I’ve always admired creative individuals like Richard Branson, who are able to grow successful companies across non-related industries.
Richard started Virgin Records in the 1970s and grew the Virgin Group to more than 400 successful companies in various industries spanning retail, music, transport, media, healthcare, and many more.
As software continues eating the world, each passing generation is freed to focus on more abstract and strategic work.
With the world moving faster than ever before, we must educate ourselves to adapt to unknowns. To thrive, we need to develop the ability to rapidly learn and produce creative output.
Over my professional “career”, I’ve hopped around several roles and industries including: investment banking (tech), product management (mobile gaming and education tech), venture capital (investing in every industry you can think of), and entrepreneurship (media and currently food & beverage).
The first few years of industry exploration felt like drunken walks. As I leapt into each new industry, I fumbled around with no clear process. Sub-optimal learning and results ensued.
Five years ago, I joined the investment team of an early stage VC fund that invested in every vertical from consumer social, logistics, to space.
If a company sold software to HR executives, I had anywhere from 1-4 weeks while the investment round was still open to understand other competitive offerings in the HR-tech space, responsibilities of HR executives, existing workflows, budgets, and more.
Each day, I had to context switch amongst conversations with entrepreneurs in every industry you can think of.
To ask better questions, make better decisions, and find the best companies, I had to level up and develop a framework to rapidly learn any new industry and skill set.
I call this framework BERST.
The BERST framework is a universal system for rapidly learning and producing creative output in any subject.
None of the individual components in the BERST framework will appear revolutionary. These are simple concepts that become a powerful learning loop.
- Build community
- Encapsulate information
- Share everything
- Tune and Teach
1. Build Community
Whenever I learn a new industry or skill set from scratch, I take a networked approach to learning by building community first.
Building community doesn’t preclude you from conducting your own solo first-party research. It simply enhances your own research as you can learn in public with other people on a similar path.
In a wide-ranging interview, Brian Koppelman (director / writer of Billions, Ocean’s Thirteen, Rounders, etc…) and Marc Andreessen (Co-founder Netscape, A16Z), discuss how every major new artistic movement has a “scene.”
Hollywood celebrities like Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, Seth Rogen, and Judd Apatow, didn’t grow their careers in silos. They co-located in industry epicenters like Los Angeles, learned from and amplified each other’s work, and then spun off with successful careers. Tony Hsieh of Zappos calls these scenes “collision spaces.”
While these scenes were historically geographic-dependent, COVID has sped the disintermediation of physical scenes like tech in SF, media/entertainment in Hollywood, and finance in NYC.
Physical scenes will likely never disappear but countless online scenes have arisen to seize the opportunity.
Discover: Do the research to find the highest quality niche communities you can join online and offline. Almost every profession and industry you can think of has an online community (or several) on Slack, Circle, FB Groups, and messaging apps like Whatsapp and Telegram.
Most are free communities and you can always make a decision later on if you want to join more exclusive, paid communities. For faster feedback loops, I’d recommend leaning towards niche communities with a high degree of synchronous communication - i.e. Slack.
If you can’t find any great communities, don’t be afraid to start your own. In 2013, I entered tech as a new product manager and couldn’t find any online communities to learn from others. I decided to start my own community on Slack called Product Manager HQ, and spent the next 6 years growing it into the world’s first and largest online PM community. Read more here, if you’re interested in growing your own community.
Absorb: As you start off in these communities, you may feel overwhelmed by the sheer amount of activity and conversation. Spend the time to process and absorb the information flow amongst community members.
Community members will naturally share the best artifacts (articles, books, research papers, publications, presentations, newsletters, videos) for that topic.
Note: Throughout this article, you’ll see me use the term “artifact.” I’m referring specifically to content like text, audio, video, image, animation or a combination of those.
These community recommendations become a first filter to help decide which sources of information you should subscribe to and consume.
Use your judgment and refine these sources over time. In finance, we used to say “garbage in, garbage out,” to represent bad model output from bad assumptions.
If you continually consume the wrong sources, you’ll produce bad output.
In the beginning, don’t worry about learning the same content as everyone else. Remember that we’re trying to 80/20 your learning as quickly as possible and there are steps later in the BERST framework that will help you develop more original thoughts.
Connect: As you learn from others and discover new information along the way, focus on sharing value back into the community. Give much more than you take.
Over time, you’ll notice different personas in these communities. Some folks are the fastest to find new information sources. Others lurk quietly but respond to questions with well crafted, thoughtful responses. A few become hyper connectors who know what everyone is working on and always graciously offer to make introductions.
Look for opportunities to reach out to different people in 1:1 messages, provide them with value, and develop genuine friendships. As you get more comfortable, set up phone / video calls and eventually in person meetings.
2. Encapsulate Information
As you continue to build your involvement in these communities, you’ll likely be overwhelmed by the firehose of information that you need to parse out and process.
