By his own account, David Perell (@david_perell) was "horrible" at writing. Even his friends told him he wasn't great. In this episode, we talk about why he decided to get really, really good at writing instead of giving up, and what specific techniques made it possible.
What's up, everybody? This is Courtland from indiehackers.com and you're listening to the Indie Hackers Podcast. More people than ever are building cool stuff online and making a lot of money in the process. On this show, I sit down with these indie hackers to discuss the ideas, the opportunities, and the strategies they're taking advantage of so the rest of us can do the same.
I've got David Perell here. David, welcome to the show.
Thank you. It's great to be here. I'm a long-time Indie Hackers fan.
Yeah, you are also, I think one of the most requested guests to come on the show. People are always sending me emails saying you’ve got to get David on here.
Now you're here and you're also somewhat of a tough person to describe because you do so many different things. You are prolific on Twitter. You've got, I think 160,000 followers. You've got a blog or you've written hundreds of essays. You've got multiple newsletters, I think multiple podcasts. Then maybe the most indie hacker thing about you is that you've got an online school where you teach people to write.
I think the thing that sort of ties all this stuff together is the fact that it's all about writing. Everything you write is about writing. Everything you talk about is about writing. Your Twitter bio says literally the writing guy. How did you decide to choose that as a description for yourself?
Yeah, a really creative, my friend, Nick Sharma had the DTC guy and I said, hey, that's pretty good. I'm going to call myself the writing guy. That's it. It's as simple as that.
I really believe that writing on the internet, particularly sharing ideas on the internet is one of the most under-utilized under explored opportunities in the world right now. I believe very strongly that people should write online, especially people who maybe want to start a business, who feel intellectually isolated, who work for a corporation and they don't feel like they're being fairly compensated for their ideas.
What we're seeing right now is a couple of shifts where it's becoming much easier to distribute your writing. You have a bunch of places where you can share your writing and you don't have to go through a lot of the work that you used to have to do when you would build like a WordPress site in 2010 or something. That's the first thing.
The second thing is more and more people are just actually on the internet. You just now have a whole movement around online writing and the tools to learn how to do it. Like my business, which is Write of Passage, where I teach people how to write online. It's five weeks, and in that five-week cohort, we just get a bunch of people who are absolutely obsessed with this idea.
We bring them all together and I have a full curriculum that I've spent years developing, and we all come together around this shared mission. This shared project of writing on the internet.
Let's talk about this cohort-based learning, this idea of an online school, because I've been talking to, obviously, indie hackers for years now. It seems like every quarter, every year, more and more people are learning through these sort of structured mechanisms online.
Two or three years ago, everybody learned just by doing like, oh, I learned to write because I spent eight years painstakingly crafting my blog and people kept telling me it sucked. Now I asked people about how they learned to write and they’re like, yeah, I went through Write of Passage. How did how'd you learn SEO? Oh, I took this course from AHREFS, et cetera, et cetera.
We're kind of already living in this golden age of people who are ambitious and a little bit far sighted, taking advantage of all these really high-quality courses online and sort of eschewing the traditional educational structure.
With your course, I mentioned, this is kinda the most indie hacker thing that you do. It's an online business. You actually charge people. Do you ever shared revenue numbers and how you're supporting yourself through the course?
The course is a couple million dollars in revenue per year. I have a business partner whose name is Tiago Forte, who runs Building a Second Brain, which does quite well. We share a staff, which is I think one of the things that actually makes this all possible.
Take something like Coachella, right? It's music festival that happens every April and think of the staff that you need to hire. It's very spiky in terms of your revenue, in terms of the staff. And the thing is, I bet, I mean, I've never looked into this, but I bet that they hire a bunch of part-time contractors. I bet the run-up in order to get all those people is a mess.
I wouldn't be surprised if there's a bunch of a festival consortium that basically hires a bunch of staff together so that those staff can work all year and they can just pop between different festivals. Maybe they can work for four or five rather than just joining Coachella, then leaving. Cause it's just like talented people generally want to have, be employed all year.
We have the same, basically this Coachella problem in Write of Passage and with cohort-based courses where what I want to do is I want to basically live a life where I have eight months a year to be as creative as possible and four months a year where I teach and I sell the course.
What we do is I have the same staff as my partner Tiago, and then we basically break through the Coachella problem where everyone who works for us can work for both courses at the same time. Then for us, we save a lot on salary. Our rate of learning is also way faster because our whole team gets double the cohorts.
Let's talk about how you actually started this. Cause it's, I know a lot of people who are launching online courses, not very many of them are making millions of dollars a year. Not many have accrued the following that you've accrued. Where do you start if you want to build something that people trust and respect and are willing to pay a lot of money to take?
