Home > Podcast > Recruiting Future with Matt Alder > Ep 486: Building A Second Brain

Ep 486: Building A Second Brain

December 19th, 2022

As an end-of-year special, this week is productivity week on the podcast.

With so much going on and so many competing pressures, I know that everyone listening will, at least at some point in 2022, have had challenges with focus and information overload. Talent Acquisition is evolving quickly, and managing attention and processing information are vital skills that aren’t highlighted as much as they should be.

My first guest on productivity week is one of the world’s leading personal knowledge management systems experts. Tiago Forte is the Founder of Forte Labs and the creator of the brilliant Building a Second Brain. BASB is a very effective knowledge and information management system I can personally vouch for as I used it to write my book “Digital Talent.”

Tiago has created a popular online course and a book on Building a Second Brain, and in our discussion, he gives us an excellent insight into the system.

In the interview, we discuss:

• The story behind BASB

• Are employers giving knowledge workers effect support around information overload?

• Personal Knowledge Management

• Shifting from top down to individual

• The key elements of BASB

• Capture, Organize, Distill, Express

• The role of technology

• How I reactivated ten years of lost Kindle highlights

• Taking the first steps

Listen to this podcast on Apple Podcasts.


Matt Alder (Intro) (18s):
Hi there. This is Matt Alder. As an end-of-year special, this week is productivity week on the podcast. With so much going on and so many competing pressures, I know that everyone listening will, at least at some point in 2022, have had challenges with focus and information overload. Talent Acquisition is evolving quickly, and managing attention and processing information are vital skills that aren’t highlighted as much as they should be. My first guest on productivity week is one of the world’s leading personal knowledge management systems experts.

Matt Alder (Intro) (1m 3s):
Tiago Forte is the Founder of Forte Labs and the creator of the brilliant Building a Second Brain. Building a Second Brain is a very effective knowledge and information management system. I can personally vouch for as I used it to write my book “Digital Talent.” Tiago has created a popular online course and a book on Building a Second Brain. And in our discussion, he gives us an excellent insight into the system.

Matt Alder (1m 30s):
Hi Tiago, and welcome to the podcast.

Tiago Forte (1m 33s):
Thanks, Matt. I’m very happy to be here.

Matt Alder (1m 36s):
An absolute pleasure to have you on the show. Please, could you introduce yourself and tell everyone what you do?

Tiago Forte (1m 42s):
Sure. My name is Tiago Forte. I’m the founder of a company called Forte Labs, and we are most known for a online course, which is now a book and a methodology called Building A Second Brain or BASB. And what Building a Second Brain is, is a way of teaching people how to save all the information that’s important to them. Everything from notes they take to documents they create, basically you can think of it like your entire digital life, your entire digital world, how to save and organize that in a way that promotes calm and peace of mind and focus, and ultimately productivity to advance their career, advance their ideas, their message, find their voice or grow their business.

Matt Alder (2m 30s):
Fantastic stuff. And as I was saying to you just before we started recording, I’m a big fan of Building a Second Brain. Read the book. Done the course, Bought the t-shirt, all those kind of things. And it’s, I find it an incredibly helpful way of navigating the crazy world of information that we live in. I suppose just to give everyone a bit of context. Tell us this story about how you created this methodology and how it became a book and a course.

Tiago Forte (2m 55s):
It’s a long story, so let me give you the short version. It was really, at this point over a decade, it’s almost 15 years that I’ve been developing this. I started it strictly at a personal necessity. I had around 2007, when I was 22, this mysterious illness that eventually became a chronic illness. It was like a pain intention in my throat, in my neck that made it difficult to speak, made it difficult to laugh, to sing, I mean, really to lead a normal life just got worse and worse over months and then years. And if, you know, anything about the US medical system, it is like a part-time job keeping track of all the paperwork, lab diagnostics, and insurance forms, and everything related to a chronic condition.