Organize: Everyone processes information flow differently. My handwriting speed never caught up to my expectations, so I type all my notes digitally in Notion or Roam Research. Others keep it simple with Notes or Evernote.
Set up a personal knowledge management system that works for you.
There are many other resources available that cover personal knowledge management (PKM) so I won’t cover that here. I’d highly recommend checking out Tiago Forte’s Building a Second Brain course. I have no affiliation to him or the course but found the content revolutionary for my own PKM.
When I was learning about the food & beverage industry, I kept a Notion dashboard with:
- Meeting / Call Notes: A table where I catalogued notes from any meeting or call that I had with anyone working in the food & beverage industry.
- Research Notes: A table where I catalogued notes on various food & bev categories (I used to go to my local Whole Foods and Safeway every weekend and walk up and down the aisles, taking notes on new food product nutritionals, packaging design, diet trends, and more).
- Food & Bev CRM: A table where I stored contact information of every single person I met in the food & beverage industry. I noted details like their company affiliation, skillsets, and needs.
- Vendors / Agencies CRM: In every conversation with a food & beverage founder, I would often ask which vendors or agencies they were using to help run their business. I kept a table where I stored the details of these vendors / agencies.
Codify: While you store raw information in your PKM system, look for themes and patterns that you can codify into frameworks and mental models.
One example: most venture firms codify their company diligence process through written investment memos. These memos typically take the form of word templates with various sections like: Team, Market, Product, Business Model, Competition, Risks, etc…
Bessemer Venture Partners released a selection of internal investment memos that showcase how they think about select investments.
Investment team members who want to bring companies to partner meetings must write a memo that is shared amongst all team members to review and poke holes in. This process standardizes an otherwise subjective process that could differ wildly by each individual.
Another example: When I first broke into product management, I wanted to know what specific skill sets I needed to improve to become a better product manager.
Product management wasn’t well documented online back then and no one (outside of the traditional tech giants) seemed to have a clear rubric for PMs.
After speaking to many different PMs across several industries, I codified a “personal roadmap” that outlined specific criteria like: analytics, SQL skills, ability to build clear specs, utilization of a prioritization framework, product design chops, ability to evaluate eng. tradeoffs, etc…
This ended up becoming a rubric that I used to determine which resources I needed to study and which skillsets at work I needed to spend more time on to improve.
Below is another example of codification in the pursuit of creative output at El Bulli, a now closed 3 star Michelin restaurant run by chef Ferran Adrià, that was named World’s Best Restaurant 5 times.
“For that kind of reinvention to happen, creativity can’t wait for something so fleeting as inspiration; it has to be codified. And indeed, one of elBulli’s ironies is that the more widely Ferran is defined as an artist, the more businesslike his approach to creativity has become.
When an idea spills out at elBulli, it is Oriol’s job to catch it. In his nearly illegible hand, he archives everything: every product that comes in, every technique developed, every dish created. The information is typed up and illustrated with photographs he shoots with the camera he keeps in a drawer just off the pass.
On each page he puts a description of the plate or product, information about the seasons in which it is available, its size, weight, and cost, and a full list of the preparations tried with it.
Eventually, the recipes that go on the menu will be professionally photographed and the information about them entered into the catalogue that the restaurant publishes annually. Even the dishes and ingredients that don’t make it will be carefully documented so that when it comes time to initiate creativity again at the start of a new season, there is a foundation from which to begin.”
“You make yourself rare by combining two or more ‘pretty goods’ until no one else has your mix” -Scott Adams (Dilbert)
Up until this point, we’ve focused on learning rapidly through community information nodes, collecting and organizing information flow, and codifying it in structures that you can best process.
Remixing steps beyond the process of learning into generating creative output.
While the thought of creating something “original” is intimidating, we must remember that nothing in life is original. Everything is a remix.
There are many tactical approaches to remixing knowledge. A few examples below:
- Utilize the Zwicky Box method.
- Import your notes into Roam Research to look for bi-lateral connections.
- Create your own digital garden.
- Collaborate on artifacts (content like essays, articles, presentations, templates, videos, artwork, etc…) with other like-minded individuals.
- Apply frameworks and mental models from previous personal and professional experience to your encapsulated ideas.
When I was trying to learn more about the venture capital industry, I found myself remixing by carrying over frameworks from the product management industry.
I created another personal roadmap with criteria to become a better venture investor, collected feedback regularly from founders, sourced company investments from my product community, and even recorded a podcast called “Venture Capital is Product Management.”
Save every artifact you create during your remixing process. These artifacts are pieces of creative output that you’ll refine over the next two steps.
