About 30-odd pages into Building A Second Brain, the Tiago Forte book that promised a “proven method to organise my digital life and unlock (my) creative potential”—and god knows I need both—I was more lost, overwhelmed and frustrated than when I started.
As I waded through yet another self-indulgent and repetitive paragraph, I wondered if this could have been a playlist of snappy “how-to” videos, with actionable points and takeaways. That approach would have actually served the purpose for which most people pick up such a book. Then, suddenly, one part of a footnote stood out, revealing Forte’s main point and purpose: “This book is primarily focussed on the potential of digital notes.”
Wild. What in the world is going on in the genre of self-help? When I reached a paragraph in which Forte pushes digital notes, saying that in them “(q)uotes from a philosophy book written in ancient time might sit next to the latest clever tweet”, my thoughts began to take the shape of a now popular memefied saying—“this meeting could’ve been an email”. The voice in my head was appalled enough to mimic and modify this: “This book could have been a listicle.” From that moment on, this thought became the biggest hurdle in getting through the novel-length navel-gazing about…well, how to effectively use your device’s notes app.
Forte has a whole website, Forte Labs, with courses and other resources to help people organise their thoughts digitally. In fact, if you google the title of this book, it isn’t the book that comes up but Forte’s second website, buildingasecondbrain.com, with its courses and email subscriptions (you click “yes I want to build my second brain” if you want to get his email guide), and old videos on the already popularised “method”. More reasons that this book essentially didn’t need to exist.
It has a few interesting nuggets, though. On Taylor Swift’s songwriting process, for instance—she writes phrases, as they occur, on her phone’s notes app—and the coming together of her hit song Blank Space. But bits and bobs are not good enough to justify a whole book. Building A Second Brain does great disservice to the actually interesting points to which Forte wants to draw attention—for example, how a “recency bias” can affect creativity, and why we would benefit from having our past knowledge and accumulated ideas organised and ready to access.
It isn’t enough to only have something to say—the advice writers often get—when you want to write a book. You need to know how to narrativise it. Forte’s book made me wonder if more such life-coaches could benefit from the approach Alain de Botton takes, especially in his 2016 book The Course Of Love. In it, he proselytises his deliberations on love through the lives of a fictional couple. It’s how moralistic fables for children have worked too. New-age gurus would do well to remember, or even just know, this.