You start writing and you start sharing your ideas. You start accruing an audience of people who are on your intellectual wavelength. I think that there's a couple of things about this. The first is that what you do is you basically build expertise and connections within a specific genre or industry that you're interested in.
That's the first thing, the second thing is you end up building an audience so that once you go to sell something, you already have pre-validated demand that people are interested in that thing.
The thing that got me, pretty funny story, the my co-founder who runs, Will Mannon, unbelievable talent who runs all of our courses. He's the Director of Student Experience. He reached out to me through my newsletter in 2018. We met at Venice beach at this place called the Venice Whaler. I wanted to have an intellectual conversation and he found this beachy restaurant with super loud music. It was just the worst pick of all time for a first meeting restaurant for what I wanted. I always make fun of him for this.
It's like trying to go to a first date at the club or something, and it's like, I can't really hear you.
You look good.
Yeah, exactly. I told them that I wanted in 2019 to help 12 people start writing online. I don't know what happened. This is his story that he tells. I came back two weeks later and I posted on Twitter and I said, I want to help a thousand people start writing. I received a flood of responses. I was like, oh my goodness, there are so many people who want to do this.
So you strike me as someone who sets a lot of goals. You know, you want to teach 12 people to write. That's a very specific goal. I don't know if you're familiar with the Basecamp guys, DHH and Jason Fried. They've got this mantra that they preach. I don't know how serious they are about it, but then they're like, don't set goals.
You shouldn't set goals, from their purview because it's kind of this binary. You either hit it and you're happy or you don't hit it and you're sad. It doesn't matter either way cause we're just going to set a new goal. The way they see things is you should just do the best work you can do every day and you shouldn't need a goal to do that. What do you think about that advice?
I do think it's nice to set goals. They just help you orient your life in terms of what you actually want. But I think goals are much more beneficial from the sense of how do you make sense of your priorities than, I really try not to measure things too much. Goals in retrospect are much less useful than goals in advance of looking into the future.
What are your goals right now?
One goal is I really want to figure out how to write two long form essays a year that are just absolutely exceptional. They all take hundreds of hours and I need to create the intellectual space in my life where I can explore these ideas that aren't immediately relevant and that don't have a very fast ROI, but to me, the long form essay is just a beautiful art form.
It's one that I want to get really good at. And they're the most rewarding things that I do, but running a business and sending multiple newsletters every week and just the daily demands of life, make it hard to write these things. I want to figure out how to do two of them this year.
It’s the challenge of being a creator. I mean, I rattled off some of the things you're doing. If you've got multiple podcasts and newsletters and tweets to send, uh, how can you really sit down and focus on, on two major things? I guess you've got to, you've got to outsource some stuff or quit some stuff, or very cleverly realign a lot of the work you're doing such that it somehow adds up at the end of the year to some major long form writing.
I don't know how you figure it out, but I have the same challenge with Indie Hackers. I'm doing also a podcast and a couple of newsletters and posting on the forum regularly and tweeting and meeting lots and lots of people. Then doing my own sort of personal writing that I don't publish anywhere, just to help me formulate ideas. It's really hard when you're doing that to sit down and just write one big thing.
Right. This is the challenge of being a creator and being an entrepreneur is how do we build systems that serve us rather than systems that we have to serve? It's just a daily challenge because when you serve a system, you end up getting these compounding returns into the work that you do, but then you lose some lateral mobility.
I just like, I want to figure out how to live a life where I can really work on these things. But in a way that doesn't sacrifice the business because I feel a duty to my students and quite frankly, a duty to the world to figure out how to get these ideas out there cause I think they're really important.
There's a really good blog post by Sahil, the founder of Gumroad. He wrote it last month. It's called “No meetings, no deadlines, no full-time employees.” Did you read this?
I did not read it. I read the end where he talked about no full-time employees. I did not read the whole blog post
I skimmed through, so I also haven't read the entire thing, but it was super inspiring what I did read. They've got 25 people. They're doing $11 million in revenue a year and no one on their team is full-time, not even Sahil, the founder. He's off doing a bunch of other things. Everybody's got other projects, some of the employees are indie hackers, not even on the side, just in parallel with what they're doing at Gumroad.
The reason that they decided to switch to this model was it clicked for him that Gumroad helps creators sell products online. If you have an eBook, you could sell it on Gumroad. When they looked at their users and their customers, they realized these creators are not working to make stuff just so they can make money. More often they're making money so that they have the free time to make whatever they want, which is kind of what you're doing.