“Creativity is the ability to store the special moments, big or small, that occur throughout your life, then being able to see how they connect to the moment you’re in. When past and present merge, something new happens.” -Rene Redzepi (Founder, Noma)
4. Share Everything
As you continue to encapsulate information and develop new artifacts from your remixing process, I’d encourage you to learn publicly by sharing all of these artifacts with the communities you’ve joined and individuals you’ve befriended.
When you’re still organizing information, you might consider sharing an article or a series of tweets describing what you’ve learned.
When you take the extra step to codify your learnings into frameworks, templates, or mental models, share those publicly and you’ll provide another layer of value to others who might still be in the encapsulation phase of their learning.
Over time, your ratio of shared content types will change. As you remix and produce more creative output, you’ll begin to establish yourself as a “lighthouse beacon to attract like-minded people” (h/t David Perell).
Others will see that you’re interested in a particular topic and may reach out to offer their own ideas / perspectives, and help you refine your learnings.
5. Tune and Teach:
Tune: In theoretical physics, fine-tuning is the process in which parameters of a model must be adjusted very precisely in order to fit with certain observations.
Likewise, as you share your work publicly, you’ll receive feedback that will change your original assumptions, and thus alter your creative output.
Actively seek out opposing opinions to tune your ideas into perennial artifacts.
Teach: This is often the scariest section of the whole framework, because not everyone enjoys or feels comfortable teaching.
The biggest mistake I see people make, is assuming that they need to be a world-class expert to have the credibility to teach.
I’m of the mentality that you should teach everything you know, as it’s one of the fastest ways to reinforce everything you’ve learned.
Find someone who knows absolutely nothing about the topic you’ve been learning and teach them everything you’ve learned. You can teach them in-person, record a video or write an article. They’ll ask questions like a middle schooler and help you identify gaps in your explanations.
As you find gaps in your knowledge or questions that poke holes in your underlying assumptions, loop back to the encapsulation step and look for more source material (from communities or first-party research) to supplement what you don’t fully understand.
To see examples of BERST in action, we can look to successful individuals like René Redzepi, TIME Magazine’s “God of Food”, TIME’s 100 Most Influential People in the World, and founder of Noma, named world’s best restaurant 4 times.
To boost his creative output, René travels the world with his Noma team to establish pop-up restaurants in cities like London, Australia, Japan, and Mexico.
In each location, he immediately begins to build community. He integrates his team and their families into the local regions by setting up visa applications, daily transportation, schools and daycare, and housing.
He finds local foragers and scouts who begin to feed him his “information sources.” At the Australia pop-up, local resident Elijah Holland brings René 250 samples of wild foraged edibles so that René can encapsulate a mental index of local ingredients.
Once he’s catalogued every possible local ingredient, René begins to remix. While in Oaxaca, he samples 7 foundational mother moles, as well as an insect mole with a formic base of chicatana ants. His mind begins to race.
“We have some ideas. We will make our own.”
He knows that a European cannot dare to top a mole negro in its traditional form. “You can’t. Once you start fiddling with something that has a very deep tradition, you very quickly look very stupid. What you can have is new combinations - try to imagine a new textural delight within it.”
He begins to bring in knowledge from other cuisines and experiences from building previous dishes.
As he remixes these ideas, he shares everything with the locals and with his team members.
“I think burned coconut could be interesting as a fat. He thought about that mole negro, its deep burn, its volcanic ash in the throat.”
As feedback comes in, he tunes his ideas.
“When the black mole is this intense, does it still work with truffle? Maybe not, they might cancel each other out…”
Eventually, it will be a collaboration of his ideas and his staff that produce the epiphany. Hours before a dinner, staff member Sanchez takes the mole negro that had been brewing a day before and mixes it with dollops of funky caramel-hued scallop fudge that the team had brought from the original Noma restaurant in Copenhagen. The remixed result is a revelation, causing a click of delight on the palate.
René tastes the mixture and stops in his tracks: “Now I think that’s amazing. This is incredible. Oh man oh man oh man. This is the perfect mix of the two places. Maybe here we have a dish for Noma Mexico. This mole is a masterpiece.”
As he learns, he teaches with any opportunity he can get. His Instagram is filled with photos and videos of ingredients and dishes.
He hosts an annual MAD Symposium with keynotes, workshops, and conversations to teach the global culinary community topics around sustainable agriculture, social entrepreneurship, scientific advancement, health and nutrition, and creativity. He even starts MAD Academy, a school that imparts life skills that aren't taught at culinary school.
I want to note that the BERST framework will get you 80/20 of the learning in a short period of time but it won’t get you to the top 1% of the field. That takes time and commitment, both of which are further investments that I won’t cover here.
Like most things in life, the BERST framework is a never-ending loop. Each cycle you put in further reinforces your learning and allows you to produce even more creative output.
BERST is a living framework with strong opinions, loosely held. As you BERST your way through new topics, I’d love feedback on ways you’ve edited or improved any step of the BERST framework.