Salon Recap: Beyond Self-improvement with Tiago Forte and Visakan Veerasamy

Salon Recap: Beyond Self-improvement with Tiago Forte and Visakan Veerasamy

Salon recap by Christine Shiba.

How do we go about sharing work with our communities? What conditions allow for creative genius to thrive? What is your relationship to order or the lack thereof in your daily life? What do we mean by “beyond self-improvement,” and how do we move towards it? 

I recently attended an Interintellect salon hosted by Visakan Veerasamy and Tiago Forte—and joined by Anna Gat—where they spoke to many of these concepts given their respective experiences in publishing books, building companies, nurturing communities, changing lives and more. You can view the entire recording here

On sharing work

How does one share work with others? To what extent does it matter that the work is “good”? I’ve personally wrestled with the tension between openly sharing work to get feedback, experiment, and prevent myself from giving up, and feeling that there should be some threshold to the volume and quality of work I freely share with the people in my community. 

Visa, Tiago, and Anna speak to their perspectives:

V: Social groups tend towards homeostasis in a constricting way. You try to protect each other from looking bad or doing stupid things, and then it spirals smaller and smaller… Whereas if you can angle it the other way around, then you can write books and do dramatic things, and your friends are rooting for you. (53:31)

T: People are like, how do I become a part of this or that scene? You have to contribute, that’s the thing, there’s a price of admission… The post-rationalist scene was full of the smartest freaking people I’d ever met in my entire life. It was terrifying to even jump into the comments of a ribbonfarm post. There’s like PhDs and AI researchers… I had to prepare! I couldn’t just spout something, I had to go take notes, study a subject, write something, and then say: this is the best I can do. It’s not just the courage to blurt stuff out, it’s the willingness and the intentionality to offer something to the community that is contributing real value. (53:51)

A: Every piece of writing is an act of revenge. Maybe you want to take revenge on an earlier idea you had and you’ve proven yourself wrong. And you’re like I’m going to show it to Anna today or maybe it’s your old professor or your ex or your boss, whoever it is… You’re writing because you think that that thought, that idea, that formulation, does not exist in the world, and you feel competent in that moment of insanity that you should be the person to put that idea down on paper. You are correcting something in the world; you’re bringing something into existence that does not exist but you want it to exist. (56:43)

On semi-public spaces

What kind of environment allows for communal creative genius to emerge and thrive? What is the ideal space for one to create and share work with others, feel comfortable pushing boundaries, and still want to do well? How can the semi-public space serve as a healing and reflective space for us to understand ourselves as we show up in private and in public? 

Visa, Tiago, and Anna speak to the concept of semi-public spaces:

A: If you do it right, there will be just the right balance between competition and cooperation. You do want to show off and stand up to the challenge, but you also know that it’s happening in a psychologically safe environment. Because we all know that the public is not psychologically safe… it’s kind of a medieval prison where you’re put up on a scaffold somewhere, in the middle of the town square, hanging there and everybody can see you and throw things at you. So having a semi-public space that is not your family (where of course everybody is biased about you whether a pro or a con)… the magic happens in the semi-public space, whether that is a religious community, an online community, an intellectual interest-based community… (57:33)

A: I grew up in the early last years of communism, and then post-communist eastern europe, and we had this incredibly mistaken idea about language. That you can have a private language, and a public language, so at home you would say, wink wink the party is full of idiots, and then you would go outside in the world and pretend and play a role… What people forgot is that this is an illusion. The outside lies and dishonesty and disgrace trickles back into your family, the same way a difficult family life appears at a wider scale. Because if you have a society where everybody has dysfunctional private lives it’s impossible to expect them to form a healthy civic life. (58:37)

A: My mission with Interintellect is to build the semi-public space where we can align the languages, be ourselves, and explore the nuances. It’s not just black and white… all the good stuff happens in the middle. (59:31)

V: When I reflect on my own journey [regarding the private and public life], I underestimate the degree to which the kindness of strangers (and I consider books and movies, art and music to be the kindness of strangers) helped pull me out of a more cloistered, anxious mindset… so if I’m not doing things then I’m a loser, or I’m being ungrateful or selfish or whatever, and that whole frame, that whole way of thinking is such a scarcity mindset, so fearful. Healing comes from interacting with people who are not like that. (1:02:45)

V: Encountering someone who was curious to understand my behavior and was not interested in punishing me— I could not compute. I was like huh, you’re really interested, I stopped being interested a long time ago. I assume I’m just like this. And he’s like oh no, I just want to know why, is it because you were sleeping late, what’s going on? Exposure to that curiosity was such a gift. (1:04:26)

On internalized and externalized order

From Tiago’s approach of Building a Second Brain, Visa’s discussion of freeing oneself from the tyranny of self hatred, and the ongoing conversation around semi-public spaces, emerges a fourth concept: that the creation of internalized order through compassion, introspection, and note taking, lends itself easily to an externalized order (eg, having a room full of post its and ideas that you can walk in and out of or a personal blog of musings), and that the mere existence of this externalized order creates a semi-public space by which friends and strangers can comment on on your work and “keep it alive” for you. 