I think it's so funny that they decided to apply that to their own business. Like, well, why not our employees? Why don't we only hire creators to be our employees? They can basically come here. They can work however, number of hours they want. We have a giant to do list, they just take whatever's at the top, go do that. We'll pay them. Then they can spend their free time doing whatever they want. That's kind of like what you're working to do as an indie hacker, build these businesses and get them to the point where they can actually serve the world, but also serve you.
Let's talk about how you started your cohort-based course, because I've kind of read your origin story. You talked about not being a good student, you had a 2.9 GPA, your SAT scores weren't great. You didn't look at yourself as this masterful writer, but today you've got famous, successful people who are coming to you asking for writing tips. How did you go from, from point A to point B?
I was a horrible writer and I was a horrible student and I say that with no hyperbole whatsoever. I thought that my life was going to be a big failure for the first 23 years. It was bad. It was really unenjoyable and I got good at writing out of desperation.
What happened was I was in college and I got a C in my writing class, I just wasn't going to other classes. I was working. When I was working full-time job, the feedback was you're not a great writer. I had friends who told me that I wasn't a good writer. I think that I just looked at that and I just said, I refuse to be bad at this. It's very important and I'm going to get good
Because I knew, and I still know, this is something that I just really believed to be true: that good writers are now rewarded like they've never been rewarded before because the barriers to publishing the constraints to getting your ideas out there have never been less.
We've actually had a serious order of magnitude shift in terms of the ability for just normal people like you and me to just get ideas out there. That means that writing is an activity with really high returns right now. I said, I'm going to get good at this.
I'm not a good writer naturally, but what I do have that comes very easily to me is I'm good at taking individual pursuits with clear metrics or clear ways of looking at success and failure and things that are diverse enough and unique enough where every single time I work on that thing, it's going to be different, but it's also it's enough sameness that I can apply frameworks and principles, and I can just develop systems to do things.
I got recruited play college golf. I played baseball at a decently high level. I wasn't that good, but I was good for my size, that's for sure. I've learned to become a pilot. I've learned to write. This thing of these individual pursuit in this very particular way I am really good at.
There's a line that people say, if you have a hammer, everything looks like a nail. People are like, oh, that's so bad. You don't want to have a hammer. You're just going to be trapped in specialization. I say BS. I say totally wrong. Build a Thor's hammer and then just go around looking for nails.
So, in life, what I do is I know exactly what I'm good at and I just go find that thing. If it wasn't right, it'd be music. It'd be drama. It’d be theater. It'd be something else entirely, be painting. I don't care. That is what I'm good at. I've just now applied it to writing because that's, it is basically where, what would it be, like in finance you have return on invested capital. This is where I would have the highest return on invested attention.
It's almost like, you're describing this Thor’s hammer. It's either you've got a framework that's amazing or it's a framework or process for creating frameworks so that no matter what you go into, you figure out the right approach, to hit it from. What are some of those frameworks? What do you use to approach writing? What do you use to approach Twitter growth? What's something that other people probably haven't thought of that you're using to get ahead?
All audience building works the same way. It's with a public-to-private bridge. What you do is you grow your audience on public platforms and then you build relationships with people on private ones.
Takes something like Indie Hackers or your own site. People find you on social media, say something like Twitter. Then what happens is you have to get as many of them to basically cross some bridge onto a private platform, like the podcast that people can subscribe to directly. Or the forum that you were talking about, where now, once they're on that forum, they're spending life there. They're going to the meetups that you guys host around the world. Now they're really a part of the community, but they all found you on these public platforms.
All audience building is, is you attract people on public platforms and they're great because they give you free reach and distribution. That's what's awesome. But then you end up with, remember there was an app called Meerkat and Meerkat was going to be the next big thing, remember that? It was all about live video and stuff. And what happened?
Twitter built Periscope and shut off API access to Meerkat. That was because they were too dependent on the public platform. Whereas a company that did a really good job of crossing the public-to-private bridge is Instagram.
What Instagram did early on, you could post a photo through Twitter, I think and it would populate there, but then it would, what Instagram did, was they said over and over again, come back to our app, come back to our app. The experience is going to be better. Then once they got people from the public side of Twitter, into the private side of Instagram, then they controlled the experience with their customers, their users. That's how they've built such an unbelievably successful consumer social app.
I love the way that you're looking at it. I think about this a lot that there are these basically these public feeds on the internet that people check for various reasons. I kind of think of it as almost three different buckets of feeds that people check there's the feeds that you check, because they're just so damn addictive. You can't, like you're compulsively addicted to checking them.
That's Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, I'll just type TW into my browser bar and blackout I'm on Twitter. I don't even know how I got there. Reddit’s like that, Hacker News, then you've got feeds that you're kind of required to check because if you don't, you're going to miss something.
