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Don't Create, Document

John Nicholas
John Nicholas
5 min read
Don't Create, Document

Before I started writing, I thought it was the exclusive domain of the pros.

I thought you had to be extremely creative or original if you wanted to write. You either had to be as profound as Hemingway. Or you had to go to great lengths for your craft like locking yourself in a cabin in the woods à la Thoreau.

But originality isn't necessary.

It's a limiting belief I fostered for too long and I hope to dispel you of today.

I want to help you go from a place where you think you lack ideas (writer's block) to a place where you have 'too many' ideas to write about (writing from abundance).

The best part is you don't have to rent a cabin in the woods and go broke.

So where should you start?

Open source your notes

Since I can remember, I've kept notes, made diary entries and taken stock of interesting things I read or listened to.

One day I decided to run an experiment – I was going to share my notes in public for a month.

I remember sitting there, my finger quivering over the mouse, about to click send on the first thread I wrote on Twitter.

I could hear the familiar judging voice in my head. What were people going to say? Why is an actuary trying to write online? Shouldn't I stick to my pricing sheets and risk management?

But I had an answer to this voice:

  1. I was going to take the notes anyway. I might as well go one step further and share it with the world. Maybe one other person would find it interesting.
  2. I wanted to leave a small mark on the world. Something I built and owned. Not a report or an Excel sheet that was wrapped up on my work laptop. A piece of my thinking that could live on after me.

I wrote tweets like these. They weren't highly original, but I found the topics fascinating and I was practicing my publishing muscle on a small scale.

Here I documented a podcast between online writer David Perell and golf statistician Mark Broadie. 

After doing this for a month, there was suddenly some proof.

I could keep up a writing habit. More importantly, I saw I had something to share. This gave me confidence, which helped me level up to writing longer pieces.

Mindset shift

Creator and entrepreneur Gary Vaynerchuk refers to the concept of open-sourcing your notes as "document, don't create." It has been one of my favourite mindset shifts.

Instead of searching for inspiration, look at the content you’re already consuming – the books you're reading and the podcasts you're listening to. Look at the things you're already doing – your work and your habits.

You already have a ton of interesting things you do on a daily basis you can write about. Document what you're learning, the topics that make your heart jump, your process, how you overcame setbacks in your life, the thing you do for work, conversations with friends, your gym routine. You can even write about how you learned to tie your shoelaces.

These are all potential essay topics.

Instead of looking for inspiration to hit me like a lightning bolt, I wrote a number of essays simply by documenting my process:

  • Take 7 Strategies to Get the Most Value From Write of Passage as an example. Initially this was a collection of notes I kept for myself to prepare for the course. I then realized more people could benefit from it if I shared them online. To this day, I still get messages from new students taking Write of Passage thanking me for capturing these strategies.
  • Or Build Your Own Website (with zero coding). Again, this is me documenting how I built my website on Ghost so others could learn from it. I thought this seemingly dull topic was something only I needed, but surprise surprise, people actually read it and thanked me for setting up a guide.

If I can write an essay about building a website, I bet you have a handful of topics on your Google drive or in notes app that should see the light of day. Something you may think is boring, that I and others would pay to read.

Win-win

Everyone wins if you document your work.

By open-sourcing you notes you will:

  • Increase your luck and the opportunities that come your way. Fewer people will know about the great work you're doing if you don't document and share your process.
  • Improve your thinking. You can't publish an unpolished note. It needs to be of a higher standard, which will require higher-level thinking.
  • Inspire others. The world is a better place if people share their ideas. There are people a few steps behind you who can learn from you.
If it inspires one person, it's worth doing. Via Visualize Value.

Here's an exercise to get you started.

5-minute idea generation

Exercise: Spend five minutes capturing what you learned today.

Aim to write down three or more ideas.

Hint: Look at your calendar and your to-do list. Think about the book you're reading, an interesting conversation you had over dinner or the podcast you listened to on your commute to work.

Capture the topic and try to distill the key idea in your own words.

Here's an example of how this looks in my Notion content management system.

If you keep this up, eventually you'll have a whole bank of ideas and not enough time to write about all of them. I prefer this headache over not having any ideas at all.

Don't plan too far ahead

One last comment: don't plan too far ahead.

You don't need to know what you want to create when you start out. That comes later.

Move from point A to point B by publishing more cont. Visual by Janis Ozolins.

Just start.

Your favourite writing subjects will be blurry initially. By writing more and by publishing more, you will get a sense of what gives you energy and what resonates with you.

When I started I thought I would write about actuarial science, fintech and web3 (buzz words!). I wrote exactly one essay about being an actuary. I went down a few NFT rabbit holes. Nowadays I write almost exclusively about the mindset of a writer or adjacent topics on being a creator. It's funny how things work.

Looking back, the key was being comfortable with documenting my work and not getting caught up with being creative.


Thanks to Rik van den Berge for reading drafts of this essay.

Created on Ghost.

Writing

John Nicholas Twitter

Actuary and creator.

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