2021 was the year of commitment.
I committed to my writing, committed to my business, committed to my existing social circle, committed to my longtime hobbies, and committed to my new hometown of Austin, Texas. This posture of commitment stands in contrast to the first five years of my career, which were defined by novelty and experimentation. In those early years, I was fueled by New York City’s hustle and bustle energy and the lust for achievement that hangs in the air. Since I didn’t know what I wanted, I moved faster than the Energizer Bunny, hoping that something would eventually pay off.
Only in 2021 did I discover what I was chasing career-wise. Though the pace of my progress was slower than expected, my vision for the future of my professional life has never been so clear. Instead of being a lone wolf, I now have three full-time employees and a team of 25 people who help me run Write of Passage and all the ideas I share. Instead of seeing every day as an anxiety-fueled sprint, I’ve dialed down my intensity and asked myself what a sustainable career looks like. Instead of following the ephemeral chatter of Internet culture, I’ve developed a slower and more contemplative reading practice. And instead of trying to be as prolific as possible, I’ve slowed my publishing cadence so I can spend more time with the ideas I commit to.
I’ll start this Annual Review by reflecting on 2021. I’ll share highlights and reflect on the goals I set at the beginning of the year. Later, I’ll outline how I plan to improve my life and set a new vision for 2022.
Highlights of 2021
New long-form essays: 7
Newsletters sent: 114
Website visitors: 1,368,435
Twitter growth: 142,235 – 269,118 followers
YouTube growth: 5,312 – 17,186 subscribers
Email growth: 45,542 – 63,421 subscribers
Favorite essay: Why You’re Christian
Most popular essay: Against 3x Speed
Reflecting on 2021 Goals
80,000 Email Subscribers: Email subscriber growth is the most important metric in my professional life. It’s the ultimate leading indicator for business growth, and I fell short of my own expectations this year. In 2020, my list grew by 32,000 people. This year, growth slowed and the list grew by only 20,000. Though I have email capture forms on my website and YouTube channel, linking to my email list in my tweets is by far my most effective growth tactic. I didn’t link to my email list as much this year because I didn’t tweet as many threads. Changes to Twitter’s algorithm hurt too. In 2020, almost all my biggest email growth events came from linking to a free workshop or asking people to opt into my email list. But this year, Twitter de-promoted these link posts because they take people off the platform. (They want to keep people scrolling because it increases advertising revenue).1 The good news is that Twitter’s algorithm is increasingly promoting threads, which I plan to take advantage of in 2022. To begin the year, I’m going to put a sign over my desk that says: “Strategically use Twitter to grow the email list.”
In 2020, my Personal Monopoly workshop with Jack Butcher led to roughly 5,000 subscribers. In 2021, my launch workshop led to only 700, even though we promoted it the same way — by linking to the workshop on Twitter.
40,000 YouTube Subscribers: Once again, the growth was slower than expected. I ended the year with 17,000 subscribers. It’s hard to say why. YouTubers are subject to the whims of the algorithm more than users of any other platform, with the exception of TikTok. YouTube rewards timely click-bait, exaggerated titles, and extreme controversy — none of which I want to define my videos. Balancing the incentives of the algorithm with my innate desire to produce quality videos is one of the toughest tensions in my life. Serve the algorithm too much and you become a homogenized slave to corporate incentive structures. But if you follow the path of pure expression, you’re likely to stay stuck in obscurity.
Every week, we look at two metrics to assess the health of the channel: retention rate and clickthrough rate. At times, our desire to increase the metrics hurt the quality of the videos. The videos moved so fast that people didn’t have time to reflect on what I was saying. When that happened, I told my team to ignore the numbers and trust their gut for what a well-produced video looks like.
The quality of output has improved since then. That said, the rate of subscriber growth hasn’t accelerated. Early in the year, we had an outbreak hit with How to Take Notes Like Kendrick Lamar that we haven’t been able to replicate. Something about channel strategy is off the mark, and I’m not sure what it is. Maybe we’re not submitting enough to the whims of the algorithm. But that feels like a cop-out.
To encourage myself to persist, I like to remind myself that YouTube is fickle. My friend Chris Williamson has provided worthy encouragement. In February, he had more views in one hour than he did in the first six months of the channel: 100,000 subscribers and more views than in all of the previous two years combined. In June, he hit 200,000. He’s ending 2021 with more than 250,000. The same thing will happen to our channel, which will turn it into an dependable marketing channel for Write of Passage.
700 Write of Passage Students: We fell a little bit short of this goal, likely due to the slow growth of my email list and the timing of our second cohort. Revenue numbers and student totals climbed in 2020, and the summer cohort was the biggest one we’d ever had. Without thinking twice about it, we launched our second cohort of 2021 during the summer as well. But it turns out that, during normal times, people don’t take courses during the summer. People are traveling and want to spend time outside. Online education is a seasonal business, and we learned this the hard way. For the foreseeable future, we’ll run flagship cohorts in the spring or fall, and offer events in summer and during the Holidays.
