Lessons Learned from David Perell
Tonight, I got the opportunity to listen to and learn from a gentleman named David Perell who’s a prolific writer with a little secret – he has two brains.
No, he’s not a genetic phenom.
He’s mastered a technique of storing the very best of everything he’s ever read into an online database.
His writing pulls from that database of timeless ideas. Rather than spending hours just to build a thesis and outline of a major concept, his process takes minutes. And the results he produces are of the highest quality. You’d never know the difference from his writing.
For an hour, myself and 20 others from the Praxis community watched David break down in real-time his actual thought processes, habits, and strategies. It was a remarkable call. It’s going to completely transform how I think about writing, and how I use my “second brain” in Notion.
Each heading contains its own valuable concept pertaining to David’s unique perspective on writing. These are in chronological order, not order of importance.
Ask “Why” several times to uncover the real truth.
Recently, Boeing 737’s have been crashing all over the place. That’s the impression you’d get from listening to CNN and the New York Times, at least. David performed some original research in his writing: “WHY DID THE BOEING 737 MAX CRASH?”:
Why did the 737 Max crash? Because of a software failure.
Why did the software fail? Because Boeing’s executive team has lowered its engineering standards.
Why did Boeing lower its engineering standards? To lower costs and increase efficiency — the goal was to save money.
Why does Boeing save money at the expense of human lives? Because Boeing purchased McDonnell-Douglas in 1997 and absorbed its ultra-corporate culture with relatively low engineering standards. Since the acquisition, the company hasn’t innovated as fast as it once did. In lieu of actual innovation, the company cut corners to maintain growth rates.
Why did Boeing buy McDonnell-Douglas? Because the airplane manufacturing industry is consolidating, and Boeing is pursuing profit at the expense of human lives.
The actual story of the 737 Max crash begins with that McDonnell-Douglas purchase in 1997, 21 years before the first accident in late 2018. Unfortunately, media coverage of the crash mostly ignores Boeing’s corporate history.
Children ask “why”; adults forget why it mattered to them. Asking “why” reveals the answer to your question. Asking “why” again reveals the origin story of that first answer. That process can be repeated until you arrive at an “essential truth” – the root of the roots of any issue.
A large essay is just a bunch of small ones stitched together.
Many people in college dread their master’s thesis.
It’s seen as a gargantuan monster eager to swallow hundreds of precious hours in an grueling battle of endurance.
Thankfully, that doesn’t have to be the case. With a small change in perspective, the gargantuan is revealed to be nothing more than easily-conquered mini-essays glued together.
Simply put, a 20,000-word essay is just 20 1,000-word essays. When you’ve got a “second brain” collection of the most valuable and insightful writings you’ve ever consumed ready to search at your finger tips, quite a lot of the groundwork for each of those mini-essays is already done for you.
How does David Perell actually write?
This shocked me. He actually showed us in real-time how he compiles a unique thesis, searches his volumes of online notes, and conjures a rough draft from the echos of his past reading to produce a college-grade essay – in under 10 minutes.
Here’s a rough sketch of how it works:
- Think of a topic to write about. Explore auxiliary concepts and ideas until you eventually reach something that inspires you to research and write further.He had us write out random ideas that came to mind for 10 minutes. We somehow landed at “19th century French architecture”.
- Search your “second brain” note archive for relevant pearls of wisdom, and unique insights. David has a massive repository in Evernote of the most valuable things he’s read in his lifetime. He searched that repository for terms like “Eiffel tower”, “france”, “architecture” – and stumbled across all kinds of interesting insights that other people created for him to leverage in his writing.
- Create a thesis from what snippets you can find.
- Structure your snippets under “primary categories” of thought. An example from our call is below:
Title / Thesis
“What the Eiffel Tower says about the history of architecture”
Primary Categories + Sub Categories
- Background of Paris in the late 19th Century
- Building of the Eiffel Tower
- Tallest building in the world
- Perspective shift for humanity
- Gave humans a confidence that they could shape the world with their own hands, and be come god-like
- Tower of babel for the machine age.
- European cities held world fairs to show of industrial strength
- Influence of NYC:
- At the time, Europe was still the spiritual capital of the world.
- Chrysler Building was the tallest building besides Eiffel Tower
- Modern Influence of Parisian architecture
- Las Vegas: Eiffel Tower at Paris Hotel
- Disney Land created their own copycat
What content should you save into your “second brain”?
Save ideas that are inspiring + resonate with you; someday you could use them for your writing.
Does it give you a unique insight that broadens your thinking? Save it.
Be discerning with the ideas you save. Your second brain is a sacred space. Save only the very best ideas into your online note repository.