This is your phone notifications, your email, your work, Slack and communication tools, or like Snapchats from friends. Then maybe the third category is you have a really specific problem and you're looking out for a solution. So, you go to these public channels, like Google search or YouTube search, or some repository of browsable searchable information and you go there.
What you're saying is that basically, if you're a creator, that's where you want to start. You want to start on one of these public feeds and basically build up a lot of attention there, social capital there, following there, and eventually convert them to your own private feed, which might be an email newsletter or a blog.
For you, I guess your ultimate end of the funnel is your online school, Write of Passage. Ideally, if you're putting out good information for people, they're going to say this David guy, I'm picking up what he's putting down. He knows how to write. I don't know how to write and I'm convinced that it's super valuable. What are your top of funnel channels, which public channels you use to get people to come to Write of Passage?
I use Twitter quite a bit. I guess this, going on other podcasts, making YouTube videos. It really is, what do I get excited about? What sort of idea do I want to pursue? Cause I just make stuff all the time. It's so fun for me. There’s no other way that I would ever want to live besides just creating, creating, creating all the time.
The bottom of the funnel stuff requires a lot more work. I sort of go from there, get people on an email list. Then I have a blast. I send two email newsletters every week, Monday musings and Friday finds. I think of them as like the burnt ends of my intellectual life.
Here's what I mean by that. For barbecue, I live in Texas now, so of course we’ve got to talk about barbecue. I am in Austin, but when I was in Kansas City I was with my friend, Eric, and he took me to this place. It's this famous barbecue joint. What happened with burnt ends is they used to throw away the burnt ends. Cause they were just burnt out. It's like who the heck wants burnt food. Right?
One day, this was in the 1970s, the owner of this barbecue joint, he went out and started giving the burnt ends to all the people waiting in line. It was like Disney. One of Disney's great innovations is waiting in line. At most places, it's the worst. Waiting in lines at Disney, not that bad, kind of entertaining. Likewise, waiting in line at most barbecue joints, it takes forever. You gotta stand there. It's kind of cold maybe, but then you get your free ends.
People just loved these burnt ends. Now, what's really interesting is burnt ends have gone from being the worst things that they're already doing. They're already making. Now they're the first thing to sell out at a lot of barbecue places.
My point is that there's a lot of things in life that is basically the residue, the intellectual residue of the things that you do. I think of an email newsletters is how do you then take advantage of that?
My Monday newsletter is the coolest things I learned last week. I'm already doing that sort of stuff. I sort of summarize it. It's almost like journaling for me in terms of now I'm synthesizing and making explicit what I learned.
Then my Friday newsletter, Friday finds is just the coolest things that I came across in the previous week. Once again, I'm already doing that. I basically write newsletters that are the burnt ends of my intellectual life.
Then bottom of the funnel is hosting workshops and sending out really targeted emails for people who say that they want to join Write of Passage. That's much less fun. That requires work.
You’re sort of in real-time demonstrating what I think is one of the biggest benefits of being a prolific writer. You've got, I don't know how many essays, long and short form on your blog and then how many tweets in newsletters you've written, but you've written a ton. You have to write a ton to be able to teach a writing class.
When you write, what you're really doing is you're thinking because you just have to edit and reedit and really think about the idea and play with it and express it in the best way. Even if you don't think that what you're doing is thinking about idea and refining your thinking, you're ultimately going to do that.
It has so many redounding benefits. In my opinion, the best speakers are almost always really good writers because you come on and you don't say I’m very big into content reuse and say this to dry spiel. You have a whole story about the burnt ends. I haven't read it, but I'm pretty sure, you've actually written about this online somewhere before, and that's why it can blow out of you.
It's almost like a parlor trick where a lot of people see, and they hear really great speakers. They hear a comedian on stage, like this guy is so funny, or they hear a podcast host who can really just deliver. What they don't see is that behind the scenes, this person has spent so much time writing about this topic and refining it in their mind. At this point it's almost like a professional delivering something that they've just practiced over and over and over again.
That is the best description I've ever heard.
I had this moment I had had this experience. It was crazy. I was 22 years old. I just graduated from college. After my third podcast, I interviewed a guy named Massimo Pigliucci. He's a philosopher of stoicism at The Graduate School in New York city. That's what it's called, The Graduate School.
I interviewed him and we're in this academic building with low ceilings on the fifth floor, these fluorescent lights that give you a headache after four minutes in there. It was really hot in this room. I just remember it so well. After I was also really nervous, which is probably why I felt this way cause I just had nothing to my name at the time. After the interview, I used to do this for every single guest, I'd say, Hey, can you help me out? I'm 22 years old. I don't know anyone. Can you just introduce me to another podcast guest?