Tiago Forte (3m 45s):
And so, I really had to develop this note-taking system, this information management system, to manage that chronic condition. I had no pretensions for creating a Second Brain or a lifelong anything. It was just like, let me get through this one big challenge in my life. And I did that. It was successful. I had to sort of run a series of experiments, changes to my diet, to my sleep, to my self-care, and to my mental health. You know, I sort of had to become a student of my own condition and that gave me quite a bit of relief. But then I started to notice, wait a minute, I can take the same approach and apply to any part of my life.

Tiago Forte (4m 25s):
So I applied it to my college studies. I was in college at the time, and I went from a mediocre average student to graduating with honors because I had this system where I could dump all the information that I had to keep track of. Organize and make sense of it, and then use it to, in that case, write papers and pass tests. I later used the same approach to apply for the Peace Corps, which is this overseas volunteer program. Taught English for a few years overseas, came back to the US, used it for my first job, used it to start a business, used it to start a blog. Really, I have one weird trick. I have one thing that I do, which is to use software in this way.

Tiago Forte (5m 5s):
And eventually, it took a number of years, but I eventually started thinking of it and calling it a Second Brain. And even later started teaching it, and speaking about it, and writing about it to the point where it’s really the focus of my entire business and career.

Matt Alder (5m 20s):
It kind of, it struck me as I was sort of working through the course and applying it to my work that a lot of companies will talk about knowledge management, time management, and send people on training and all that kind of stuff. But I mean, do you really think that companies are offering kind of effective support for their knowledge workers just in this age of information overload that we are living in?

Tiago Forte (5m 46s):
Oh, no. No. Not at all. I mean, you know, I’ve done corporate training. I’ve worked with a number of learning managers, learning directors at different organizations. There is a just huge appetite and huge lack of — honestly, any kind of training when it comes to knowledge management. Knowledge management is pretty new, especially Personal Knowledge Management. It had its origins in the 1990s. It’s only a couple decades old. And so, it’s really barely just starting to come into the consumer market, much less the corporate training market, which tends to lag by a decade.

Tiago Forte (6m 27s):
If organizations did anything related to knowledge management in the past, it was super top-down. It was sort of the IT department. They would make one decision. Okay, this is the software we’re using to capture our insights and do knowledge sharing. Everyone had to use it. Everyone was forced into this very bureaucratic top-down uniform way of “sharing knowledge” which from most people I talk to, they resist it. Right? They resist that top-down mandate with everything they have. They don’t wanna sit there typing in their knowledge into a piece of software, not knowing how it’s gonna be used.

Tiago Forte (7m 8s):
It’s typically software that doesn’t really fit the way they think. It doesn’t really enhance the way they work. It actually takes away from it, it competes with it. And so, I think we’re going through this big sea change where the way that we organize and share knowledge is shifting from this top-down method, which honestly never works particularly well to a much more individualistic human-centric and bottom-up way where knowledge is sort of bubbling up. It kind of self-organizes from the day-to-day work of the people themselves rather than being something that the executive team mandates.

Matt Alder (7m 46s):
Yeah, and I think that’s really interesting. And I think what you’re saying about inflexibility kind of really rings true with me there. Because when I was kind of searching for a better way of working to write the books I write, the reports I write, and also the research for the podcast. And I tried sort of various different ways of working, but what I really liked about Building a Second Brain was what it was very, very flexible and very, very personal. And, you know, I’ve managed to build up a system that works for me really well within that framework. I suppose to bring this to life for people a little bit who may have not come across this way of working before. Can you give us the sort of very quick overview of how your system works?

Matt Alder (8m 28s):
What the key elements are to it?

Tiago Forte (8m 30s):
Yeah, it’s really CODE. C-O-D-E is the heart of this methodology. The four central chapters of my book are each named for these four letters. And the letters of code stand for Capture – capturing knowledge, organizing knowledge, which is the O. D for distilling knowledge, and E for expressing knowledge. And what CODE represents is really the creative process, right? Think about the creative process. There’s inputs and there’s outputs. Information comes in. It gets captured. It gets organized. There’s some sort of structure or categories, but then that’s not all.

