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The Secret of Secrets (Day 3)…

Hey, it's Shawn…

I've enjoyed reading the emails we've received about the Easter Egg in Monday's email.

No one we've heard from has found it — yet. But, someone uncovered a clue that may help. More about that in a moment.

In yesterday's email, André shared the why behind his creative process. I really enjoyed reading that.

André and I spend countless hours working together, yet he's always surprising me with some new insight, anecdote, or a perspective I hadn't considered.

(This is Thanksgiving week in the U.S., which is traditionally a time to reflect on our good fortunes. It's the perfect opportunity to acknowledge how grateful I am that André is my partner on this wild adventure.)

While recording content for the 2021 update to Ideas to Assets, I've been thinking a lot about the what and how of my creative workflow.

Today I'm going to take you on my sixteen-year journey from idea collector to value creator. My goal is to compress the big lessons from that journey into ideas you can use, and help you learn from (and avoid) my mistakes.

Full disclosure, my version of alchemy has not yet revealed the Philosopher's Stone, but it has created the equivalent which is a life that I wouldn't exchange for anything.

This is a story in three parts, each one inspired by a book that completely changed the trajectory of my life (although I didn't know it at the time).

“Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.” — Søren Kierkegaard

Act I — Inspiration

I purchased A Whole New Mind by Dan Pink on April 15, 2005. (I know that because I saw the Amazon receipt inside the front cover when I pulled the book off my shelf this morning.)


To put that in perspective, April 2005 was a year and a half before Facebook opened membership to the public.

And more than two years before Apple's June 29, 2007 release of the first iPhone.

I've often said that A Whole New Mind is the most expensive book I've ever purchased. Not because I paid $16.47 for the hardcover version, but because Pink inspired me to pursue learning for the sheer pleasure of exploring my curiosity.

I ordered — and devoured — nearly every book mentioned in the text. Then I moved on to the footnotes, reading those books and articles and exploring many new ideas.

Eventually, those books, articles, websites, and personalities lead me to others, then more (and more and more) after those.

At one point, my back of the napkin math connected 167 books I had read to A Whole New Mind.

I can't even imagine what that six degrees of separation number would be now.

I owe Dan Pink a debt of gratitude I can't ever repay. He inspired me to learn and grow like my life depends on it.

I suspect it does.

Act II — Determination

I made a lot of mistakes in those early years. Far too many to list here.

The biggest mistake was thinking I could keep track of everything I was learning in my head or in random notebooks, index cards, sticky notes, and oh-so-many piles of paper that accumulated on any flat surface in my office.

Looking back, I was chasing the wrong thing. I wanted to be smart and believe me when I tell you that trying to be smart is hard work!

Now let me be clear and say that looking smart and sounding smart are not that difficult.

The Internet is littered with people who are repeating and paraphrasing ideas from genuinely smart people and hoping that makes them seem smart by proxy.

Fortunately, I was lucky enough to stumble on a better alternative.

In an interview with Farnam Street founder Shane Parrish, Swedish investor Peter Bevelin described his rationale for writing Seeking Wisdom: From Darwin to Munger, this way:

“I was dumb and wanted to be less dumb.” As (Charlie) Munger says: “It's ignorance removal…It's dishonorable to stay stupider than you have to be.”

The moment I read that line I was hooked. Becoming smart is hard. But becoming less dumb — I could handle that.

And, in case it's not obvious, that's not an attempt at false modesty. It's 100% genuine. I appreciate the irony that the more I learn the more I realize how little I actually know.

Seeking Wisdom was another turning point book for me. It's challenging reading, and each time I return to it I see so much I didn't notice before.

It's rich, nuanced, and it has helped me become just a little less dumb every day.

Incrementally, systematically, consistently less dumb. That may not be the most inspiring thing you'll read this week, but trust me when I tell you it may be the most powerful.

Bevelin wrote another amazing book — All I Want To Know Is Where I'm Going To Die So I'll Never Go There: Buffett & Munger — A Study in Simplicity and Uncommon, Common Sense.

Both are rarely far from my desk.

“I learn and write because I want to be a little wiser day by day. I don't want to be a great-problem-solver. I want to avoid problems — prevent them from happening and doing right from the beginning. And I focus on consequential decisions. To paraphrase (Warren) Buffett and (Charlie) Munger — decision-making is not about making brilliant decisions, but avoiding terrible ones.” — Peter Bevelin

Act III — Aggregation

The most recent turning point for me followed another happy accident — stumbling on How To Take Smart Notes by Sönke Ahrens.

Ahrens introduced me to Niklas Luhmann, Zettelkasten, personal knowledge management (PKM), and an incredibly rich tapestry of ideas about note making vs. note taking.

“If there is one thing the experts agree on, then it is this: You have to externalise your ideas, you have to write.” — Sönke Ahrens

Beyond the seemingly infinite amount of ‘how to' advice Ahrens makes interesting, accessible, and actionable, How To Take Smart Notes reminded me that creativity does not begin and end with accumulating the ideas of others.

Instead, embracing a life of creativity creates a moral and ethical imperative to produce something of value.

Ideas are foundational. They're the building blocks. They need to interact in unpredictable ways and from those interactions new insights often emerge.

After I read and began to internalize Ahrens' ideas, the missing piece of the creativity puzzle was revealed.

How To Take Smart Notes is, by far, the best ‘why to' and ‘how to' guide for creating your own unique personal knowledge management system.

I can't recommend it enough.

Now, to be clear, I'm not suggesting that you go out and buy A Whole New Mind, Seeking Wisdom, and How to Take Smart Notes.

Context matters — a lot — and each of those books showed up in (and dramatically altered) my life at just the right time — for me.

And, full disclosure, I took the (very) long, hard way to get here.

My contributions to Ideas to Assets condensed sixteen years of trial and (a lot of) error into a course I wish I had back in 2005.

I can't go back in time and give that to me — but this Friday through Monday I can make it available to you.

Before I wrap up today, I want to return to the Easter Egg in Monday's email.

“It feels like one of those 3D pictures that you have to unfocus your sight to see the image. You know it's there, but to see it requires a different set of eyes.” — Jean-Paul C.

You're absolutely right Jean-Paul. Don't look at the trees. Step back and see the forest

Until tomorrow…

Shawn (& André)


The book that didn't make the list probably is the one that has been the most impactful. And the most personal.

It's exceptionally rare that my day doesn't start with Morning Pages, inspired by Julia Cameron.

Three pages, long hand, every day.

Every day.

There is no better medicine for your soul.

Describing my approach to Morning Pages, in depth, and sharing some of the prompts I've created in Ideas to Assets was a little scary and a lot of fun.

(If you enroll in ITA and are inspired to try Morning Pages, please email me in 30 days to check in. I know it'll change your life and I can't wait to hear your story.)

And if ITA isn't right for you, please try Morning Pages anyway (and please email me in 30 days).

I promise making Morning Pages a habit will change your life. Don't take my word for it, however. Prove it to yourself.