My “Creative Engine”: A Curiosity-First Second Brain Approach For Creating Online

Many people try to imitate the success of others, especially in the newfound “creator” paths that are emerging on the internet. They look at someone like me, with thousands of followers and a sizeable audience, and try to figure out what sorts of tactics I’m using and then copy them.

This is something I call a hustle trap – trying to play someone else’s game as a way to avoid figuring out what really makes you tick.

While I don’t have great advice other than finding something you want to do and do it consistently, I have thought a lot about my “creative process” and it might be worth sharing what’s enabled me to consistently show up, keep writing, and continue to have fun along the way.

The secret is really something I call my “creative engine.”

The “Creative Engine”

At the time of writing, I’ve published more than 170 issues 200+ issues in my newsletter. Some people have asked me, “how did you keep going to write that many issues?”

At a high level, I’ve found work I like doing and have focused more on the conditions that enable me to keep doing it rather than embracing any writing tip or productivity hack. Let’s dive in:

Step 1: Filter Content Input for High-Quality Content

Here’s a high-level belief: if you are serious about generating interesting ideas, you will not be able to generate them if you are mostly following what other people are following. You will need to block default sources of information and start curating your own. By blocking, I don’t mean “I try to avoid watching too much CNN” or “I check out Fox News to balance my viewpoint” but a total blockade.

One easy way to do this is with Feed blockers. Here are what my Twitter and Facebook feed looks like:

I installed the Facebook newsfeed eradicator several years ago and now barely check Facebook. Part of this is because it’s not all that interesting and I’ve shifted to Twitter where I can control the information a lot better. Regardless, I also run a feed blocker on Twitter and actively add words to a “mute list” (see privacy settings) of anything that is generating high levels of outrage (most political names and divisive issues are a good starting point). In addition, I highly recommend unfollowing large media company sites like CNN, Fox, MSNBC, and so on. They are not in the business of informing people – they are in the business of turning your attention into dollars.

If you need to check the news I recommend Ground News. It’s a good place that shows you the range of sources of the stories and isn’t geared toward hacking your brain.

Once you’ve blocked the main sources of outrage, you can start actively seeking out people, sources, and ideas that interest you. Subscribe to interesting newsletters, follow interesting people, and keep adjusting over time.

Suggestions: Here is list of 28 interesting people I like following (Dec 2021)

Another source of interesting ideas and writing for me is the conversations I have with people. We’ll get to this part in a little but it’s hard to understate how valuable it is to be known as someone interested in a certain topic. Given that I’ve written so much about our relationship to work, each week I get 3-4 “have you seen this?” e-mails, DMs, or messages and I appreciate every single one of them.

Another thing I’ve found is that the more I read, the better my ability to put ideas into context among a vast web of information that I’ve been exposed to. I like what Tyler Cowen says about how he reads so much:

The best way to read quickly is to read lots.  And lots.  And to have started a long time ago.  Then maybe you know what is coming in the current book.  Reading quickly is often, in a margin-relevant way, close to not reading much at all. 

Unfortunately, I didn’t reach much beyond school until the age of 21 but ever since I’ve been reading probably 20-50 books per year for almost 15 years and every year I get more value from books.

At a high level my information diet looks like this:

  • 35% books: I am typically reading a few books at once and read about 3-4 books a month. I get most of my book recommendations from friends, podcasts, and sources in many of the things I read. If I don’t like the book I stop reading and move on.
  • 25% longform: There is a lot of good writing on the internet, you just need to have a good eye for it and know where to look. I generally get great recommendations from newsletters like The Browser, Longform, Sunday Long Reads, Rad Reads, and many others writing great newsletters. Anytime I stumble upon something worth reading, I tag it to Instapaper or matter and then end up reading it at some later point. I love reading so there is no planned reading time in my life. It just happens.
  • 20% Zeitgeist / Shortform / Twitter: I tend to scan a lot of stuff and try to get a feel for things happening in the digital / creator/internet world. I shifted my life in this direction a few years ago and its been fascinating to see the world shift in my direction. It still seems like the digital worlds are a few years ahead of the rest of the “mainstream” world but I expect that gap to more or less close over the next decade. I’ll keep watching until it stops being interesting.
  • 20% Conversations: This is my personal secret sauce. Not because there is anything special about conversations but because I get so inspired by other people. When I’m sharing ideas, answering questions, engaged in e-mail replies or doing podcasts, I always tend to come up with new ways of thinking about things I write about and come up with new ways of talking about something.

Step 2: Filter Ideas Through a “Second Brain”

Until 2018, I didn’t take notes or store anything I was thinking about. I had always managed everything in my head and that seemed to work just fine for most of my jobs. However, this changed when my friend Jonny shared Tiago Forte’s initial essays about using a “second brain” approach to take notes in Evernote. I hacked together an 80/20 approach in a couple of hours and it seems to be the missing piece to my process.

From the beginning, I’ve never had a complicated system. I more or less only created some structure (and then was able to abandon that when I shifted to roam) and just synced up highlights from various reading apps which I was already using.