He goes, I could introduce you to this woman, this woman, this guy. Like cool, you know, never heard of him. Then he goes, he looks me dead in the eye and he goes, await, Neil deGrasse Tyson is one of my best friends. I'm like, well, that would be great. You know, just try to play it. Cool.
Because of this, I got an intro to him. I interviewed Neil deGrasse Tyson in his office the day his book “Astrophysics for People in a Hurry came out. That day he was on five different programs. He was on “The Today Show” in the morning. He was on a CBS podcast before me, “The North Star” podcast, episode number seven. That was my show. Then New York times after me. I think “The Colbert Report” that night. I had no business doing this, no business, right? Just like, how did this guy end up here?
The thing that Neil said to me, and I didn't believe at the time, and now I know it's a hundred percent true. He’s such an eloquent speaker. So, I asked him, how do you do this man? He said, 90% of what I say in public, I've written down before. Whenever I say something that sounds eloquent, it's just because I've written it, I've structured the ideas. I've done, the hard work and I'm sitting there. I'm like, no way. There’s no way that's true. Who writes that much? Four years later, a hundred percent true.
So true. It's true. It's actually a trick I use with podcast guests, too, which is, if you're interviewing somebody for a podcast, you want to get good material out of them. You don't want someone to come on and feel awkward and not have anything to say.
It turns out the easiest people to interview are people who've written a lot. The best questions to ask are about things that they've already written, because they're guaranteed to be like Neil deGrasse Tyson and basically be able to riff on these things with such skill and, I guess, comfortability that it almost seems natural to a listener.
I think this is everywhere. You look on Twitter. You might just see a tweet that's 120 words. It looks super, 120 characters looks super simple, but you don't know how much work and effort really went into that tweet and how many, how many months of writing or weeks of thinking went into that tweet.
A lot of the best tweeters I know, you, our mutual friend Julian, who are just growing your Twitter accounts the fastest like growing their blogs the fastest are all people who are just writing about these ideas and then presenting them in this deceptively simple way.
I'm curious about this Neil deGrasse Tyson interview. How nervous were you going into this? How do you even prep for something like that?
I was so nervous. It was bad. I just remember probably sweating through my shirt and all this sort of stuff. But you know what, there's moments in life and these moments where you know before you go into them, that you're going to have an experience that is going to change you.
That day, I knew that that was going to happen. I knew that it was going to be one of those before and after moments. The thing that I'm really happy about from that day is that I knew it was going to be a special day and that whole day I just felt it. I just embraced that cause we don't get that a lot in life.
Usually, the big things that happen to us are surprises. They're unexpected, they're tragedies or celebrations that we just never saw coming. They're totally random. What was really cool about that day was it was life changing, but I knew it was going to be life changing before I stepped into it.
Let's talk about some of these top of funnel channels. We've talked a little bit about, your bottom of funnel, the kind of standard burnt ends of your newsletter, et cetera and its content reuse that you've got, but you're still on Twitter. You've got your podcast, you've got YouTube and you do a lot of blogging. If you can only do one of these things, what would you do?
I'd write. Writing is just, it cuts to your core. It changes you, man. When you try to write and to rewrite and to figure out what it is that you're trying to say, it's the ultimate process of self-discovery. It requires a level of rigor that no other medium does.
Long form essays are what I'd pick. I think that they, I don't really care that much about having a big audience. There's certain benefits to that pull. I won't deny those benefits, but what is absolutely amazing is to have somebody email you or come up to you or reach out to you because you wrote something that changed them that was long and where they had to spend like 30 to 90 minutes with that idea.
Good writing is the closest that you can get to inhabiting another person's mind. I see this a lot with David Foster Wallace, who is of course a tortured human being. He ended up taking his own life and you can actually feel the chaos and the pain and just the actual burden of being that observant in his writing with the way that he writes forty-five-word sentences that in those sentences, it's like an atomic bomb.
When David Foster Wallace writes a poignant sentence, you feel like he contains the world in that sentence. You can churn on that idea for months or years and still continue to get things out of it. He has this line from “This is water” speech where he says everybody worships. It's two words and that idea has rocked me.
To get back to your question about writing, that is what a good piece of writing can do. It can just cut through all of your mental walls and pierce through your soul. David White, the poet said, “Poetry is language for which we have no defense.” That's what I aspire to.
The thing that clearly motivates you the most is this long form writing, where you can really put yourself on display and also dive into your writing and become your writing and immerse yourself in it because these pieces don't take a few hours to bang out. This is something that you're saying consumes you. What have you learned about long form writing that you think most other people, even people who are trying to do this haven't learned, or haven't realized?
I'll tell you what I grapple with. What I really struggle with is how much should I focus on my own style versus what is the best thing to do?