Two Long-Form Essays: I devoted the first half of the year to writing Saving the Liberal Arts with Jeremy Giffon. Though I’m proud of the thesis and the arguments we made, it’s too long and all over the place. At some point, I’ll either re-write it or turn individual sections into shorter essays of their own. At least writing it solidified my relationship to the Liberal Arts. It inspired me to get a Liberal Arts education of my own by launching a lecture series around the Western intellectual tradition. Maybe I’ll even start a Liberal Arts school someday. During the second half of the year, I forewent the long-form essay route and worked on a documentary about my favorite musician, Porter Robinson, instead.
Long-form essays are the most rigorous intellectual work I do. They’re short enough that I don’t feel wedded to an idea but long enough to permanently shape my worldview. From a consumer perspective, the people who enjoy my long-form essays are the most loyal. They’re the kinds of people who enroll in Write of Passage, turn into real-life friends, and respond with intelligent criticism.
Work with a Philosophy Tutor: During last year’s Annual Review, I mentioned that I wanted to work with a philosophy tutor in Austin. A reader responded to connect me with a guy who was working on his PhD at the University of Texas. I started a reading group with him, and together, we explored the blind spots of the Enlightenment mindset. To do so, we read early Enlightenment thinkers like Locke and Galileo. We were on a roll when our tutor accepted a job in Dallas halfway through the year. Since everybody in the group insisted on in-person sessions, we haven’t met since then. Next year, I intend to find another local philosophy tutor and meet in person once a week.
Get Tournament Good at Tennis: This goal sounded nice, but I didn’t actually want to achieve it. Besides, I’d rather devote my outdoor time to playing golf.2
Someday, I’d like to get good enough at tennis to serve well and pass what I call “The Vacation Test”, where, if a friend says: “Want to play tennis?” I can confidently say “Yes,” knowing that I’ll be able to hold my own.
Beyond my stated goals from the beginning of the year, here’s a collection of things I accomplished and enjoyed in 2021, some of which have inspired my 2022 goals:
- Refined 50 Days of Writing: In 2020, I wrote 50 articles about writing in 50 days. Though it was grueling, I’m glad I did it because the articles now form the basis for the 50-day email series I use to introduce people to Write of Passage. I feel like I hit a bullseye with them because the final email in the series has a 53% open rate, which is far beyond the industry standard. After many subscribers mocked me for not mentioning Write of Passage enough, we rewrote aspects of the series. In the upcoming cohorts, we’ll see how much these changes increase enrollment.
- Launched the Write of Passage Podcast: If you like audio, this is the best place to learn about my writing philosophy. I’ve long been a fan of the YNAB (You Need a Budget) marketing strategy, where they educate you about the problem they intend to solve instead of advertising the product directly. Their podcast is particularly good. Most episodes are shorter than seven minutes. That’s exactly what I’ve tried to do with the Write of Passage Podcast. Each episode offers a distilled lesson about how to write online. In 2022, I plan to better promote the podcast on Twitter threads and in my email list. Zooming out, more people should create short podcast series about the topic they know best. Since you’ve already thought about what you’re going to say, you can outline each episode in short bullet points and knock out the entire project in a single weekend.
- Traveled: Exploring big cities is one of my favorite activities. Never is my mind more active than when I land in a new one and have to figure out its history, culture, and geography. This year, I visited New York, Los Angeles, San Diego, Montreal, Dallas, Miami, and San Francisco. Inspired by the reflections I wrote this year about some of these cities, I now plan to write posts whenever I visit a big city.
- Golfed: In what was less of a goal and more of a pleasant surprise, I returned to golf this year. Between my freshman year of high school and my freshman year of college, I spent a solid 25% of my waking hours on a golf course. I stopped taking the game seriously once I quit my university golf team and barely played when I lived in New York. This year, I fell in love with the game again. To accelerate my improvement, I started working with my childhood coach again. Terry maintains the world’s largest public collection of slow-motion golf swing videos (random, I know), and today, Golf Digest ranks him as one of the top 50 instructors in America. The most important lesson I’ve learned from Terry has little to do with golf. He was one of the first instructors to use a military-grade measurement tool called TrackMan, which golfers use to measure their swings and shots. The data it provided invalidated a lot of common knowledge about the game. I started using it in high school and the more I learned about TrackMan, the more I saw how profoundly most experts misunderstood the swing. It was my first “Emperor has no clothes” moment. Since then, I’ve maintained a skepticism of authority and a thirst for knowledge.
- Fitness: Without realizing it, the pandemic took away a lot of my passion for fitness. Working out at home isn’t nearly as enjoyable as working out at a gym. It was only when I started working out at a gym of hardcore bodybuilders that I fell in love with weightlifting again. The second half of 2021 was the most committed I’ve ever been to lifting weights and eating properly.
- Lived in Oaxaca: Austin summers are unbearably hot, which makes it a perfect time to travel. In June and July, I lived with three friends in a small town in southern Mexico called Oaxaca. It’s a hub for authentic food and culture because it’s retained so much of the indigenous spirit that has been lost in other parts of Mexico.
Goals for 2022
As I reflect on 2021, I’m surprised to see how few goals I achieved. When I first completed the tally, I looked myself in the mirror and said, “You should try harder next year.” But after some reflection, I no longer think that’s the solution. Since attention is finite, adding something new means you have to stop doing things you’re already doing. Plus, it’s easy to add goals but hard to take an honest look at all the ways you can use your time better.
