(While Having Our First Child During a Global Pandemic)
Writing and publishing my book Building a Second Brain was by far the longest and hardest project I’ve ever completed.
From the first call with the agent (who would eventually represent me) in January 2019 until June 2022 when the book was released to the world, it took almost exactly 3.5 years. That’s 10% of my life!
Along the way, it reshaped every aspect of my life – my psychology, my routines, my relationships, my time management, my energy levels, my business decisions. Everthing was geared towards arriving at a final manuscript.
Before it fades from my memory, I want to share the part of the story that usually goes untold: what it cost my biological brain and my body to write this book.
It all comes down to the immense, inhuman amount of energy it takes to move a project of this magnitude forward step by step. Every decision, every action, every edit to the manuscript has to be made while keeping in mind the totality of the whole. If I wanted to make a single change – such as changing “digital notes app” to simply “notes app” – that couldn’t be done in isolation. I have to then consider not only all the other places that term was used, but a cascade of other implications that spring from that one-minute edit.
“Will it be clear that I’m talking about software?” “Will the reader understand that it can be a program on their computer as well as an app on their smartphone?” “Is there such a thing as a non-digital notes app and would this advice apply to it?” Those are just a few of the multitude of questions that I’ve suddenly created.
And this level of complexity potentially applies to any of the 65,000 words the manuscript contains. Sometimes a future edit means previous edits have to be revisited again. And every word has to be absolutely final, since it will be printed thousands of times, potentially translated into dozens of languages, and can never be changed.
All this means that absurd amounts of time went into even the smallest detail of the manuscript. For example, I’d spend 10-20 hours writing about every facet of “knowledge building blocks” – publishing an in-depth article about it on my blog, testing it with hundreds of people, refining and distilling the most resonant points – to ultimately produce just one short section of one chapter. Many times I’d spend a similar amount of time for an output that ended up becoming a footnote, or being cut altogether.
Writing the manuscript meant treating my own time like it was worth nothing. Like hours and hours of my time were worth saving readers 1% of the mental bandwidth needed to grasp an idea.
The only way I know how to write effectively so that others will understand is to run a simulated model of the reader’s mind in my own mind, like two operating systems running on the same computer. And then I rapidly switch back and forth between those two points of view while making a constant stream of micro-decisions at various levels of abstraction simultaneously. This is also the most mentally taxing kind of thinking I know of, like an overclocked computer expending every resource while ignoring the heat building up inside.
Which brings us back to the subject of energy.
Time by itself doesn’t convey the toll writing this book had on me. It took thousands of hours, but hours alone cannot explain the psychic and emotional impact of bringing it to completion. Besides the raw biochemical energy all this required, the kicker is that I had to truly care – to perform emotional labor on behalf of many thousands of people I would never meet. I had to do it far in advance, anticipating their questions and doubts, adapting my advice for the most likely challenges, all while keeping everything at a level of simplicity that a child could understand. I had to insist on finding the absolute best and simplest way to phrase a sentence as if someone’s life depended on it.
The only way to convey what this took is to describe some of the things I didn’t have energy for as a result. I used every self-care and self-awareness tool I had at my disposal – the most regular daily meditation of my life, like a lifeline to my sanity; deep emotional fluidity work through working with a coach named Joe Hudson; all the skills I had learned from Landmark and Tony Robbins and Michael Singer; and of course plenty of walks in nature in and around Long Beach where we live.
Yet even with all these skills, tools, and resources, there were days when I didn’t have the energy to take a shower, and would just drag myself from my bed to my desk and back again in the evening. There were many times I couldn’t summon the energy to make myself a sandwich, and would order Chipotle to be delivered so I could get right back to writing. Or I’d wear the same outfit day after day because I didn’t have it in me to choose another one, much less do laundry. It was like a window into depression at times, a deep deficit of life force as every ounce of my available energy went into writing this book.
I quickly learned that there were really only a few precious hours each morning, starting almost the moment I woke up, when I truly had the energy and clear mind to make real progress. The rest of my time turned into rest and recovery, planning and distilling my notes, pondering thorny writing problems, or trying to keep the remainder of my life at bay.
My usual morning routine went out the window so that I could take advantage of those precious hours. I fought like hell to defend those hours from any meeting, call, or appointment, because I not only knew that I would lose an entire morning of focus time if I had even one call, the following day would also be even harder because I’d have been away for two days at that point.
As the size and scope of the manuscript expanded and I had to load more into my brain just to be able to write one more sentence, my window of productive focus time shrunk even further. Toward the end, I’d optimize my whole day to get perhaps one hour when real progress was being made.