I think of long form writing actually a lot like comedy. If you look at a comedy skit, like a Netflix standup, maybe it's an hour, but what you have is you have the overarching narrative of that special. Whatever it is that they're trying to say, that ends up being a frame for the entire special.
What good comedy still does is it makes you laugh every couple of minutes, hopefully every minute. Within that long special, what you have is all these mini moments that are entertaining and stuff like that. You could also think of it like the hero's journey, right?
“The Lord of the Rings” starts in the Shire, ends in the Shire. They're still all of these things that happen. All the individual scenes end up being their own things with their own stories and their own takeaways. That's the way that I like to write a long form essay.
What I do is I say, what is an idea that I'm going to be really focused on now? How do I just have all of these mini moments within the piece that relate to that? Then I just, what I really struggle with is then trying to structure it all so that it fits together.
I think that what people don't realize about long form writing, which is what makes it so cool is just the relationships that you build with people when they've spent that much time with your ideas. It just leads to some really wonderful friendships and even business opportunities.
Yeah. If you think about what writing is, it's you have an idea in your head. You have millions of ideas that go through your head, but you pick one that's so resonant that it must be better than all the other ones.
Then you basically try as hard as you can to transfer the idea into someone else's head in the exact same shape that it exists in your head. That's an incredibly difficult thing to do cause it's got to go through all these transformations into a set of squiggles on a page. Then you also gotta have, the other reader has to take those squiggles and put it in an idea. They have all sorts of other ideas in their head that might mess with the idea.
So, you have to kind of anticipate that and make sure you structure the squiggles such that the idea looks the same in their head as it does in yours. It's this incredible process. I think if you, as a reader, experience someone who is able to do that really well, you're right. You're just going to connect with that person.
Some of the people that I respect the most are fiction authors where I've read their thing and I'm like, this person is just brilliant. In my day-to-day life who I look up to the most are usually people running businesses, twisting the right knobs and tweaking the right channels, et cetera. But the people who touched me on a more personal level, I think are always writers.
You also write short form essays and you're very prolific. Same question there, what do you know about writing short form essays and cranking them out and actually getting them to be read and reusing them, et cetera, that other people who have started blogs and maybe can't continue with their blogs or quit or who don't get traction and what are they doing wrong?
Well, I don't know. It's hard to give a general point, but you said something really, really insightful. You said reusing. This is the key that writing can actually save you time. It does take a long time, but it can save you time because every single thing that you write is a new intellectual Lego block for your life.
What I do is I only start projects that are 80% done, and I only write about things that I've done 80% of the work. What I just do is I get a bunch of notes on the paper. I collect a bunch of stories, everything is there. Then I say, okay, I now have enough ideas of my own and enough statistics and quotes that I can then come together in writing and produce something that's good.
But I actually do the same thing in my work where rather than saying, okay, what is the super top-down plan that I'm going to have? I have no idea. I don't know what Write of Passage is going to become. I mean, I would love for it to become some kind of business school of the future, where we then create a bunch of companies that come out of this.
Because once you have an audience, then you can start a company in a way that has a lot less risk. Cool. I love that. But really what I do is I write things down and I work on projects where then I have all these intellectual building blocks.
Then what I do is when it comes to building out a curriculum, when it comes to hiring principals, rather than starting everything from scratch, I say, what are the things that I've already produced? How do I repackage and recombine the ideas that I've already made? Words on a page, they have infinite patience. You write something once, you benefit from it forever. It's a hell of a trade.
You've given a lot of writing advice. I've read a lot of writing advice, both from you and from others. If I had to share here are some of the things that have stuck with me the most.
Number one would be that people pay attention to novelty. In fact, you hit on this earlier, where you could share an aphorism or an old quote that people heard a million times. It won't really stick with them. They'll be like, oh, I've already heard this, but you restate it in a way that it changes it and makes it seem fresh and new, like a vivid analogy or a different example. And suddenly it's like, they've heard it for the first time and they take it seriously. This is an idea that I came across in a few books a while ago and it's never left my mind: novelty, novelty, novelty.
Another came from a copywriting book. I think “Advertising Secrets of the Written Word” was recommended to me by a previous podcast guest. He had these two very simple points. He said, your title, the entire purpose of your title is to get people to read the first sentence. The entire purpose of the first sentence is to get people to read the second sentence.
It was very reductive and simple, but that's also never left my mind. It's kind of been part of my writing process. What would be your most tactical three tips to someone who's listening to this podcast? They're not going to take a writing class, but they would like to be better at writing online.
Use stories, analogies, and examples. Simple as that. Do stories to aluminate your point. Talk about your personal stories. Talk about the stories of other people.