Furthermore, when I started writing Annual Reviews, everything I achieved was the result of my own time and effort. At the time, I had no employees and very little extra cash. Without much help, trying harder was the simplest way to achieve more. Now that Write of Passage is profitable and growing, I can hire people to help me push projects forward. Achieving my goals now depends more on my ability to hire and lead a team.
Before I share what I want to add to my life in 2022, here’s how I plan to free up my time:
- Weekly All-Hands Meeting: I can no longer depend so much on one-on-one communication. It takes too much time. Instead of communicating with everybody independently, I’ll communicate announcements and receive key information in a weekly Write of Passage team meeting.
- End-of-Week Reports: Everybody who works for me has tons of autonomy. Instead of micro-managing them with an onslaught of calls, I’ll ask for a weekly report. In it, my team answers three questions: (1) What went well this week?; (2) What am I struggling with?; and (3) Where do I need help?” That’s it. They take no more than 15 minutes to write, keep people focused, and keep me in sync with the team.
- Production: I spend way too much time dealing with cameras, lighting, teleprompters, and microphones. Of everything I do — this might be the thing that drives me craziest. Since I’m simultaneously dealing with non-technical elements of production, I often make mistakes like turning up the audio levels too much or not realizing that my SD card is full. Whenever I make gaffes like this, I have to re-record. Next year, I plan to find a production manager in Austin to handle the technical aspects of production. That way, I can walk into the studio with everything already set up and immediately hit record.
- Live Session Preparation: During the summer of 2020, we re-designed the entire Write of Passage curriculum from scratch. Though it was good enough to deliver in Cohort #5, we looked at student feedback and tweaked it for Cohort #6. For Cohort #7, we cut four live sessions from the curriculum, and instead of adding content, we removed fluff and added structure. The entire course now orbits around the three pillars of writing online: (1) Write from Abundance, (2) Write from Conversation, and (3) Write in Public (here’s a primer on the three pillars). Not needing to make any big-picture changes will make live session preparation much easier in 2022. In the past, each live session required 4-8 hours of preparation. This year, we’ll reduce our preparation time to two meetings: a 60-minute planning session and a full dress rehearsal before we go live.
- Focused Reading: Eliminating Internet access is the key to deep reading. When I read without Internet access, I can focus for hours. But once I have social media at my fingertips, my attention span is no better than that of a sidewalk pigeon. Increasingly, I mostly read paperbacks and make highlights with the Kindle app, though that unfortunately puts me back on the grid. So, I’m going to make highlights with an actual Kindle instead of the Kindle app. For books that don’t have a Kindle version, I’m going to use Readwise’s OCR text-recognition feature. Instead of taking a photo of the quote after I read it, I’ll put stickies in the book and batch process the highlights once I finish a chapter. By doing so, I’ll reduce my total number of times picking up my smartphone and finding a distraction.
- Help with Personal Tasks: When I hired my first assistant, Becca, there wasn’t very much work for her to do. Write of Passage was a young business, and most of my production output centered around writing. Thus, she managed responsibilities across the business, production, and my personal life. Everything’s grown in the 18 months since I hired her, and Becca became overwhelmed towards the end of the year. That’s why I hired a second assistant, Cece, who is responsible for my personal life. Meanwhile, Becca is responsible for my professional one. The clear delineation was inspired by Peter Thiel’s rule at PayPal where employees were only allowed to work on one thing. Inspired by Rene Girard’s philosophy, he reasoned that clear boundaries between roles would reduce mimetic contagion.
100,000 Email Subscribers: This year, I’m going to set fewer goals and heavily commit to the ones I choose. If I could only have one goal this year, email growth would be it. I’m putting myself on the line to say this: If I don’t reach this goal, the year will be a disappointment. Email list growth is that important to me. It’s the metric that correlates most with a quality readership and the success of my business.
Growing an email list comes from a combination of increased web traffic and a better incentive to people who are interested in signing up for your list (in the industry, the equation is Growth = Traffic x Offer).
To increase traffic, I’ll focus on four tactics: (1) Twitter threads, (2) reducing email sign-up friction on my website, (3) paid advertisements on other newsletters, and (4) a newsletter referral program. If there’s one sentence to remember this is it: The email list grows when I write Twitter threads and link to my email list — this is the one-two punch of my professional life.3
Though there are other ways to grow the list, this way is the cheapest and simplest.
Sustain Writing Momentum: I’m not going to set any explicit writing goals this year. Here’s my rationale: The longer you do something consistently, the more gracious you can be with yourself. It helps to be disciplined when you pick up a new habit. Commit to following through on the schedule of your choosing, and don’t let yourself skip days. Only once the habit becomes second nature should you allow yourself to follow a more intuitive flow.
When I started writing, I forced myself to sit at the keyboard every day because I hadn’t yet learned to enjoy the craft. But now that I’ve been writing for more than half a decade, I shouldn’t need to force myself to write. Instead of being driven by discipline, my goal is to be so compelled to express ideas that I have to write about them. Thus, I’m not going to commit to any publishing quotas this year. I’m going to give ideas space to develop instead. Tactically, that means writing more essays like Hugging the X-Axis, which required three months of grueling thought to develop (50 pages of notes for a seven-page essay).
