I’ve republished my very first ebook from 2011: click here to buy on Amazon.
From the 2018 Foreword
I’m republishing this book because it directly addresses a fundamental barrier I see a lot of people struggle with: the intense fear and self-doubt around releasing their work to the world.
It took me a long time to really get how much of a barrier this is, because I come from a family of artists and performers. My father is a professional artist, whose paintings covered every wall of our home growing up. My mother is a singer and classical guitarist, and seeing her on stage at church every Sunday felt like the most natural thing in the world. Art, music, design, culture, and the performing arts were the ever-present backdrop to my childhood. Showing your art to others was an almost weekly routine.
I believe that this fear and self-doubt around publishing our work is reinforced by the way we tell the narrative of success. We like prodigies, with no past and no history, coming from nowhere to take the world by storm. They serve as mythic heroes, allowing us to bask vicariously in the light of fulfilled potential, which slightly eases the discomfort that we might not be reaching our own.
The narrative of success is so powerful, it becomes self-perpetuating. Those of us seeking success are encouraged, in a hundred ways large and small, to make the narrative fit. It makes it easier to get attention, and we could sure use a break.
But there is an impact. To prove we are on the chosen path, we believe we have to make success happen in a short period of time. So we delay starting until everything is “ready.” I see people holding back their work for years out of fear of the 1% who will criticize it, thus denying the other 99% of the fruits of their labor. They polish everything to perfection because they think they’ll only get one shot. And once they do start, the clock is ticking, so they are willing to trade anything for hypergrowth — their health, relationships, communities, balance, and self-respect.
But all this is the opposite of what the path to success really looks like. The path is slow and inelegant and rarely makes any sense. The whole thing is messy as hell. It takes one step back for every two steps forward (and occasionally five steps back). You have to give up being right again and again until you’re just sick of not being right. You have to push through walls you preferred to lean on, ask questions you would have preferred to answer, listen when you just want to be heard. It requires being the change you want to see, not just pointing it out politely.
Once we arrive at some level of success, it is so tempting to hide the evidence of all this mess. To delist the first YouTube videos, unpublish the early blog posts, and let those first few jobs slide off the end of the resume. And thus the narrative is preserved.
I think this does a disservice to the people just starting out in their careers and businesses. They need to see the early stuff. They need to see how far you came and how fast. They need to see your mistakes and how much they taught you. None of this makes it any easier. But it does make it possible, and that makes all the difference.
Scrolling through the archives of this blog, it might appear that I suddenly decided to start writing in August of 2014.
Here’s the real story.
Growing up with four siblings, I was always the uncreative one. I played the piano, but not well. I was part of a kids dance troupe, but didn’t enjoy it. I was known from the youngest age for my advanced organizational skills — I preferred organizing my Lego blocks to playing with them — but it would be a long time before I found a way to express my creativity through that.
Writing was my salvation. I wrote furiously, on any and every topic. I used to send my Bible study small group leader long, impassioned emails with my thoughts on religion, spirituality, and truth. I filled journals upon journals. I was never a quick thinker, but a deep one. The slow, considered process of writing matched perfectly the pace and tempo of my thoughts.
The first time I noticed I could have an impact with my writing was in 1998, at the age of 13, when my family moved to a small town in the mountains of southern Brazil for a year. My mother is Brazilian, and they wanted us to learn the language while we were still young.
We had so many adventures roaming the country in our little station wagon. I began writing stories about these adventures to our family and friends back home to keep them updated (here’s an example). The stories were a hit, and the praise I received confirmed for me that I could be good at this, not just enjoy it.
Fast forward 8 years, and I found myself once again in South America. I was studying abroad for a year in two different Brazilian cities, and started a free Blogger site to write about my experiences. I can still remember installing a little geotracker widget in the sidebar of my blog, and watching with astonishment as pings came in from every corner of the globe.
I submitted one of my posts to a popular blog called Rio Gringa, written by an American woman living and working in Rio de Janeiro. She published it, and I can still remember my heartbeat pounding in my ears as the first comments started arriving. I learned that day that my writing could make an impact beyond my personal circle of family and friends.
A couple years later, I turned that blog into this ebook. The possibility had never occurred to me, until I discovered a service called Blurb. They provided an integrated end-to-end solution, “slurping” blog posts into an ebook format using their software, and also taking care of printing and digital distribution.
All the writing was done. It just required a once-over for typos, some headings and chapter titles, and a cover. Putting these elements in place one by one, making editorial and design decisions, I felt a new identity taking shape — I could be a creator, a maker, a writer. I could take my work all the way to completion. I didn’t need anyone’s permission.
The fundamental barrier I had to break through was believing that it mattered whether my work made its way out into the world. The voice of self-doubt rang in my ears, questioning “Who cares?” and “Who do you think you are?”
I didn’t dare sell the book on its merits. It felt selfish and arrogant to do so. But I found a way around my fear. At the time, I was serving as a Peace Corps volunteer in Ukraine. I used the book as a fundraiser, promising that all proceeds would go to the youth summer camps we organized each year. This altruistic purpose gave me the courage to ask for the sale. With the help of social media, I asked everyone I knew to purchase the book.
Amazingly, I raised almost $3,000. That money went to founding Projects Bring Change, a special program within the summer camps teaching basic organization, project management, and community service skills to a small group of the most engaged campers. I ran the program three times, with each group organizing and executing a community service project within a week’s time.
PBC taught me the enormous value of such foundational skills in making an impact on people and their communities, but also how difficult it is to teach them effectively. I would pick up this thread again several years later when I started Forte Labs. It turns out the elite creative professionals of San Francisco struggle just as much with their projects as the youth of Eastern Ukraine.
Why am I telling you all this?
Because the blog is long gone, but this ebook remains, in printed and virtual form. Everyone has valuable and transformative experiences, but few take away tangible artifacts that they can show off in portfolios, use as building blocks in future projects, and even offer as online information products.
As citizens of the digital age, we produce huge amounts of information every day. We can’t help it. It accumulates in our email, in our computer folders, in our photo apps, in our digital notes. Every project we complete produces gigabytes of valuable content — documents, plans, ideas, videos, brainstorms, mindmaps, mockups, photos, designs, wireframes, web clippings, prototypes.
What’s missing is bringing it that last 10% over the finish line. What’s missing is packaging it up and putting a bow on it, so others know how to find it and understand what it offers. What’s missing is a core set of skills, common in the performing and visual arts but that only rarely find their way into the workplace, for converging on a final product. Those skills are what I’m trying to impart through Building a Second Brain.
My hope is that this book will demonstrate what an intermediate step looks like on the path to building a fulfilling career or business. You’ll notice many mistakes, immature opinions, and naive dreams. But I hope you’ll also notice the seeds of insight, the maker-in-training, the young man eager to make something of his experiences.
Reading these stories is immensely gratifying for me. It reminds me of how much I’ve learned, how much I’ve overcome, and how many have loved me and contributed to me over the years. And that’s the thing that makes this all worthwhile: even if you never actually distribute or promote or sell your work, it’s still worth creating it.
Self-expression is not merely a means to an end. It offers the possibility of being known and understood, even for just a moment. And that’s enough, because a fleeting moment is all we have in this life.
I hope you enjoy it. As before, 100% of proceeds will go to youth leadership and civic engagement programs in Ukraine.
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