At the same time, I was leaning hard on nearly every member of both mine and my wife’s families. It is no exaggeration to say that it took two entire families stepping in to fulfill our basic responsibilities as adults in order to see this book through. My mother-in-law watched our infant son for 5 hours per day, 5 days per week, an almost unheard of luxury during the COVID pandemic. My wife’s 3 sisters and brother took care of him, came over to babysit, or helped us with other errands almost every day. My family lives further away and served as occasional babysitters, a much-needed weekend getaway, or support on other projects such as organizing our home and remodeling our garage into a home office.
At several points when I was facing imminent deadlines, I went on 4-day writing retreats. Staying at hotels or Airbnbs a couple hours from home, I’d write from morning till night. I’ll share the design of those writing retreats later, but they required an even more heroic effort from our support network to fill in for our family’s needs while I was away. At one point, my mom stayed with my wife for several days to help her. A cast of babysitters, both family members and friends, took turns watching our son so that we could make it through.
I had to become very comfortable with asking for help, which was a sharp departure from my usual dedication to total self-reliance. Almost every day it seemed like I had to ask a new person for help with one thing or another. I’m shocked and amazed that hardly anyone ever said no.
We also spent an absurd amount of money to save even the tiniest amount of time or energy. A house cleaner 3 times a week, who we eventually asked to take over doing our laundry because we weren’t up to the task. A meal delivery service providing almost every meal. Every purchase ordered online and delivered to save a trip to the store. A personal assistant we hired to help with administrative tasks in the business, but also for the simplest household tasks we found ourselves unable to get to for weeks. I’ll never forget asking her to help us buy a new dishwasher when we were simply unable to summon the mental energy required.
Much of this also coincided with the birth of our first child in October 2020, which created a backdrop of sleep deprivation and general chaos during this period. I gained the most weight ever and developed all sorts of aches and pains in my back and shoulders from sitting for hours a day at my desk. To combat these developments, I hired a personal trainer twice a week to keep me at a minimum level of fitness and worked with a wonderful massage therapist on deep fascial massage to correct my distorted posture and bad habits. I also hired a business coach to help me surface emotional blockages and see blindspots, which gave me tremendous relief and clarity. Basically, I spent lavishly on anyone who could solve a problem or relieve a symptom for me in an effort to preserve every bit of energy possible.
I keep saying “we” because so much of the burden of the responsibilities I had to push aside fell on my wife Lauren. She stepped back from working in the business with me and became our “household CEO,” making sure that each of us and our son were getting our needs met. There were dark days when we were so close to our limits, or beyond them, searching desperately for any unused resource we could find. We had to draw on every communication tool we had ever learned, years of training in emotional intelligence and coaching and listening, to survive the stress this dramatically increased load placed on our relationship. This is one reason I dedicated the book to her.
As all this was going on, we also had a business to run. Since the beginning of the pandemic, we grew from 2 to 10 full-time equivalent employees, which meant payroll to meet, staff to manage, and decisions to be made that impacted people’s livelihoods. While the book advance was multiple six figures (a great blessing for a first-time author) it was also taxed heavily, paid out in installments over a long time, and completely spent before it was even received on the best editor and promotional agency money could buy. That meant the business was the true funding engine of this entire endeavor, fueling dozens of projects, full-time and contractor hires, and investments in email list growth, video production, social media marketing, and brand design, among others.
The online course that is our flagship product had to keep going and growing to fund our lives and the creation of the book, while continuing to improve and innovate in its own right. About midway through writing the manuscript, at one of our staff retreats, our team had to practically stage an intervention to get more access to me because I had sequestered myself so completely that they weren’t able to move forward on critical decisions. I’m sure the business suffered compared to what would have happened otherwise.
I drew on every mind available to me. My team constantly surfaced new insights or ideas or feedback from our students about what was helping them succeed in building a Second Brain. I sent drafts and had discussions with many dozens of friends, collaborators, and advisors in our network, poking and prodding their brains to give me just one more juicy turn of phrase or vivid expression I could use. I constantly polled my Twitter audience for alternative names for technical terms, or ideas of illuminating metaphors, or examples of a certain concept.
Any time I encountered a kind of thinking that I thought someone else could do at least as well as me, I turned to them. Over time I found that writing a book is mostly a matter of seeing very familiar ideas from a new perspective, so I constantly borrowed their beginner’s eyes and beginner’s mind to help me see what I was trying to express as if for the first time.
I also relied heavily on my editor. I knew from the beginning that I needed not only someone extremely skilled and smart, but with a wealth of experience and credibility that would allow them to stand up to me and push back on my opinions. I can be a stubborn bastard, so I try to surround myself with others who are equally strong-willed. I ended up working with Janet Goldstein, who edited the book Getting Things Done, a key source of inspiration for my work. That authority allowed her to shape the writing in a way that was far more than correcting mistakes. There were times she pushed so hard on certain points I almost got angry. But ultimately, her ability to turn my raw material into a form that anyone could pick off the shelf and understand was crucial.