Tiago Forte (9m 11s):
That’s just the input. There’s then an output. So that knowledge gets distilled. It gets boiled down to kind of its essence, the key points, the key takeaways, and then ultimately, hopefully, it gets expressed, it gets shared or published or implemented or applied in some way, which can be through writing, through speaking, presenting, designing, creating a product or service, selling, all these things. So, that’s the very high-level overview. I’m happy to get into those four If you like, but really, Building a Second Brain, it’s a system, it’s a thing, but I think it’s more important to think of it as a process. It’s a process that has a beginning, a middle, and an end, which means, regardless of which tool you use which piece of software, and honestly, most people have to use more than one.

Tiago Forte (9m 57s):
They have to use multiple. What matters is that information is coming in, being refined, and then going out to produce some sort of outcome or result. The tools and the systems you use to accomplish that. They change. They’re constantly evolving. You’re swapping them in and out, the creative process itself is timeless. And honestly, everyone uses it in some form or another.

Matt Alder (10m 20s):
Absolutely. And I’d love for you to go into all of those in lots of detail. But obviously, we don’t have huge amounts of time. And also you’ve got a whole book on this. A whole course on this that people can go and find. I suppose to pick up on one thing, which is the Capture part of all of this and kind of how that relates technology. We’ve seen over the last sort of few years an explosion of note-taking and knowledge-storing technologies. And as you say the technology isn’t the important part of it, but it is the bit that drives it. Tell us a bit about how easy technology can now make capturing information from different sources.

Tiago Forte (11m 3s):
Oh gosh, it’s come so far. It’s come so far. I mean, even in the 10 years I’ve been focused on this, you used to have to hack together Jerry rig all sorts of bespoke custom systems that didn’t play nicely together, that were often really difficult to use, that would break, that would lose data. I mean, we’ve just made tremendous strides. And mostly just because it’s now a recognized thing, right? Like now it’s known because of tools like notion, like Rome research, obsidian. My book is part of popularizing this. This is now a recognized category of software, a recognized kind of human behavior, a recognized skill set that people have.

Tiago Forte (11m 49s):
And so we’re seeing, you know, everything from the software programs that I mentioned to even advancements in the integration between them as one example, just to give a concrete case. There’s a tool called Readwise. Readwise is not a note-taking application itself. It is for connecting note-taking applications. So the classic example is, let’s say you read eBooks on a Kindle device or on a Kindle app, and you make a highlight, right? Very common widely known behavior. You see a passage you think is interesting, you wanna save it, you wanna revisit it and reflect on it. So you put that in your finger and you make one of those yellow highlights.

Tiago Forte (12m 30s):
Well, for most ebook readers, that’s the end of the road. Right? There’s no next step. They made a highlight and then they turned to the next page, never to see that thing again. But with Readwise, you can actually connect the Kindle service with the note-taking app such as Notion, or Rome, or Evernote. Such that when you make a highlight in a Kindle ebook completely automatically with no further action needed on your part, it will sync, it will export. That specific highlight and every other highlight you make from that book, all at once in the background over to your notes app. So basically, after you spend five to 10 hours reading a book, which is a serious investment to spend five or 10 hours in focus reading with the way that life is these days is like a serious feat.

Tiago Forte (13m 21s):
Once you’ve made that investment, you end up at the end of that process with this clean organized note with only the highlights and the passages that you’ve saved. It’s sort of like you get a return on your investment. You have this almost like souvenir, this what I call a knowledge asset that you’re taking away from all that time you’ve spent that you can use for the rest of your life. It can be a resource for you to use in your writing, in your slide presentations, in your entrepreneurship, in your side gigs. It really becomes this lifelong kind of treasure.