Here are some apps I use:

  • I pay for Instapaper premium at about $30 per year which lets me save all my highlights and search all the articles I save.
  • I use Matter, which is an amazing app for finding, sharing, taking notes, and even listening to articles. It also syncs to Readwise.
  • I use Readwise which collects notes from kindle, e-books, Instapaper, and Matter and then sends them directly to Roam. This app is magic.

Then each week when I go to write my newsletter, I check:

  • Articles I read or bookmarked in Matter
  • Articles I read, marked or highlighted in Instapaper
  • Any notes I automatically synced to Roam
  • Bookmarks I marked on Twitter
  • Notes from conversations about topics to write about I keep in Roam

At a high level, I don’t spend any time structuring most of my notes, especially around my writing around work. I have a belief that “nothing good gets away” and I’ve tried to embrace this spirit in my work.

The ideas that I get excited by, I keep coming back to, and this means I’ll search past things I’ve marked. Do I lose track of stuff? Sure. But over time, most of the ideas I’m excited about gets written.

I think this is probably true for most people and spending more time on creating and output would probably be a better use of time than improving a note-taking system.

Step 3: The Doing Mode – Where The Magic Happens

The doing mode is simply having time to think and create. Sounds simple but is harder than you might think.

People underestimate how much time creative work takes. Not just the time to actually work through ideas and then turn them into something but also the time to contemplate, ponder, and think about the ideas. Dave Perell does a good job of highlighting these two modes:

Beer mode is often ignored by people especially those who have spent most of their time in a structured work environment. It took me a while to realize that the best way to be “productive” is often to spend extended periods of time not working. Instead, I’m taking long walks, biking around the city where I live, or just leaving open space to live in the moment.

Creating the space in your life for ideas to blossom is a non-obvious thing to do and is often only learned through experience. Some people need more of “beer mode” and other people need less.

I tend to work in bursts followed by indefinite rest. I will write intensively for a few days and then literally do nothing “productive” for the next few days. When I was writing my book, I was feeling really stuck after working on it for a few weeks. I knew that the only way forward was to stop writing entirely until the next steps became obvious.

The way to notice if you have a good balance is to pay attention to your energy. When I am energized and can maintain a good level of energy over a long period of time but when I am going too hard without rest, I lose energy and the ideas stop flowing. This might undermine the whole system.

Another underappreciated thing about creating in written or visual form is that you need a bottom-up process for researching and working through details AND a top-down “sensemaking algorithm” for how you structure, combine, remix, and synthesize those details.

Most knowledge economy jobs will help you learn this skill (or you can take something like Building a Second Brain). Some of the best training grounds for research, analysis, and sensemaking are Banking, Consulting, Advertising, or other client service jobs. Those jobs are underrated as launchpads for more creative or entrepreneurial paths in the future. A great example of this is John Legend. Where did he start his career? Boston Consulting Group.

For me, the brute force of 1000s of iterations in consulting gave me a mode I can drop into to dissect, understand and explain most topics. At the most basic level, it involves shifting back and forth between two modes of thinking – bottom-up and top-down.

In top-down mode, I’m structuring and thinking about the flow of ideas, outlines, and the overall message. In bottom-up mode, I’m not worried about the overall flow of ideas and I’m just letting myself wander into curiosity rabbit holes.

From consulting, I gained a lot of comfort from hundreds of iterations through this kind of process and it’s helped me see the inherent uncertainty of creation as part of the process rather than a problem to be solved.

Short Aside: Tiago Forte’s Building A Second Brain Approach

I recorded a short reflection on what I learned from Tiago Forte’s book, Building A Second Brain

Step 4: Output – It’s Very Hard To Sustain Creation Without Completion

I think there are two phases of creation:

  • Phase 1: Developing a basic creation muscle and overcoming resistance
  • Phase 2: Playing an “infinite game” – tweaking your environment to enable sustainable creation

The whole point of phase 1 is just to get to phase two. This is also why advice like “find your niche” is not always helpful for newbies. More important is overcoming resistance and finding a way of creating and sharing that is enjoyable and allows you to continue to explore, grow, and evolve.

Our schools and workplaces tell us that we need credentials or a level in a company to have permission to speak. Phase 1 is about questioning that assumption and finding ways to force ourselves through the insecurity, self-sabotage, and impostor syndrome that conspire to keep us from doing things we want to do.

My secret to breaking beyond phase one started with challenging myself to post daily on Quora for three months every day before work in 2016. Every day, I would come into work and answer questions about things I knew about like getting an MBA, breaking into consulting, how consultants think, how to deal with health challenges, UConn basketball, and so on. There was no goal and it was easy to keep going because no one I knew in real life used Quora and I was finding it increasingly fun. It was exciting to see some of my responses get a lot of positive feedback.

Dickie Bush’s #ship30for30 is something I’ve seen people use to break phase 1 – it’s a similar thing to my Quora experiment – a 30-day challenge where you have to write a mini-essay each day..