My agent and publisher also gave me tons of useful advice, helping me understand how the non-fiction book market works, how the reading public evaluates books and the ideas in them, and how to build not just a piece of writing but a scalable product that could drive our business for years to come.
The most difficult aspect of my book writing experience to express is what it was like funneling every last bit of my excitement, enthusiasm, and passion into this book. If I listened to a beautiful song and felt moved by it, I would immediately try to turn that energy to productive use. The pleasure of every meal became a salve for the pain of pushing myself too hard. Friendships got whittled down to the minimum necessary for social survival, which was somewhat aided by the risks of the pandemic. My entire psychology – what I thought about in my free time, what I was interested and curious about, all casual hobbies and intellectual pursuits – they all got warped to serve the needs of this all-consuming project, like spacetime being distorted around an invisible black hole. I think it will take many months to fully recover from the effects of that distortion.
I’m normally an open, curious person with many ongoing interests at any given time. In a word, the natural way my mind works is divergent. But that all had to change for the last couple of years. Instead of moving like a pendulum between divergence and convergence every few months – starting new projects and bringing them to completion before moving on to something new – I had to purposefully enter the longest and most focused period of convergence of my life. I had to say no to every new project that didn’t directly advance the book. I had to postpone every subject I wanted to learn about if it wasn’t necessary to complete the book. Every creative outlet or art form or fun diversion that wasn’t contributing to the book project had to be shut down, postponed, or canceled.
This was all the more strange as I was writing a book on creative self-expression. My own expression had to be channeled into the most narrow and exacting sliver of output imaginable. The tension between the desire to say what I wanted to say boldly and unequivocally, and the need to put it into the precise language of non-fiction self-help, often felt like trying to scream but having no mouth.
To be able to write this book from a personal perspective, I had to consciously slow down my own rate of personal experimentation and innovation. I knew the contents of the manuscript had to remain valid for at least 10 years, which meant I needed to focus on evergreen principles and mature software platforms that weren’t likely to change soon. That meant identifying what worked for the broadest set of people, recommending the most mainstream software, and giving advice that had already stood the test of time. My usual inclination is to jump headfirst into the exciting wild west frontier of personal knowledge management, which during this period was the emerging “networked thought” paradigm represented by platforms like Roam and Obsidian. But I knew all that would take years to mature, and in the meantime would just be a distraction. I chose to retreat from the frontier, and to make my own Second Brain into the very embodiment of the accessible, approachable, mainstream approach to notetaking I was advocating for.
Lastly, my constant challenge was finding the motivation to continue. I wish I could say that the ultimate positive impact this book would have on my readers was the only source of motivation I needed. But for most of this period that was a far-off, abstract outcome. I had to discover smaller, more immediate sources of motivation along the way. Some weeks, it was the inherent interestingness of the material. At other times, it was the discovery of illuminating new metaphors or framings, or the joy in solving an intractable logical problem. And sometimes it felt like scraping the bottom of an empty barrel, searching and searching for just one more calorie of desire to eke out just one more page, one more paragraph, one more sentence. Finding new sources of motivation is in itself an act of creativity, requiring courage, vulnerability, and the willingness to hope just like any other creative medium.
It wasn’t just that I had to motivate myself, but everyone around me – every member of my team, every member of my family. Making so many bold claims and predictions of absolute certainty that all this would ultimately be successful required something like blind faith. I believed because I had decided to believe, in the complete absence of evidence and results. I drew on the mindset of faith I remembered from my Christian youth – even the tools of a discarded past identity served as tools in my psychological toolkit.
I tell you all this because I don’t want to romanticize the cost of a creative endeavor of this magnitude. Even with an abundance of resources of every kind, an incredibly supportive community on every side, a powerful network of advisors and allies, and of course, the supreme privilege of being able to draw down all these resources for the benefit of a creative project. Even with a Second Brain taking care of all the factual details for me, it still exacted a tremendous toll. It’s so easy to focus on the strategies, the tactics, and the successful outcome. It all seems inevitable in hindsight. But it didn’t feel that way while it was happening. It felt like betting everything on an almost impossible outcome.
I share this story with you because I believe all parts of the creative process are important and worthy. They all deserve to be brought into the light and understood. In a way, this is the message of my book: to demystify creativity and remove it from its pedestal so it can take its place alongside the other mundane, practical tools we use to live our lives.
Now that it’s finished, not only can I say it was all worth it, it was also the most meaningful and profoundly transformational experience of my life. I am a completely different person now than I was before. I discovered what I am truly capable of. I found out just how much the people in my life love and support me. I learned that I can rely on others and that doing so is so much more gratifying than doing everything myself. I witnessed what is possible when a community rallies around an inspiring goal and gives it everything they have. I uncovered new depths to my marriage, my psyche, and my emotions – depths accessible only in the moments I went beyond what I thought were my limits.
Whatever level of success the book achieves, these experiences and lessons are what make this grand journey ultimately worth it.
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