Balance that discernment such that the average things inside are of high quality.
But leave the funnel wide enough to where you can actually accumulate a ton of broad subjects and perspectives from diverse thinkers.
Content Consumption Habits
Do not consume more, if anything consume LESS.
Consume better things. When you spend your attention, it should be high-quality sources. You don’t have to read the philosophical heavyweights of history in order to discern useful ideas and truth. Just make sure you’re not consuming junk.
Here’s a magic question to ask yourself:
“How long did the author spend on the thing I am reading?”
If someone sat down at a keyboard and banged on it for 5 minutes, chances are reading that won’t be very valuable to you.
Even if someone spent 10 solid hours synthesizing their opinions into 5 pages of work – the net “hours per page” score is only 2.
What if someone spent 25 years of research combing through the very best writing on any given subject, and spend 5 more years synthesizing the very best ideas ever accumulated in the world, in that one particular field, and through doing so contributed their own original framework? Let’s say that work is 100 pages long.
10,000 hours of mastery divided by 100 pages = 100 hours of work per page.
That’s the kind of reading you want to do.
David specifically referenced The Lessons of History by Will Durant as an example of this principle.
Default towards reading things that will still be valuable in 10 years. That’s where you find ever-green wisdom and nuggets and perspectives.
Use your body and visuals to map out your ideas.
Another surprising insight. Sometimes when David’s not feeling like using a screen and a keyboard, he’ll use alternative means to organize and structure his thoughts.
He talked about how some people cut out every paragraph of their writing and throw them all on the floor. They then physically reorganize the paragraphs to achieve an optimum structure.
David himself actually draws on a piece of paper a concept map of his thoughts. He writes down 1-2 words of important ideas, and visually maps them together.
Publish something every single day.
The very best thing you can do is start publishing something every day. Your rate of learning and growth goes up SO fast.
That’s exactly correct from my experience. I’ve learned a ton simply by writing daily for 57 days and publishing here.
He mentioned the fact that he once published YouTube videos every day for more than 100 consecutive days. The early YouTube videos weren’t very good, but he got in the HABIT of publishing. His friend wrote a newsletter every week for 26 weeks and it’s now easy to schedule; it forces him to learn and grow.
Daily publishing creates a “Forcing Function”. A forcing function is simply an external expectation that forces you to produce or else suffer consequences. In short, when you know you have to publish a piece of content or else lose your streak, you tap into hidden reserves of motivation to do it. Eventually it becomes easy.
Not only that, daily publishing creates positive feedback loop. Writing makes you a more interesting conversationalist, which leads to more interesting conversations, which leads to better writing, which leads to more ideas, and so on!
What if you find the idea of daily writing intimidating?
Know that where you are is never going to be satisfying. You’ll always look at others and wonder how they got there. Ultra-successful people have imposter’s syndrome, too.
Writing is like running a marathon. Marathon runners get tired! The dude who ran a 2 hour marathon was exhausted at the end. The same goes for creatives, writers, and successful people of all types. They just know how to deal with being tired. Their superhuman feats cause excruciating pain; they just learn how to love that and play with that. Writing isn’t nearly as taxing, but it never gets easier.
Any cyclist would tell you “get on a bike, and learn to love it”. The same thing applies for writers. Go to the keyboard, put away your phone, do it every day for an hour, and learn to love it. If you publish 500 – 1,000 words every day, you’ll love where you end up.
How do you write in a manner that’s actually interesting to people?
One thing that David Perell does well is pay attention to ideas that resonate in conversation. For example, he dropped a Casey Naystat example in our call that lead many people to nod their heads in agreement. The idea really resonated; he could see it on everyone’s faces.
He makes a mental note in real time what resonated with them and does the same with what bores people. He writes a lot more of what resonates with people as a result.
Don’t demand that people magically understand what’s interesting with you. Tie in what you empirically observe what’s interesting to others with your ideas.
Trust your intuition for things that are interesting or not.
Pay attention to how people actually respond to what you’re saying.
How do you take good notes at an event?
During the time (talk, presentation, etc) he just writes 2-6 words per important concept he wants to expand on. By the end of a 1hr presentation he’d have maybe 30 words on a piece of paper.
There aren’t many ideas worth saving; don’t write everything down.
He then uses otter.ai – he walks around and speaks his reflections into the phone. Automatic transcription. If he runs out of things to speak, he glances at the list of words, and continues.
You’re not trying to save everything. That’s not the right way to think of it. You just want to time-travel in your brain to go back to what you thought about in the moment when it hit you.
So take a small note of a couple words. You have to do the talking when you’re there alone right after the event. Using 1-2 words teleports you back to what you were thinking in the moment.