Despite feeling more comfortable sharing in public, I didn’t graduate to phase two until 2018. This was when I arrived in Taipei with time and space to let my mind wander and the thing I kept coming back to was writing. I decided I wanted to commit to writing, indefinitely. So I started committing to a weekly newsletter and to “write, most days.” As a priority in my life, I’ve spent a lot of time creating the conditions such that I could keep this creative spark alive.

Step 5: Results & Feedback

The real thing that guaranteed I was going to keep writing and sharing my ideas publicly was building an audience. As more people started replying my newsletters, scheduling curiosity conversations, and sharing my ideas I was motivated to keep going.

People are often ashamed to admit that they like attention. I don’t think all attention is bad. We tend to have negative reactions towards people that blindly pursue wealth, status, or fame. It’s good to be skeptical, but when thinking about our own lives, its important not to undermine our desires. If you desire status, just make sure you’re doing it in a way that aligns with how you want to live.

For me, I was ashamed to share at first and also afraid to admit to myself that I liked the attention. After some reflection, I realized that I desired appreciation from others. This is normal – anyone on a creative path is often doing something that others don’t understand. I realized that if I could seek out appreciation from people I liked, respected and doing similar things, it could unlock a virtuous cycle in my life.

The important thing is not to be ashamed of what we really want – this typically only leads to self-sabotage in the creative process. We all have different motivators. Here are some of mine:

  • Friends: I love the people I end up connecting with here and the conversations that emerge from what I put out into the world
  • Money: With subscribers and patrons, I am making about $300-400 per month from small donations and while this isn’t going to change my life, it is a huge boost of confidence that 60 people are like “hell yeah, I’ll support this!”
  • Likes: I do like when people share my stuff and get a kick when something I write gets shared and read by a lot of people.
  • Opportunities: It’s pretty exciting that writing publicly is one of the best paths to career stability. My current path has a very uncertain salary but by writing about topics I care about I have a proof-of-work that gives me access to opportunities in the future if I might want them

For me, this is the loop you see at the bottom here and it’s what’s transformed creative action from a linear process into something that sort of happens as a product of my life.

Finding an “audience” for your writing can be a tricky thing, especially at first. I highly recommend starting out in places like Quora, LinkedIn, or Medium where there is a built-in distribution. It’s also smart just to learn about the different algorithms. You don’t want to create for the algorithms, but it’s also not smart to be naive either. If you can tweak something 10% without losing the spirit of what you’re creating then do it!

The biggest mistake people I see people make is that they pay far too much attention to what “works” on social media platforms. This might help you build followers but it will not lead to an engaged group of supporters. Over the long term too, it’s just much harder to sustain interest in topics that aren’t aligned with your natural curiosity.

If you really care about building an audience around something you care about there is one thing you can do that will help you more than anything else: write or create something longform that is interesting, thought-provoking, and original. It’s surprising how few people take this approach but when I think about the pieces, ideas, or things people connected with most, it’s almost always the longest thing I’ve written.

Far fewer people may read the longer posts, but the people that do are likely very excited about your topics.

Another thing to do once you’ve written high-quality stuff is to share it with people writing and exploring similar ideas.

The Iron Law of The Internet: Nerdy people who go deep on topic X want to befriend other nerdy people going deep on topic X.

The easiest way to get me excited is to write deeply and thoughtfully about something I’m curious about. I was surprised to find after sharing my own work how willing many writers, thought leaders, and authors were willing to talk to me to talk about their writing. I was blown away when Alex Pang gave me a quick yes to talk about his book Rest on my podcast. Yet during the conversation, I realized: he loves this too!

Protecting My Creativity & Non-Attachment

When I look back on my life, I see evidence everywhere of my interest in writing. Yet it only became apparent about a year and a half after quitting my job that it was something I wanted to commit to.

When I came to this realization, I had a deep sense that this was a gift. One that I needed to protect. This is why for most of the past few years I’ve ruthlessly protected my time and energy such that I could continue to write. Over time, I stumbled into a set of conditions that not only enabled me to keep writing but started to make my life better. Unlocking my “creative engine” enable me to flourish and led to to the most meaningful project of my life, writing a book.

Yet you may be surprised that even with some success, I don’t have any goals or aims with my writing. I like creating for the sake of itself and this is something you can only understand if you’ve experienced it yourself. As Seth Godin says, I’ve embraced my inner artist:

The last element that makes it art is that it’s a gift. You cannot create a piece of art merely for money. Doing it as part of commerce so denudes art of wonder that it ceases to be art. There’s always a gift intent on the part of the artist.

I’ve tried to embrace this more and more over time. So while I do get some value from the appreciation, I don’t do it for any specific outcome. When I hit publish, it’s as if the work I’ve created disappears. I’m much more interested in diving into the next piece.

So with that, I shall hit publish here 🙂

About Paul Millerd

Paul is a writer, creator, and curious human that is passionate about how people can reimagine their relationship with work to do things that matter. He published The Pathless Path in 2022.