However, without a quota to guide me, I need to be careful. At times in 2021, I didn’t write as much as I would’ve liked. I got busy and distracted. That’s a problem because, more than any other activity in my life, consistently writing and sharing high-quality ideas is how my business grows and writing improves. Ultimately, I think implicit writing goals are a step in the right direction.
Chances are, there’s an equivalent focal point for your life. No matter what you do for work, so much of your success will come from a simple mantra: Master the basics and show up consistently — even when it feels mundane. That’s what I need to do for writing. And while my goals are less strict, because of the need for consistency, I’m not ready to remove the full regimented schedule. I’ve been writing Monday Musings every week for four years, and I’ve never skipped an edition. Writing a weekly newsletter is the best forcing function I’ve found for making steady intellectual progress, and I plan to publish 52 more editions in 2022.
Hire an Executive Team for Write of Passage: Though I’ve long looked forward to operating a business, it turns out that I don’t have a natural aptitude for it and don’t enjoy it very much. It’s almost impossible to simultaneously be a creative and an operator, and I enjoy the creative side much more. Thus, I’m going to hire a team to run the cardinal pillars of Write of Passage: product, operations, and growth.
On the product side, I’ve delegated almost everything to Will Mannon. He’s in charge of student experience and making sure our courses run smoothly. I call him our “Chief Vibe Officer.” He’s been with Write of Passage since the beginning. After the second cohort, he phoned me with a bunch of ideas about how to improve the course. I hired him for the third cohort and we’ve been working together ever since. For most of that time, he was also working for Tiago Forte’s Building a Second Brain course. One of the great gifts I got this year is that he’s working full-time for Write of Passage now. He’s fingerprints are etched so deeply into the business that he’s become a co-founder and co-owner of the business. Anybody who knows him knows he’s the best in the game, and I’m thrilled to have him by my side for the foreseeable future.
Both of us are kinda like little children though. Creativity comes easily to us. Planning, data, and operations and all that serious stuff does not — and neither of us have experience running a business. To give you an idea of how inexperienced I am, I didn’t have an official Profit & Loss Statement until November of this year — three years after I started the company. As a result, every planning session and every hiring decision was driven by feeling instead of fact. If I was in business school, they would have rightly failed me.
We’re hiring help so we can double down on our strengths. Under Will, we’re hiring a Director of Course Operations who will oversee the day-to-day mechanics of course operations, from data collection to backend integrations to customer success metrics.
We’re also looking for somebody to focus on business operations. We’re currently hiring an experienced executive who will oversee the day-to-day mechanics. Their role will range from legal to finance to human resources. More than anybody, they’ll guide our maturation as a company. If our company is an adolescent right now, they’ll turn us into an adult. We’re looking for somebody experienced who has built a company like the one we’re trying to build before. Once they’re hired, I’ll give them tons of autonomy and effectively say: “You’re in charge of operations. Only bring me in if you absolutely need me.”
Along with product and operations, growth is the third pillar of our business. To date, I’ve managed almost all of it. To start the year, we’re working with an agency who we already trust and like working with. They’re going to improve our automated email sequences, grow my email list with a referral system, run paid advertisements, create Write of Passage branded email templates, oversee web development, and create an ecosystem of testimonials that show how deeply our students resonate with the course. No matter how long we work with them, I’d like to make a full-time growth hire by the end of 2022.
But David, if you’re hiring people for all these positions, what are you going to do?
A wise friend recently told me to write down all the things I do in a month. Then, he told me to look at the list and hire people to manage every item on the list, except for the ones I do best. Looking at that list clarified the future. I’m going to delegate everything except for vision, voice, and growth.
- Vision: The long-term roadmap is clear. For a skill so fundamental, I’m surprised there isn’t a go-to school for learning how to write. Something like Kaplan, but for writing instead of test preparation. Write of Passage is going to fill that void. We’re going to double-down on our unique approach to writing education too. Where schools bring a left-brain approach defined by syntax and grammar, we bring a right-brain approach defined by play, intuition, and conversation. We also help people write specifically for the Internet. Though we’re focused on the consumer market thus far, I believe the business market is even bigger. It’s my job to clarify the vision, set the destination, and steer the team towards it.
- Voice: Teaching our five-week flagship courses is one of the best parts of my job. I want to continue teaching it, which makes me the voice of the course, literally. To the outside world, I want to speak on behalf of the Write of Passage brand. Internally, I want to keep leading the team. That said, many people are already becoming a voice for the brand. This year, we launched our first satellite course called The Writing Studio, which is run by an alumni named Michael Dean. It’s a deep dive into the art and science of crafting essays. Building upon my “practice analytically, perform intuitively” motto, Michael designed the course around drills, live exercises, and a kind of visual writing feedback I haven’t seen anywhere else.
Next year, we’re thinking of teaming up with another alum to launch another satellite course about creative blocks. I envision a world where many people teach courses under the Write of Passage umbrella. As that happens, it’ll be my job to ensure they maintain the energy of our flagship course — a beacon of earnestness in a cynical world.
- Growth: This is the core function I’ll never give up completely. Hiring people to run growth allows me to focus on my personal writing, which grows the business. As an online writer myself, I want to be the ultimate example of the Write of Passage lifestyle because I believe in it so much. As my audience grows, so will the course.
