Building a Second Brain is a productivity course produced by Forte Labs. It’s focused on improving your personal knowledge management system and habits around it. It’s delivered as a 5-week cohort-based online course. I was part of Cohort 12 in May 2021.
When I was telling my friends about it there two things that stood out the most: cohort-based and the price.
Cohort-based – part of the course is delivered through Zoom lectures and more interactive workshops. There’s also an online forum, Slack, and other opportunities to connect. It’s kind of amazing to be on a Zoom call with 600 people. There were over 1500 students enrolled and amazingly it wasn’t a problem to find opportunities to ask questions and get back a thoughtful response from the instructor and fellow students.
Cost – As Ali Abdaal mentioned in his video review it costs a stupidly large amount of money – 3000 USD in my case. Initially, this challenged most of my existing beliefs about how much value an online course provides.
I’m also happy that some of my friends stepped back and ask a more important question: does it deliver this much value and how does it do that?
My answer to that is yes – if you do the work. The value comes from a large amount of high-quality content, very clear case studies, learning opportunities, and opportunities to discuss learnings with peers and mentors.
The main essence of Building a Second Brain (BASB)
There are two main pillars of BASB: C.O.D.E. and P.A.R.A.
C.O.D.E. stands for Capture, Organize, Distill, and Express. It’s a set of tools and approaches. An example of such workflow would be how to take a highlight from your Kindle (Capture), file it in your digital knowledge management tool (Organize), summarize a few of such notes (Distill), and then use it in your next blog post (Express).
P.A.R.A. stands for Projects, Areas, Resources, and Archive. It’s an organizational structure that helps you reuse parts of your work in future projects.
While the course presents both techniques with widely popular tools it’s mostly doing it just so that you understand how to apply the concepts using your tools.
Is that it? Just a course on organizational techniques?
That’s how it starts and then in the second week, it shifts into a personal development course. After it fixes the basic technology workflows of participants it starts to ask important questions: what do you want to produce and why does it matter to you?
This shift from productivity to a personal development course is where it shines. What I noticed is that it doesn’t matter how well I can plan a project if I can’t emotionally connect with it. I’ll procrastinate on it and it’s going to be a big struggle. So what BASB does with monthly and weekly reviews is that it makes sure that you work on projects that you care about.
In my case it also forced me to reflect on the kind of content I’m consuming and what am I doing with all of this information. An example of this would be listening to the content by the Microconf community and reading books about running a Software as a service website. I already know enough about the topic so I should start focusing on execution and less on studying. This is also true for any conference videos, podcasts, and blog articles.
What they could do better
I wish the initial part of the course and mentor groups would be less focused on the technology. I think the course is teaching something greater and constant refocusing on technology is distracting from the part of showing up and doing the important work. Mentor groups were also too focused on technology and I also missed more time slots in European Time Zone.
I was also surprised by how poor the technology choices for their platforms were. Teachable felt outdated as a teaching platform. I found Circle forum software much less developed than open-source discourse and hard to use.
Parts of the course delivery felt like they’re still in an early stage of technological development and while it’s great to see how the team builds in public it was also a bit disappointing at times. Probably because I have experience with building similar technology and I know what’s possible. At no point, it prevented me from fully participating in the course and learning. I just know it can be done better.
What I liked
The community of students was amazing and they’ve helped me get over my struggles with excellent answers.
Just a ton of content that allowed me to really deep dive into parts of course where I felt that I needed further information. It was pure productivity geeking out of heaven.
I have lifetime access to all future cohorts and I’m looking forward to the fall one. I’m sure I’ll be able to further improve my processes so I can do even more work that matters to me.
Was it worth it and would I recommend it?
For me, it was absolutely worth it and I’d mostly recommend it to others too. I’d say there are two important things to consider.
You should already be in a well-paid job. I’d say that if you make over $50k/year after taxes then it makes sense to invest about 5% of your salary to boost your personal organization and productivity skills. For students and people in lower-paying jobs, it might take too long for new systems and habits to start returning on the course investment.
You need to be able to invest time and focus during the 5 weeks of the course. There’s a lot of supporting content that you’ll want to study and think about. You’ll also want to experiment with new tools and how you organize your information and that’s hard to do if you’re in a middle of a few large projects. As it’s a cohort-based approach you’ll lose a lot of learning opportunities if you can’t participate in the scheduled activities.
Powerful thoughts that stuck with me
Capturing and consuming by itself doesn’t add any value. It’s just gorging on information making it a 3rd tier type of task. Everything else is a priority.
Consuming content is the least unique to you and with this least useful.
Define projects in a way that they will succeed or fail as soon as possible. Avoid zombie projects at all costs.
Publish the work when it is 80% ready so that you get a maximum outcome based on the effort you put in.
Most of the time I complete a course or a workshop it feels like it will have a lasting effect on my life. Building a second brain was no different. It provided me with a paradigm shift that I needed as I start my work on new projects.
If you’re even a bit of a productivity geek you should enroll in such a course and give this part of you some attention as you reflect on your habits.
Technology and tools that we use don’t matter that much in the end. Know your why and you’ll find your how.