Metaphors and analogies, what you're doing is this is how we learn. We take ideas from one domain, we compare them to another domain. Try to use analogies that haven't been used before. Try to think, can I use an analogy that maybe has never been done before. I don't think that anyone has ever compared email newsletters to burnt ends from barbecue joints.
The third thing is give examples. You say something that's abstract. People are really good with things that are concrete. Focus on things that are concrete in the world that people can see and have people say, ah, now I understand that. You make an abstract point. You clarify it with a concrete idea, then you have your bucket of once again, stories, metaphors slash analogies, and examples, and you just pull from all three of those places, you're writing will get so much better. Simple.
Love it. I want to try something. I think it'll be fun, we'll see. You've written a ton of short form essays and I've just gone through and picked out a few of them that I think are particularly insightful or kind of fun or interesting that I just wanna talk about. Maybe you can sort of walk us through what was your point and what did you mean by this.
We actually already talked about one. You called it one big idea. This is this idea that you really should just work on ideally, one thing. How are you doing that? What's the point of just working on one thing?
It’s actually a little bit of both. It's that you should work on one thing, but even the manifestation of how that thing works and plays out is a little bit different.
For me, I'm just trying to do everything I can to get people to learn and explore ideas on the internet. Writing online is one of those things. Trying to save the liberal arts, it's a whole other thing there. Trying to build a writing school is another thing there. Me doing it is another thing there. I'm on YouTube, all of these sorts of things.
That is just my one big idea. Writing online is an absolutely massive opportunity. You should use the internet to learn rather than paying so much money for traditional school or thinking that you can't do it. It's super simple and I'm just hammering home on that idea over and over and over again.
The thing is, I'm actually exploring that idea in so many different ways. I think that article sort of starts off with a critique of how people read books and try to collect how many books they've read like they're collecting mushrooms in Super Mario Kart. I think it's kind of ridiculous.
You don't need to chase so many ideas. You can just find the ideas that are really good and you can just double down on them and you can study them over and over and over again. You can sit with ideas, you can have them churn through your brain.
It's kind of both. That article is very deliberately not telling you to be a polymath, but it's also very deliberately not telling you to be a specialist. I try to just take that spectrum and invert it and flip it so that it's a new perspective where you kind of get the best of both while you also remove elements of both being a polymath and a specialist.
Yeah. In a way, any idea you picked to focus on is going to have so many different facets to it that you're actually going to get to do quite a lot of stuff. But since it all kind of falls under the umbrella of one idea for you, writing, well, even if you do a hundred different things, there's this cohesive layer that ties it all together because it falls into one idea. You're not doing 15 different things that are unrelated. You're doing 15 different things that are all related.
When you started Indie Hackers, there's no way that you realized that what you would build would be as complex and as multi-variate and all the little nooks that you would go down in this journey and with these ideas. It's a surprise. You start focusing on something and you realize, oh my goodness, there's so much here. Everything that you look out in the world has this near infinite complexity.
I was on a website today called TV Tropes, and it's just focused on tropes from TV and movies. This is the most insane Wiki. I didn't even realize that all this stuff existed.
You know what struck me reading this blog post was a really the first part of it, this idea of performative reading people trying to collect, who's read the most books, who can brag about how many books they finished, which is such a vanity metric, because who cares, right?
You don't get a prize for reading the most books. Nobody cares if your knowledge is super scattershot and you're not actually using it to accomplish anything, then who cares. My boss's brother, John has this really interesting approach to reading books. It's actually kind of similar to my brother who has a similar approach to to-do lists. They're both very obsessed with the most important thing, and then they don't care about anything else.
The way that John reads books is he picks the book that he's the most interested in reading at any point in time, and he starts reading it. The second, another book becomes more interesting to him, he just drops the book he's reading and starts reading that one. It's weird. Cause it's not what you would expect. Why not finish the book? Can you then even tell people you read a book if you didn't finish it? No, you can't. Now you can't contribute to this vanity metric. But if you think about it, any other algorithm besides always reading the most interesting thing leads to a life where you just read less interesting stuff.
Or my brother is kind of the same with his to-do list where he doesn't like to make a giant plan of like 15 items of I'm going to do A then B, then C, then D. He likes to figure it out, what's the most impactful thing I can do right now. Then after he's done with that sort of reevaluate, okay what's the most impactful thing I can do now. Maybe in a week ago that was item number B, but maybe today, it's a completely different thing. If he didn't go back and sort of reevaluate, he would kind of be stuck with where he is.
I don't know why your posts reminded me of that, but it's kind of a similar focus, focus on what's your one goal and don't get distracted by some other vanity metric or some other plan you came up with earlier on.