Matt Alder (13m 56s):
I love the fact you’ve used that example because I plugged Readwise into my Kindle account about 18 months ago, and I literally had about 10 to 12 years’ worth of highlights in books that I had no idea if I’d ever see again or what to do with, and it literally just pulled them all and downloaded into, I’m using Evernote as my notes app at the moment. It searchable in Evernote. And I was like, that is incredible. It feels like I’ve got 10 years’ worth of wasted work back because I can now look through these notes. So such a great example. And also within your system, you’ve got a way of developing those notes into things that are useful moving forward.

Tiago Forte (14m 43s):
Absolutely. And, and you’re highlighting something which is you can do this retroactively. If you have an Amazon Kindle account and you’ve read books in the past, and you’ve highlighted them, it doesn’t matter, if you haven’t done this in the past. Just go in there. You can sign up for a free trial of Readwise, hook it up to your Amazon account, hook it up to your notes app, and you can retroactively download this massive archive of every single highlight that you’ve ever made in the past.

Matt Alder (15m 11s):
Absolutely. So in terms of Building a Second Brain and systems like this, is this something that anyone can use, or is it reserved for information geeks like me?

Tiago Forte (15m 21s):
I think to some extent everyone is already doing this. I think that’s important to recognize. If you jot down some notes on a legal pad during a meeting. You are doing Capture. Capture is just writing things down. If, you are writing things in a notes app, in a Word doc, in a Google Doc, if you’re saving bookmarks, if you’re downloading files from the internet, these are all forms of Capture. So you’re already doing it. And the same is true of organizing Distill and Express. We are all in some way taking in information, doing something with it, and then outputting something, right? So the only question in my mind is it’s not are you going to build a Second Brain or not? It is really to what level are you gonna do it, right?

Tiago Forte (16m 4s):
Are you going to have a basic one? Which is fine. There’s really nothing wrong with basic. If you’re a student, if you’re early in your career, if you’re not responsible for, producing content or creative works or presenting things or giving talks or anything like that, maybe you stick with something more basic. Even something like Apple Notes, right? Like people write down, you know, grocery lists and ideas they had in the shower and to-dos. These are all kind of basic forms, but then I find that the, the way people’s careers are going, and really just the economy, what is the long-term trend? Is for people to do more kinds of thinking, novel kinds of thinking, solve novel, and more complex kinds of problems over time.

Tiago Forte (16m 48s):
If you’re seeing that reflected in your own career, anyone listening to this and you have the thought, “You know what, I need a more robust system. I need something a little more capable, a little more powerful.” Then it might be time to just dial that up a little bit, a little bit at a time, and use something a little more sophisticated. And that’s where something like my book becomes in handy, which will serve as a guide to the wild west of PKM knowledge management apps that are proliferating all the time. So I would say it really just depends on the person, their temperament, their career, what stage of life they’re at, and really just their interests.

Matt Alder (17m 28s):
I think that will resonate with lots of people the part about complex problem solving, particularly in the economy that we’ve got now, and particularly where talent acquisition, HR, and talent management are in terms of how we move forward. You mentioned the book there. Give us a kind of, a bit of a preview. What would the first step be for someone who wants to take this more seriously and be more sophisticated in the way they kind of manage knowledge and information?

Tiago Forte (17m 55s):
Yeah, that’s a great question. So the thing you shouldn’t do is go out and find the most complicated, complex, sophisticated software program that you can find. That’s what people tend to do when they think, okay, I need a more powerful system. When I say more sophisticated, what I really mean is to really look at your use cases, okay? This is the way to become more sophisticated as just as a simple example. What is the most common kind of information input that you have? I really ask anyone listening to this to ask themselves, like, what is the number one source that you look at?

Tiago Forte (18m 36s):
Is it ebook highlights? Is it podcasts, is it YouTube videos? Is it meetings and calls that you’re on? Is it conferences or seminars or classes? Like, of the whole wide array of information sources, look at the one that is most important and that you consume the most of. And then ask yourself, how can I Capture from this source, this top source, more efficiently, more thoroughly, and more easily? Okay. If let’s say, for example, reading books or eBooks is your number one information source, look at an automated service like Readwise, but there’s many others. Let’s say speaking is your and audio is your form of information consumption.