A: I was very inspired during our last salon Tiago, you were talking about internalized and externalized order, and the suffering that comes from trying to hold all of your discipline inside of yourself. Constantly restricting, limiting, and rigidifying yourself, versus creating a space in the world where you create order, and then you’re free, weightless, and you can walk in and out, you can bring other people to show them. (1:05:48)

A: Basically through my act of creating an externalized order in my life—whether that’s an online community, a public roam, or a blog where I just like to ramble on about my ideas— through outsourcing my discipline into the world, and trusting it with maintaining and growing it, I basically create a semi-public space. (1:07:31)

A: Through just talking semi-publicly, the act creates with words a semi-public space. (1:07:45)

T: Interesting, even within one person there’s a private space, your internal thoughts, a public space, but then there’s something of a semi-public space for the human psyche. (1:08:07)

A: Life is amazing. You can literally sit down on a bench and just build a semi-public space. (1:08:38). 

On choosing a social role

How does one contribute to their community? How do you look at your own package of talents and figure out what you have to offer? Tiago speaks to an “emissary” role where he brings his concepts from niche internet communities to mainstream society, while Visa speaks to going out, finding, and helping kids who remind him of his younger self. 

T: Different people play different roles, and you have to choose your role. We were saying before, like participating in these internet subcultures, but all the examples we were using were intellectual contributions. But that is just one very narrow kind of contribution… Just like any group, any community, there’s the people who go and make friends with strangers, people who organize events and herd the cats to get there, there’s the hosts, there’s the facilitators, there’s the provocateurs, there’s the contrarians, the full cast of characters is needed. (1:33:30)

T: Back in 2019 I was first conceiving my idea for the book with my mentor [James Clear of atomic habits] and I said, oh I don’t know, I don’t want to sell out, I don’t want to go too mainstream, liike this is really a precious idea and I want to protect it. Kind of just explain to a few people. And he said, well you can take two paths. You can impress a few niche internet bloggers, or you can introduce a new idea to the world. (1:34:37)

T: What I’m trying to do with BASB is be an ambassador from one country to another. An ambassador from internet niche land, where we have strange rites and customs and traditions, to this older country called Normie Land where they have very different traditions and culture from us. And that’s just one of many roles you can play. (1:35:06)

V: For me personally my driving force is, I always remember what it’s like to be 17 to 20. You know, I was the same kid that I am now, smart, interesting, but no one gave a shit. And I know that there’s definitely other kids like me out there right now. So I pretty much work backwards from those kids; my whole life is just, every time I find one of those kids and I can feel it, I can feel it when I talk to them… it’s like oh you get it, you’re on the path… So my task is always to find the next kid and introduce them to rest, and then I’m going to go find the next kid. (1:36:12)

On writing a book

Salon member: Would you still suggest people write a book after all this? 

T and V: Only if you have to. (1:37:53)

T: I have a post on my blog, The Four Pathways of Modern Book Publishing. You have to choose the pathway that works for you. (1:38:50)

T: I chose one of those four, which is traditional publishing… I took a maximalist approach to this, like no limit on the time, I was going to put in the money, I just made the biggest bet that I could make that this book would change the trajectory of my career and my business, and I don’t think necessarily most people should take that path unless they feel that same way. (1:39:15)

V: I’m naturally very prolific and so my approach is to write a lot on many different fronts. I can do multiple threads a day on twitter, and if no one cares it doesn’t matter. So then you do like hundreds of threads casually, if you can do it casually that’s what you should do. If, I know some people who are like oh I have to plan my thread before I tweet it, then don’t try to do what I’m doing because the reason why my system works for me is because I can just write threads off the cuff. (1:40:04)

V: Then I do hundreds of threads, I see what subset resonates with people, okay expand those into essays, then some of those essays I compile them into a book. That’s the path I took, and I would probably go crazy talking to a publisher. So it really depends on your personality, you have to know yourself. (1:40:27)

On meaning and having kids

Tiago and Visa speak to how they balance their work and family life, the messages they received from their fathers during childhood, and how to diversify your meaning portfolio to avoid failure modes if one area falls through. 

