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The second brains of an elite Premier League manager and a world-class business coach
...maybe I've been too harsh on note-taking
Sometimes I wish I was Bradley Cooper.
Not Bradley Cooper the raccoon from the Guardians of the Galaxy movies, or Bradley Cooper the angry chef in that weird movie where he’s shucking oysters for years.
Limitless Bradley Cooper. The Bradley Cooper who starts the movie as a bum — admittedly still an incredibly good-looking bum — in a terrible apartment, and through the magic of taking a pill or two, transforms himself into a genius-level best-selling author investor president, all in the space of about 90 minutes.
We’d all love that, right? Finding a simple hack that suddenly unleashes our latent potential, that we just *know* has been sat there the whole time. And although I’m reliably informed that Ritalin or Adderall are the closest we have, the real Limitless magic pill doesn’t exit.
What is a second brain?
In recent years, the idea of a “second brain” has gained a lot of traction. Imagine a non-pharmaceutical intervention to achieve the Limitless effect — all by merely making notes on some particular app.
The idea is simple: in your life, you already take in a ton of inputs in the form of books, podcasts, conversations, meetings, movies, and whatever else passes through your life. You also produce a ton of outputs — slides, spreadsheets, reports, tweets, conversations, meetings and the like. By capturing a small fraction of these inputs and outputs to reference, reuse or remix in future, you gain a massive advantage.
It’s a nice idea, and one with a lot of promise — but I’ve struggled to see any application in the ‘normal world’ outside of online creators. The most well-known advocates of second brains, Tiago Forte and David Perell, are both Very Online Creator Type People, whose professional lives revolve around writing blog posts and twitter threads, creating youtube videos, and selling online courses.
If I’m doing none of those, is the idea of a second brain really that useful? I didn’t think so. In fact, I found it quite fun to shit on the idea of building a second brain:
It turns out I was wrong.
The second brain in sports
One podcast I listen to regularly is the High Performance podcast. The hosts interview — surprise surprise — high performers, to find out what makes them tick. In terms of guests, it skews towards athletes and professional sportspeople more than, say, a Tim Ferriss Show, which is why it’s interesting. We often see a 30 second interview with a Premier League manager; we seldom see a 90 minute interview.
This week, Newcastle United manager Eddie Howe appeared on the show. He’s a diligent, thoughtful, incredibly hard-working guy, and Newcastle is a city and a club near and dear to my heart — I lived in Newcastle for three years, and my grandfather was on the books of Newcastle United before his career got interrupted by WWII, so I dove into the interview with great interest. I was struck by something he said about how he spent a 12 month break in between managerial roles.
Here’s the transcript (lightly edited for readability):
I had a tower of diaries where I'd recorded every training session I’d ever held. But that was it. That was my whole body of work. So if you’d asked me a question on how to deal with problem players, or how to deal with this particular situation that occurs in your job, I wouldn't have been to give you an answer. It was all in my head, but it wouldn't have necessarily been a body of work that I could refer to.
So I spent hour after hour after hour in my study, digesting all my training sessions, coding them, putting them into groups. Then I moved on to the basics of playing in possession and out of possession. Then it just grew legs, so many different bits off of it. And the more I started to enjoy the process and thought, “this is going to help me,” the more intense it got.
Then it branched into all the other areas of the job. So now it contains everything that comes with being a football manager: dealing with players, dealing with the media, dealing with the Board, the supporters, all my philosophies around how I want to work, what am I going to do on Mondays, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday. Things that had always been in my head, but I didn't have anything to refer to. The brain can only take so much information. So this is my Bible now. It's something I refer to every day and use consistently.
That’s Eddie Howe building a second brain!
Of all the things he could have done in a year-long sabbatical, he felt the best use of his time was to build a second brain. A body of work, a bible that he can refer to and keep building on for the rest of his career.
Imagine taking a year out of your profession to painstakingly, lovingly, codify everything you do. Your philosophies of working. How to deal with problem employees. How to manage relationships with peers or your managers. How to manage your day-to-day work.
And then having that knowledge base — that you’ve built, just for you and you alone — to refer to and work from, forever. Never having to solve the same problem twice. Always making forward progress. Always making incremental improvements, every single day. Building a body of work that day after day, you can point to with pride.
This isn’t just reguritating your Readwise highlights into a blog post in the hope that you’ll generate some SEO. It’s not summarising a Naval podcast into a tweetstorm. It’s creating a body of work — I love that phrase — that you benefit from over time. It’s creating an asset that works for you for the rest of your life.
By the way, can we point to how this has helped Eddie Howe? Absolutely. This quote from The Athletic says it better than I can:
Nothing else can better sum up his year in charge of Newcastle United than an answer he gave in his first press conference and a question asked in his latest. From, “We’re in a relegation battle,” to a “Are you in a title race, Eddie?” with barely a pause for breath, to get to grips with this headlong rush of being better.
Newcastle have won 20 of Howe’s 41 league games. Over the same period, only Manchester City, Liverpool, Tottenham Hotspur and Arsenal have accumulated more than their 71 points.
A remarkable transformation — spearheaded by one man and his second brain.
The second brain in business
I started to think what this would look like for me. After all, I’m not a Premier League manager, I’m a small business exec.
What is my body of work? What is the asset that I can build? What would it look like for me to document how I deal with team members or peers? Or how I approach meetings, or setting quarterly objectives?
I realised there’s already a model for this.
It’s Matt Mochary’s book The Great CEO Within, which we’ve already covered here.
Matt’s book is simply his codification of best practices and tactics that he’s learned for how to do his particular role — that of startup CEO — as effectively as possible. It contains sections on achieving product-market fit, individual habits, team habits, company infrastructure, core processes, and collaboration. It contains references, further reading, and footnotes. It’s a body of work.
What’s more, this book started out as a google doc that could be easily shared, copied, forked and edited, and more — and it’s since spawned a consulting company that works with some of the highest impact startups in the world like Coinbase, Reddit, AngelList, Brex, and OpenAI.
That’s the power of building that body of work.
I’ve decided to do exactly the same. I’m documenting, in a publicly available google doc, everything I know about being an effective executive in a small company. This is a Build in Public piece so it’ll no doubt change substantially over time, but feel free to check it out and copy anything you want to take.
I strongly urge you to do the same. Build a body of work. Create an asset that exists just for you, so that you can leverage it over and over again.
I can’t promise it’ll turn you into Limitless Bradley Cooper. But it’ll help.
Yes, I’m well aware that Newcastle United also had a huge investment of cash in that time, from the Saudi PIF, and that carries with it all sorts of difficult questions about sportswashing, murdering journalists and the like. I don’t know enough about the situation to reasonably cover that topic in my little substack here.