Tiago Forte (19m 19s):
You can look at it at a service like Otter, O-T-T-E-R, which allows you to hit a button on your phone, speak into it, and then it creates a nearly perfect transcript for you to save in your notes. There’s really a lot of options out there. So look at your information input, but then look at your output. And this is a little harder. I really think every single person is expressing, this is the E in CODE is expressing their knowledge in some way all the time. Okay. Writers and musicians and poets, those are, it’s kind of easy to see what their output is, but I really think this applies to everyone. You know, is it slide presentations? Is it emails?

Tiago Forte (20m 0s):
So, if you write emails, you are expressing knowledge to some other person, right? It might be conversations, it might be decisions that you make problems that you solve customers that you serve. Look at how the knowledge that you uniquely have gets translated into the external world. And then ask, how can I do that more efficiently, more thoroughly, more easily, right? How can I do it in a way that doesn’t take as much time, in a way that has a bigger impact on more people? It’s really just about iterating on the kinds of things you’re already doing using software to just enhance them, augment the way that you’re currently already dealing with information.

Tiago Forte (20m 44s):
So that’s just a little higher leverage and more effective.

Matt Alder (20m 49s):
Just a question about the future. Obviously, we are living in a very complicated disruptive time, and it looks like that’s only gonna continue, and the information that we’re bombarded with is only gonna the amount of information that we’re bombarded with is only gonna increase. In terms of the next generations coming through, how do you feel that schools and education systems should be teaching our kids to deal with all of this information and everything that’s out there for them?

Tiago Forte (21m 20s):
Oh, this is one of my bones to pick. This is one of my soap boxes is I’m just astounded. I mean, the education system I think fails us in a lot of ways, but particularly there’s something about the way that we’re taught to learn and to work in school. It’s almost like we are taught the exact opposite of what is actually needed to succeed in the workplace. A few examples, we are taught to memorize things. That’s what you do. When you study for a test, we’re taught to memorize things with our first brain, with our biological brain.

Tiago Forte (22m 3s):
But in the real world, there’s very, very few cases where you have to strictly perfectly memorize things. In real-world situations, you have notes, right? You can look things up on the internet. You can ask a colleague. You can go and find out the answer. So, I kind of wish school prepared us to better take advantage of external sources of information rather than telling us, “Oh, no, you can’t use any external source.” Which is just not a very realistic scenario. Just in general, I think school could do a much better job of assuming that we will have access to technology, right? Assuming we will have access to calculators and to the internet, and to software, and to communication and collaboration platforms, and then training us to better use those rather than pretend like they don’t exist.

Matt Alder (22m 49s):
I couldn’t agree with you more on that one. I think it’s crazy that they’re not teaching the skills that people need. As a final question, tell us where people can find you? Where can they find the book? Where can they find more about your courses?

Tiago Forte (23m 8s):
Yes, so you can find everything about me at buildingasecondbrain.com, including our blog where I have lots of free articles on my podcast. Building a Second Brain podcast. The course that I teach, the book that I wrote. It’s all at buildingasecondbrain.com.

Matt Alder (23m 23s):
Tiago, thank you very much for talking to me.

Tiago Forte (23m 27s):
Thank you so much, Matt. Really appreciate it.

Matt Alder (23m 30s):
My thanks to Tiago. You can subscribe to this podcast in Apple Podcasts on Spotify or via your podcasting app of choice. Please also follow the show on Instagram. You can find us by searching for Recruiting Future. You can search all the past episodes at recruitingfuture.com On that site, you can also subscribe to the monthly newsletter, Recruiting Future Feast, and get the inside track about everything that’s coming up on the show. Thanks very much for listening.

Matt Alder (24m 29s):
I’ll be back next time and I hope you’ll join me.

The post Ep 486: Building A Second Brain appeared first on The Recruiting Future Podcast.

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