T: From an American lens, it feels like when you have kids you give up. You’re giving up on some of your ambition, you’re giving up on becoming everything you could be. It’s a particular kind of American point of view. But then there’s the Brazilian point of view which is just, that’s where most meaning comes from. I’m reversing my sort of perspective on it, where the purpose of my work is to serve my family. (1:41:34)

T: What is my son going to learn, what is he going to be able to model, seeing me reach for my dreams? Seeing me give my all to something? Seeing me find my voice literally and figuratively? You know when I look back at my dad, the things I took away were everything he did, almost nothing he said. It was all what he did that stuck with me. (1:42:14)

T: Children and family are a much wider, more expansive, more infinite game, multi-dimensional kind of sphere than work. It just is. At least for me. It’s just more meaningful. So my time and attention over time is going in that direction. (1:42:51)

T: I think of it like rebalancing my meaning portfolio. Until I got married and had a kid, the great majority of the meaning in my life came from work… Which has certain advantages but also has major downsides like, this is how people have existential crises when your company falls and you spiral into depression… You also see the opposite too, when too much meaning comes from your family you also see this failure mode right, the kid grows up and leaves home and suddenly the parents have no purpose, like the kid was the entire purpose for existing. (1:43:19)

T: So I’m just trying to have a diversified meaning portfolio of various investments that are balancing each other, complementing each other, and you know trying to live the best life that I can live. (1:44:24) 

V: My dad said a bunch of stuff, I don’t remember any of the things he said. But I remember like, he’s an entrepreneur, so i learned two— the positive side is you can do whatever the hell you want and charge money, you don’t have to have a boss, but the negative version of that was no work-life balance and you should be slightly stressed all the time for no reason. Those are the two inheritances I’ve got from my dad, one is like I’m free to do whatever I want and the other one is I’m a little bit stressed all the time. Neither of those things were ever explicitly stated, he just demonstrated what it’s like. (1:45:12)

On playing with order

Have you considered how much order you have in your life? Is your life tightly controlled and planned out, or do you allow things to spontaneously arise and take you somewhere you did not expect? How might we play with the amount of order in our lives to find the optimal level for ourselves? 

T: One of the deepest assumptions in American culture is that order is inherently good. …We’re always trying to add order to everything all the time, assuming it can only get better. I think of order more like salt. You can add salt to a dish, it gets better, it’s better, but then it starts to not get better, and then it quickly gets worse. (1:51:48)

T: Brazilian culture is the perfect embodiment of this, I mean in Brazil you just never know what’s going to happen, the next minute there could be a parade outside your door… friends could drop by at any moment… so play with order. Try having 10% more order, see if that feels directionally correct. If it doesn’t, then try 10% less order. I see people making the mistake of too much order at least as often as I see not enough order. Whereas usually people tend to assume it’s a one-way scale of improvement. (1:52:19)

V: If your life feels perfectly orderly and perfectly organized, you’ve probably gone too far in some sense… My version of that was, as a teenager I used to want to be smart, and I thought smart people get things right, and so I try to be right all the time. And subconsciously you avoid difficult things because it’s easy to be right all the time if you’re only arguing with people who are, you know, you seek out people who are easy to point out that they’re making mistakes or they’re wrong, so you seek out beginners and you just dunk on beginners all the time, and you don’t get any smarter, but you feel like you are because you’re right all the time. (1:53:34)

V: There’s a parallel here— there are things I could do to make my life feel perfectly organized, and that is by narrowing my scope of curiosity. Being curious about fewer and fewer things, having less interests, less diverse friend groups. You just make your world smaller, and it’s automatically more organized, but is that what you want? (1:54:28)

Beyond self-improvement

In the last quarter of the salon, salon participants reflected— what does it mean to go beyond self improvement? 

Iris: I think I’ve been struggling with, in particular, going through healing and realizing, who am I if I’m not defined by horrible things that have happened to me? … What do I actually like doing, how do I want to define myself, how do I want to be remembered? (2:11:56)

Iris: Trying to answer those questions is actually kind of difficult because now I don’t have, it’s almost like a crutch, like oh I was defined by stuff in my past and and now I don’t have that anymore, I can’t use that anymore as my identity… you know, I’m a Woman or I’m This, and like I’m this identity and you can clutch to that and just make your whole life about that thing. But eventually like you kind of have to move beyond that, and so I’m sort of in that space right now, like all right, what do I do now? (2:12:36)

Maria: In my experience there’s this suspension in-between— like you’ve unraveled some of the stuff, and the new stuff hasn’t emerged yet, so you’re suspended in, in, I don’t know, empty space and void and it takes a while to re-emerge from it on the other side. But yeah like I would say it’s normal, we’re all going through this at our own pace, and something will emerge eventually. (2:13:15)

V: Imagine you are having a really good day, or a really good month. What are you doing? Who are you spending your time with? How much do you spend with people, how much do you spend on your own? And he realized that while he hardly thinks about food, when he thinks about his favorite memories, food is always involved. So he moved towards learning to cook and inviting friends over. So it takes a little bit of intention towards having a more conscious lifestyle. (2:14:56)

A: If you ask yourself who I am, or who I want to be, you will probably come up with semi-different answers for your private self and your public self. Maybe you’re a tough-handed boss but a gentle-hearted mother, whatever it is… In order to not feel split into two… I do think that you probably won’t find one answer to both questions, but if you cultivate the liminal space between the two, you will at least fully understand where the connection is between your public and private self. (2:34:05)