Tactically, my friend Ryan Deiss says there are two kinds of people: zero to one people, and one to ten people. Zero-to-one people like to start a lot of different projects. One-to-ten people like to execute and refine a few projects. Since I’m a zero-to-one type, I prefer novelty to optimization. On the growth front, I need the balance of a one-to-ten person who can refine existing ideas, tweak existing email sequences, and get into the nitty-gritty details of projects like website redesigns.
Focus on Long-Term Friends: Back when I was living in New York, I had four friends move away in three months. Half the pillars of my social life disappeared in the space of a season — it deflated me. Part of the reason why I chose not to move back is that the people I know in New York aren’t planning to stay long-term. I’ve chosen Austin because I want to have more social stability. Unlike New York or San Francisco, Austin is a place where the people I know want to put down roots — buy a home and start a family. I want to cultivate a group of friends with the next decade in mind. Specifically, I plan to prioritize a small group of people who plan to call Austin home for the foreseeable future.4
Austin isn’t without its issues. Specifically, there are four things that get to me: grueling summers, ugly architecture, poor museums, and the car-centric culture.
Outside of Austin, I want to prioritize three relationships: the ones with my sister, my closest friend from high school, and my closest friend from college. Since they all live in different cities, seeing each of them requires a lot of planning. To put concrete goals around this initiative, this year, I’d like to do a golf trip with Zander, spend five days with JJ, and travel with my sister Sabrina. Once the studio is up-and-running, they’ll have a cozy place to stay in Austin too.
Caption: JJ and I attended a Dallas Cowboys game together, which was one of my favorite events of the year.
Health: Americans are shockingly ignorant about their bodies even though we spend 18% of our GDP on healthcare.5 We basically have a sick-care system, not a health-care one. Future generations will scratch their heads at how a society as modern as ours failed to do preemptive health screenings at scale. Beyond the basics, most people talk about their bodies with pure conjecture. For example, they don’t know anything about the health of their kidneys, any hormone imbalances, or how their heart-rate variability is trending over time.
Unfortunately, neither do I. Though changing the broken incentives of the healthcare system is above my pay grade, I’d like to understand my body better this year. The plan is to start the year with a q.bio scan. If necessary, I’ll use something like Inside Tracker for regular blood tests. I’ll use the results to inform my fitness and nutrition plan.
So far, there are two places I’d like to focus. First, I’d like to balance my weightlifting with at least 90 minutes of Zone 2 training per week (cardio at roughly 60-75% of my maximum heart rate). I’ll start on an exercise bike. Second, I’d like to improve my breathing. The average person will take 670 million breaths in their lifetime. But among mammals, humans are uniquely bad at breathing, which partially explains why we’re unique in our susceptibility to overbites, crooked teeth, and misaligned jaws. Eight percent of Americans also suffer from asthma, a 400% increase since 1980.
One issue is that humans increasingly breathe through their mouths instead of their noses. Mouth breathing is the number one cause of cavities — not sugar, bad hygiene, or a poor diet. Humans breathe too much and too deeply too. For millennia, we’ve intuitively known that the healthiest breathers inhale and exhale roughly 10 times per minute — 2,000 years ago, Chinese doctors advised taking 13,500 breaths per day, which is the equivalent of 9.5 breaths per minute.6 Practically, I already put tape over my mouth to encourage nose breathing. In 2022, I’d like to adopt techniques that also slow the tempo of my breathing and take in the correct amount of oxygen with each breath.
All the information in this paragraph is sourced from an excellent book called Breath.
Returning to fitness, one of my biggest achievements of 2021 was falling in love with weightlifting again. The pandemic forced me to work out at home, where I didn’t have access to benches, barbells, and dumbbells. Working out at a convenient gym in Austin didn’t increase my intensity because it was always empty, which meant I couldn’t feed off the energy of others. I escaped my slump when I found a hardcore bodybuilding gym in Oaxaca. It had an abandoned warehouse vibe where people were drenched in sweat. For motivation, the walls were covered with photos of famous bodybuilders. Through osmosis, I rediscovered the love for weightlifting that I lost during the pandemic and obsessively started learning about Arnold Schwarzenegger. Once I returned to Austin, I joined an intense gym and started working with a trainer.
My friend Chris Sparks says: “When it comes to creating your environment, assume you have free will. When it comes to living in it, assume you have no free will.” He’s right. When it comes to the intensity of my workouts, I assume I have no free will. I’m a lazy bum who will do what everybody else around me is doing. But at the same time, I know that I can ramp up my intensity by architecting my environment. As a result, I likely gained more muscle in the fall of 2021 than the previous two years combined.
During this weightlifting phase, I ate six raw eggs per day. Though bodybuilders consider this standard practice, everybody I told looked at me with disgust and said I’d get sick. But after slonking more than 200 raw eggs this year (all fresh, high-quality, locally sourced, and free of industrial-scale supply chains), I’m in the best shape of my life. Though the gains aren’t all from raw eggs, eating them is a daily reminder of how often well-meaning people are terrified of things they’ve never studied. Besides, most of the danger of raw eggs comes from the industrial conditions that chickens are exposed to. This small act of rebellion is a ritual reminder to remain skeptical and move forward with unconventional beliefs when I think they’re justified.
