time and patience to absorb.
Not only that, but when we pick and choose each piece of content we consume, we tend to stay within the same topics and domains that we already know and like. We pick sources that we’re familiar with, which reinforces our beliefs and perspectives and contributes to the “filter bubbles” that are polarizing our society.
Paradoxically, I’ve concluded that the best way out of this trap is to exert less control over what you consume. Once you’ve chosen a writer, thinker, or expert, I recommend proceeding linearly through their body of work to walk through the steps of their thinking. Think of them as your “mentor at a distance” and dedicate yourself to studying their body of work, not just a single piece.
Making my way through the SPI Podcast, I couldn’t resist reading some of the show notes. And many of them didn’t interest me immediately. But I persevered, and those very episodes sometimes ended up being the most surprising and enlightening.
I learned about businesses I would never have had exposure to otherwise: a snack vending machine business, an art camp for kids, a weightlifting gym, a website for residential property managers, language learning classes, a clothing company, among others.
I was introduced to “content auditing” from Todd Tresidder (ep. #200) and how deleting a third of the content on a blog can significantly increase its performance (to my shock). I learned from Simple Green Smoothies how to run “challenges” (ep. #205) to get followers to take action. I gained some powerful insights into building a grassroots fanbase from the creators of a Walking Dead fan club (ep. #247).
All of these subjects and more I never would have chosen myself. And that is precisely why they were so valuable – they introduced me to ideas and ways of thinking I wouldn’t have found otherwise.
When you consume content in a linear way, without skipping things you’re unfamiliar with, you inevitably stumble across things you didn’t even know you were looking for. This approach takes up less energy and bandwidth, because you’re not having to make a decision about what to consume every time you have a few free minutes.
Most importantly of all, I had my mind changed in unexpected ways. Hearing from the makers of the Five-Minute Journal (ep. #271) convinced me that it would be worthwhile for us to publish a “Second Brain Notebook” one day despite the formidable challenges of creating a physical product. The episode with Pat’s wife and kids (ep. #225) showed me that it can be touching to talk more about my family, and that people appreciate hearing from them.
An interview with “gift-giving consultant” John Ruhlin (ep. #248) changed my mind about the value of thoughtful gifts, which I’d never placed much importance on since I don’t really care about gifts myself. An interview with Pat’s Managing Editor Janna Maron (ep. #215) hit me like a ton of bricks as I instantly realized I was badly in need of an “executive producer” for my own content after years of managing it all on my own (leading to the recent hiring of our first Director of Content, Marc Koenig, who edited this very piece!).
The Long Arc of a Successful Business
Stepping back from the details, when I look back at this podcast time travel experiment, my biggest takeaway is that the road to create a sustainable, fulfilling business is a long one. There are more steps on that journey than I expect – more pivots and repositionings, more rebrands and website redesigns, more product iterations, more partnerships and collaborations.
Being able to retrace the steps of someone I respect and admire is like having a roadmap for that long journey. It doesn’t tell me every single obstacle I will face. But it tells me what others have overcome who walked a similar road. I saw in SPI’s story that every business moves through seasons, that the definition of success is different in each season, and that what ultimately matters in the end is the quality of the life you lived while you moved through them.
Did each season make you a better person, even if it was filled with mistakes or disappointments? Did you welcome each new season as a part of life’s evolution? Did you appreciate and respect what each season had to offer, even if it was temporary?
Doing business online, it often feels like everything moves at light speed. Everything needs to happen yesterday, if not last week. The competition seems ever-threatening, the technology ever-intimidating, and the incoming trends never stop.
But I’ve noticed that while business tactics constantly shift, there are timeless principles and mindsets that are always relevant. When you abstract away the details of a particular marketing campaign, product launch, or sales goal, we are all just humans striving (or slouching) toward greater self-awareness, self-understanding, and if we’re lucky, self-acceptance.
In an always-on, manic environment that prizes only the novel and the public, there are so many benefits to prioritizing instead the timeless and the private. One way of doing that is to take notes and slowly digest them over time. Another way is to go back in time and absorb the lessons that others have taken the time to curate and share.
We live in a special time when it’s become so easy to create content, and so effortless to document and share one’s story online, that there are more leaders and artists and innovators than ever whose journey you can time travel through. It’s not a matter of going to the library and checking out stacks of dusty books. The life lessons of the world’s most interesting, creative, accomplished people are at your fingertips, if you only take the time to immerse yourself in them.
Special thanks to Nxt Animal, Mallory Baskin, Kevin Espiritu, Charles Brewer, and Yasi Zhang for their suggestions and feedback on this post.
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