Another post you've got it's called why you should write pseudonymously. In this one you talk about how some of the most interesting Twitter accounts have pseudonymous authors. There's one, that's The Stoic Emperor, it's got 340,000 followers and it's just tweeting the stoic philosophy. No real drama. There's no real headache. No one's trying to cancel The Stoic Emperor because it's not a person. My question to you is why consider writing pseudonymously? I mean, you don't, you're not a pseudonymous author unless you're behind The Stoic Emperor and I don't know about it. Why should anyone consider doing this?
Well, we're moving into an age where there's going to be pseudonymous indie hackers, and there's going to be people…
We already are. We've got AJ from Carrd. No one knows what he looks like. No one knows his real name. He's got a website that's making $30, $40,000 a month. He's one of millions of people. Could be anyone.
I know multiple people who are running businesses and no one knows who they are. Cool. I think that that's where the world is going. The internet is going to change identity in big ways. For a certain kind of person, there are major benefits to writing pseudonymously.
Now they might depend on your personal background. They might depend on the ideas that you're exploring. I think writing pseudonymously should be way more common. That doesn't mean that there aren't benefits to writing under your real name, but many of my best friends do write pseudonymously. I know The Stoic Emperor decently well, and he gets a lot of, he basically gets 90% of the benefits, but without a lot of the drawbacks. I just think it should be much more common.
It’s like an extra little oomph to not knowing who the person is. If you look at something like the phenomena that have spread the most recently, like there's the QAnon theory where there's this person Q’s posting predictions on the internet. Probably not good for the world, but for some reason, because this person's named Q there's this extra layer of credibility that people give.
There's Satoshi with Bitcoin. Who knows who Satoshi is? Nobody knows. It's pseudonymous, but the amount of impact this pseudonymous person has been able to make, despite not writing under the real name, I think would quash any suggestion that writing pseudonymously means that you're giving something up.
Maybe the real question is why not? Why isn't everybody pseudonymous? Why would anyone do anything under their real name unless it's video or audio. What's even the advantage of even being David Perell?
Look, there are certain advantages there. There's no doubt if you're just going to focus on writing than being under your real name is it works really well. It's something that's very culturally accepted. William Gibson does have that great line where he says the future's already here. It's just not evenly distributed yet. Just an unbelievable insight.
What he's trying to get at is that the future can basically, depending on what you're doing, can best be predicted by looking not at the world of tomorrow and trying to say what will come, but looking at the world of today and saying what is already here, that is going to be a bigger part of the world of tomorrow.
I think that the way that I would think about writing pseudonymously is two things. The first is that people are going to diversify their identities like they diversify their investments. I just think that that is a smart thing to do if the intellectual climate stays the same. That's the first thing.
You have a bunch of different identities and people will figure out ways to do this. Also, you're going to be able to take your karma on one platform. Say, how many points you have on Hacker News and you're able to transport it to other platforms and there's going to be some kind of interoperability of identity.
So that once you go on under a new name, you're not starting from zero. Maybe there should have some kind of embedded trust in the system that then allows you to change. That's the first thing, so this will become much more common.
Then the second thing is creative burnout is such a thing, right? When I look at my own career, I mean, I just work very hard and it works really well in my twenties. It'll work well in my early thirties. When I have a bunch of kids, I'm not going to work this hard. The thing that I want to do is I want to build equity in whatever it is that I'm building.
Even a guy like Joe Rogan, if Joe Rogan, who is one of the biggest podcasters on planet Earth, if he doesn't show up to record a podcast, well, the podcast doesn't happen. The system is fundamentally dependent on him. Whereas, what would be really cool about building these virtual identities, is what then you have is you have something like The Writing Guy. Then I would come up with a bunch of the ideas and then we would have a whole team of writers would have a virtual avatar.
Then if I just want to take off for a year, the whole system could run. That's actually what it means to build a business. You build something that sort of transcends you and writing pseudonymously creates the conditions in order to do that. I don't think people are thinking nearly big enough about the possibilities of writing under a pseudonym.
Yeah, and I love this point about the future really being here and really what you need to do is not look at the future, but then you need to look at who is already on the bleeding edge. Who was living in tomorrow yesterday.
David Perell, thanks so much for coming on the show. Can you let listeners know where they can go to learn more about your school and your podcast and your newsletters and your essays, and hopefully your long form essays when you get to the point where you're cranking out two of them a year?
Yeah. Perell.com, P-E-R-E-L-L. is my website and then Twitter, @david_perell. One thing that I would just suggest if you're interested in learning to write is I have a free email series that is called 50 days of writing and sign up for that. It's really focused on how to curate ideas, how to write well, how to distribute your ideas and I'll send you 50 articles in 50 days. I think by the end of it, you'll be a hell of a lot better writer and you'll really enjoy it.
Alright, thanks again, David.
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