Study the Bible: No book has influenced Western civilization more than the Bible. Spending time with it is my most important learning goal for the year. To create some accountability for myself, I’m going to host two reading groups. One for the Christian perspective and another for the Jewish one. I’ve already found an Austin-based Chabad rabbi who is going to host a Torah study for me in 2022. On my own, I’ve also been watching The Bible Project videos on YouTube and reading The Biblical Theological Study Bible, which offers commentary on every page.
Reading the Bible is part of a broader theme of commitment that I explored in 2021 (with essays like Against 3x Speed and Hugging the X-Axis). I want to go deeper on a few books instead of trying to read widely. I’ve thought about changing my Friday Finds newsletter into a monthly email (or creating an automated email sequence) because it incentivizes me to read broadly instead of focusing on a few books or a single subject. But for now, I’ll keep marching forward on the same weekly cadence.
For the inspiration, I have to credit Peter Thiel. I’ve followed his intellectual pursuits closely since I wrote Peter Thiel’s Religion (my most popular essay) in 2019. This year, I finally got to have a meal with him. At dinner, I was surprised to see just how much he valued ideas as ends in themselves. He has a better understanding of the Liberal Arts than just about anybody I’ve met, outside of a university department. At dinner, he cited sources like the Bible, Francis Bacon’s The New Atlantis, and Rene Girard’s Battling to the End — all of which traditional profit-oriented investors would dismiss as superfluous. Sometimes, it even feels like Thiel is a pre-Enlightenment thinker. In a science-driven world where people insist on empirical and easy-to-verify knowledge, Peter’s given me faith in the religious, theoretical, and story-driven knowledge that defines the Liberal Arts. His fascination with secrets drives that curiosity.
Studying the Bible is also a metaphor for studying long-form, canonical works instead of recently published content. The Internet traps us in a Never-Ending Now, where the vast majority of information we consume was created in the past 24 hours. As a result, we’re like little hamsters running on an endless cycle of ephemeral content consumption. Like puppets on a string, our minds are ruled by manufactured news cycles and trends promoted by corporations in the dogfight for attention.
Why would you ignore the accumulated wisdom of past centuries in favor of this consumption style?
I want to do the opposite, and, within reason, escape the common conversation. I’ve muted keywords on Twitter, stopped listening to podcasts, and haven’t consistently read a news publication in years. I want to focus on timeless ideas instead. Ironically, the canon which was once worth studying because every educated person knew it is now worth studying because so few people are familiar with it. But reading the canon is like examining the source code of society. Even if people are (rightly) down on the Liberal Arts because they’ve so often been polluted by politics, studying the history of ideas is among the best ways you can spend your time. No book exemplifies that directive better than The Bible.
Build a Production Studio in Austin: I’m ready to double down on what I do. Everything from writing consistently and producing podcasts to teaching Write of Passage. Beyond work, I’m committed to Austin as a home base for production. Though the world praises optionality, it’s sometimes worth committing to projects that will pay off over the long haul. A production studio is just that. It’s a huge one-time cost, especially if I buy the place. But if it becomes a home base for my professional life and raises my production quality, it’s worth it. By the end of the year, I’d like to have a studio where I can record all kinds of content — from podcasts to lecture series, YouTube videos, and Write of Passage live sessions.
Beyond production, the studio will double as a headquarters for Write of Passage. Though we’ll always be a remote-first business, our most creative work is done in person. As our team grows, this will be a central place for us to meet. We’ll have a central room for big-group brainstorming and office spaces where people can work. The studio will improve my social life too. Once it’s ready, I’ll be able to host parties and host friends there whenever they visit Austin.
Deep Conversations: If there’s anything I live for, it’s long dinners with smart people who are obsessed with ideas. They’re a great way to build relationships, introduce your friends to each other, and learn about the world. In 2022, Justin Mares and I plan to start hosting salon dinners in Austin. Attracting intellectually stimulating people, especially ones who live far away, begins with offering high-quality service. Each dinner will have a private chef, a dress code, and a theme for the conversation. Long-term, I’d like these to grow into small, multi-day conferences where we invite scholars, creators, and entrepreneurs to explore a single idea for the weekend.
Record Three Lecture Series: The studio will accelerate my learning too. Long-term, I’m considering building a Liberal Arts school for adults. Doing so begins with cultivating an online audience of people interested in Western intellectual history. To build the audience, I plan to start a second YouTube channel, where I’ll post lecture series about various authors in the Western Canon. Recording these lectures will double as my own Liberal Arts education too.
This is where the production studio comes in. Instead of delivering the lectures myself, I’ll fly in scholars from around the world and give them full access to the studio. We’ll work together to produce a lecture series on the scholar they know best. For the project’s pilot, I’m starting the year with a 10-part lecture series about Rene Girard (the entire series is funded by Tyler Cowen’s Emergent Ventures grant program). Later in the year, I have plans to record one about Shakespeare and another about Gilles Deleuze.
The lectures should be entertaining and dense with insight. They should have all the rigor but none of the stuffiness of an Ivy League professor. Quality standards will be ruthless. We’ll prepare for these lectures like we’d prepare for a TED talk, and if a lecture isn’t engaging, I won’t publish it. Why would somebody want to do these lectures? Though I’ll start by working with friends, people will start asking me to give lectures as the channel grows and gains notoriety. Should it become an intellectual hub for people interested in the Liberal Arts, giving a lecture will become a
Write of Passage rite of passage for up-and-coming intellectuals. It’s a sweet deal for the right kind of scholar: free distribution, a high-quality audience, and a nice place to stay while recording.
State of Write of Passage
The course has now been taken by more than 1,000 students in more than 50 countries.
Though I’ve been raving about the quality of our alumni since the beginning, this was the year they gained momentum. Packy McCormick (Cohort #1) and Ana Lorena Fabrega (Cohort #3) come to mind. Both launched their newsletters and published their first articles while taking Write of Passage. They’ve grown into stars. Packy is arguably the fastest-growing business analyst in the world right now (measured by whose name comes up the most in conversation). Due to the success of his Not Boring newsletter, he was featured on CNBC, raised $8 million for his investment fund, and accepted a position with Andreessen Horwitz. In similar fashion, Ana has one of the world’s largest social media audiences devoted to childhood education. This year, she amassed more than 100,000 Twitter followers, started writing her first book, and joined the founding team of a fast growing education startup called Synthesis. (Disclaimer: I’m an investor and an advisor to the company). Beyond the writing, she’s also become one of my closest friends, which makes her success even merrier for me.
Other star alumni include Johnathan Hillis who founded Cabin, Pamela Hobart who now has a thriving coaching practice, Michael Ashcroft, who has become the go-to teacher for the Alexander Technique, and Rohun Jauhar who is building a Personal Monopoly of his own in the real estate market.
For others, writing online is more about curing Intellectual Loneliness than building a career. So many people come alive whenever they learn about ideas on the Internet, only to have their curiosity instincts suppressed when they bring up those same ideas with friends. Writing online is the best way to cure Intellectual Loneliness because the Internet is such an effective matching tool. Just as Craigslist matches sellers and buyers and Airbnb matches homeowners with travelers, the Internet matches people who share similar interests.
Removing Myself as a Bottleneck: Entrepreneurship happens in three stages. When you start a company, you’re in the hustle stage where you do all the hard work yourself. This is essentially a job because you only get paid if you show up to work. Then, you move into the management phase where you hire people to do the work you used to do. Finally, you operationalize the company by building systems and codifying your decision-making principles so the company can run without your active involvement. Only then do you have the kind of company that’ll build generational wealth for you and your family.
Like I mentioned earlier, I’m moving into the management stage. I’m the bottleneck in many of the core business functions, either because I haven’t delegated certain tasks or I haven’t hired the right people yet. No matter how hard I work, I’m always holding things up. Maybe I’m just pursuing too many projects, maybe I’m not efficient enough, or maybe I just need to be okay with a certain amount of disorder in my life. But the overwhelming issue is that I’m the bottleneck in too many business-related projects right now. The more I can delegate my work to a group of experienced executives and build a team under them, the more I’ll be able to remove myself as a bottleneck. At the end of the day, my job is to find differentiated ways to grow and improve Write of Passage.
Mentors and Stewards: Though our full-time team is small, we need a huge team to run our cohorts. Our most recent one required a team of 25 people, most of whom participated as mentors and community stewards. These alumni engagement opportunities improved the quality of the course more than anything else this year. Every mentor hosts a weekly session of their own, where they help students implement the Write of Passage system. Mentors run exercises, lead discussions, and supplement my live sessions with their own takeaways. Students can opt into whichever mentor session they’d like.
I like how Tiago Forte describes the differences between them: Mentors are singular personalities. They tend to be older, more authoritative, and teach from experience. Community stewards are different. They tend to be more technical, and detail-oriented. They’re responsible for leading the discussion forum, adding energy to the live session chats, and making sure that every piece of writing receives feedback — that’s right, every single piece of writing.
Why should students return as mentors and stewards?
James Clear once wrote: “If you think you can learn a lot by reading a book, try writing one.” For Write of Passage, the equivalent is: “If you think you can learn a lot by taking a course, try teaching one.” Taken together, these leadership positions allow us to invest in our top students in ways that also benefit our new ones. Moreover, the best ones will also graduate into full-time employees.
Finding our Core Competency: Here are the key questions for Write of Passage going forward: Should we focus on the customer base of online writers and build a bunch of products for them? Or, should we focus on live writing instruction and serve a bunch of different customer segments?
If the distinction sounds trivial, the implications are not. If we exist to serve online writers, we’ll expand into investing and job recruiting. At a professional level, some of our students want to start their own companies, others want to climb the corporate ladder, others want to become full-time creators, and others want to shape the future of education. Given the size of the market, we can build a very profitable business if we help them climb the professional ladder.
Thus, we may branch out from just offering courses in the future. I’ve had serious conversations about raising an investment fund to invest in up-and-coming writers and the companies they start. We’ve also thought about launching a job recruiting business line. Multiple companies ask me for recruiting help every week, and hiring is amongst the biggest challenges for almost all 11 companies I’ve angel invested in. What if we could connect our students with employers? If so, the course would become a career launching pad akin to a coding bootcamp.
The other option is to focus on live educational experiences. Instead of launching new products for our existing audience, we’ll tweak our existing products for new audiences. Business writing is the most lucrative opportunity. The market for business writing education is growing because of how remote work inverts the structure of corporate communications. In-person work is synchronous and speech-based. Remote work tends to be asynchronous and text-based. Moreover, entrepreneurs want to see those same practices in their company (Stripe and Amazon are good examples of a writing-first company). Nearly every executive wishes their team could write better because good writers are good thinkers — and good thinking leads to good strategy.
Business writing courses could also contrast the five-week cohort model. Financially, cohort-based courses are stressful to operate and hard to forecast around because they’re so spiky. Twice per year, we bring in revenue. The rest of the year is dry. In that way, cohort-based courses are the opposite of a subscription business where you have passive, recurring revenue. Plus, since I don’t want to launch and lead more than two flagship cohorts per year, my full-time, growing staff has a lot of dead time in the calendar. Satellite programs like business writing are a solution. We’d start with one-day and one-week courses that will also appeal to people who aren’t able to commit to a five-week program.
If the flagship program is a business-to-consumer product, the business writing one would follow a business-to-business approach. From a sales perspective, we’d be like Slack. The company was founded with a focus on the consumer market. They relied on ordinary employees, who were generally engineers, to recruit teams to use the product. Word about the software eventually trickled up to the C-suite, who’d often purchase it for the entire company. As Slack grew, they transitioned towards a top-down sales approach where they sold directly to higher-ups. Their reputation with consumers made it easier to pitch executives on enterprise-grade plans because their employees were already familiar with the product. Like Slack, the consumer-focused Write of Passage flagship course could become a top-of-the-funnel marketing tool for our business writing product. Instead of selling every customer individually like we currently do, we could sell hundreds or thousands of seats without scaling our workload.
Building an Independent Publishing Company: Until now, Write of Passage has revolved around me. All of our marketing comes through my personal email list, which means that growing the “David Perell brand” is the best way to grow the business. The challenge is that my interests don’t always overlap with the principles of effective marketing. The truth-seeker in me wants to travel to obscure and unpredictable places while the business builder in me says: “Write about online writing.”
My plan is to turn Write of Passage into an independent publishing company, which will become the main growth channel for Write of Passage. We’ll produce essays, podcasts, and videos — many of which I won’t create. The company will have its own email list too. It will be the go-to destination on the Internet for free writing education. It’ll be like the company Y Combinator, where only a sliver of the content about how to start a company was created by the founder Paul Graham. By the end of 2022, I’d like to have a full-time director of content to run it. Making the Write of Passage brand as visible as my personal one is the first step to building a business that can run without me. The less I’m a linchpin, the more valuable the business will become and the less I’ll have to be in the spotlight.
As I write this Annual Review, I’m seeing a theme emerge: commitment. I spent the better part of the past decade experimenting with projects and trying to figure out what I was good at. Now, my priorities are coming into focus. The life I’d like to cultivate has never been clearer.
Write of Passage is the nucleus of my professional life, so I’m not about to become one of those Internet guys with a bunch of revenue streams. That simple decision clarifies many aspects of my life. Professionally, my career improves when I write high-quality essays and grow my email list by being active on Twitter. Socially, I want to surround myself with people who love ideas and intellectual conversations. Athletically, I’d like to play golf at a high level again and develop a cardio routine that’s as enjoyable and effective as my weightlifting one. Creatively, I’d like to continue pursuing ideas for their own sake, just as I’ve done with the Porter Robinson documentary. Intellectually, I want to spend as much time as possible in pursuit of interesting ideas and writing non-fiction essays about emerging themes (with a focus on culture, education, and digital technology). Geographically, even though I’d like to keep exploring major cities around the world, Austin will be my home for the foreseeable future. Done right, the harmony of all these pursuits will create a trampoline effect where I can jump higher — and do so with less effort and more joy.
How Everything Ties Together
I can’t shake the feeling that something is still missing though. Specifically, I have two friends (Lyn and Brent) who radiate with a level of peace that I’ve never been able to achieve. It’s a feeling that I only know how to illustrate with a story.
In college, I used to take weekend trips to Great Smoky Mountains National Park in North Carolina. The park is famous for the way a pillow of clouds hangs halfway up the mountainside. It’s been foggy every time I’ve visited, which has made it impossible to see the sky from the ground. The one exception sticks out. It was a fall morning so frigid that I woke up shivering just before the sunrise. Unable to sleep, I zipped open my tent and walked out to a friend sitting by the river. His name was Nate and he’d visited the camp before. With stars in the sky and headlamps on our faces, he led me to a serene waterfall where we watched the sunrise. For once, the fog had lifted. With the waterfall as a soundtrack, we gazed at the peaks of the mountains, which sat below a luscious purple and magenta sky. Once the sky turned blue and the fog cover returned, we marched back to base camp. Years later, we still talk about that morning.
My mission for 2022 is to find paths that’ll help me ascend above the fog belt — where the skies are saturated with color, loved ones surround me, and together, we can sit by the water and watch those sweet, sweet sunrises.