In Part 1, I argued that curating the content of others was an excellent way to start creating content of one’s own, whether your goal is advancing your career or starting a business.

Now I want to answer the question: how exactly do I curate content?

In this guide I’ll share the best of what I’ve discovered.

There are 7 core lessons I’ve settled on:

  1. Create a repository of valuable, pre-selected material
  2. Learn (and fail) in public
  3. Weave the personal and the objective
  4. Provide value back to the people you curate
  5. Always be pitching something
  6. Feed and tune your network
  7. Curate for yourself

1. Create a repository of valuable, pre-selected material

This is probably the most fundamental lesson, not only for content curation but for knowledge work in general. That’s why it’s the primary focus in my online course Building a Second Brain.

It’s impossible to curate effectively just by sharing things on social media as you come across them. There’s no chance that you’ll know whether something is “the best” if you’re evaluating it in isolation. The value you provide is putting it into a broader context or narrative. And that requires collecting things in a repository before sharing them.

In 16th and 17th century Europe, it was fashionable for the wealthy and educated to keep a Wunderkammern, a “wonder chamber” or “cabinet of curiosities,” in their homes. These rooms were filled with interesting or rare artifacts – books, skeletons, jewels, shells, art, plants, minerals, taxidermy specimens, stones – from around the world. They were demonstrations of their owner’s intellect and hunger for knowledge. These collections were the precursors to modern museums, as places dedicated to the study of history, nature, and the arts.

You should do the same with your personal knowledge collection. Start by collecting a small set of valuable sources and personal insights for your own use. As it gains in size and value, start opening it to friends and colleagues. Eventually, you’ll have so much material that you can create “virtual exhibitions” for sharing publicly, which can be nothing more than websites, image galleries, or downloadable PDFs.

2. Learn (and fail) in public

One of the best ways of thinking about curation is that you are “open-sourcing your learning process.”

Pick something that you would really like to learn, and make a commitment to learning it in public, including your mistakes. By sharing your learning journey, you create an audience and a community around your learning, at times providing encouragement and other times commiseration. Seeing that others can benefit from your mistakes makes it much easier to recover from them, to push forward, and to take on bigger challenges than you would on your own.

Austin Kleon puts it perfectly in his book Show Your Work (affiliate link):

“Become a documentarian of what you do. Start a work journal: Write your thoughts down in a notebook, or speak them into an audio recorder. Keep a scrapbook. Take a lot of photographs of your work at different stages in your process. Shoot video of you working. This isn’t about making art, it’s about simply keeping track of what’s going on around you. Take advantage of all the cheap, easy tools at your disposal—these days, most of us carry a fully functional multimedia studio around in our smartphones…Once a day, after you’ve done your day’s work, go back to your documentation and find one little piece of your process that you can share.”

The learning process is the perfect thing to share: it is constantly throwing off little odds and ends that can be posted online; it’s ok if it’s messy and incomplete; it shows evidence of consistent progress; it includes both successes and failures; and it makes reference to the best sources while also injecting your own voice and experience.

As soon as you learn something, no matter how small, you can turn around and share it with others. This helps you test your understanding, surface doubts or weak points, and gives you an excuse to package up helpful resources like reading lists or walkthrough videos. These resources will be the perfect reference materials for your future self.

3. Weave the personal and the objective

Most people share either purely personal updates of no durable value (what they ate for lunch, their workout outfit, or a rant on the topic of the day), or completely objective, but boring factoids (a newspaper article, a link to a website, or a quote from a book with no explanation).

As a curator, you should split the difference, sharing content that has inherent value for others, while also adding your own interpretation or commentary. You want to get people used to hearing and valuing your take on the subject, apart from the plain facts. When something new happens in your field, you want people to wonder “I wonder what [insert your name] thinks about this?” This way, every event of significance becomes a trigger for people to seek you out.

Kleon has a wonderful set of questions to get you started in the curation game:

  • Where do you get your inspiration?
  • What sorts of things do you fill your head with?
  • What do you read?
  • Do you subscribe to anything?
  • What sites do you visit on the Internet?
  • What music do you listen to?
  • What movies do you see?
  • Do you look at art?
  • What do you collect?
  • What’s inside your scrapbook?
  • What do you pin to the corkboard above your desk?
  • What do you stick on your refrigerator?
  • Who’s done work that you admire?
  • Who do you steal ideas from?
  • Do you have any heroes?
  • Who do you follow online?
  • Who are the practitioners you look up to in your field?

It takes surprisingly little to add your own spin or lens on an event. As Alison Bechdel says, “Whatever we say, we’re always talking about ourselves.”

4. Provide value back to the people you curate

As a curator, it’s easy to see yourself as a small fish, especially when comparing yourself to the celebrity experts you are covering. But don’t underestimate your importance – curators and critics are a, well, critical piece of building influence online.

There is a limit to how much an established expert can talk themselves up and recommend their own expertise. We’re a skeptical generation that doesn’t take self-promotion at face value. Such experts rely on third parties that they don’t pay or control to give honest assessments of their credibility. It is a major milestone for them to have even one significant curator of their work. You could very well be that milestone for them!

How do you provide value to someone who has already seemingly “made it”? There are so many ways. Write them an honest testimonial or review, and post it somewhere that potential customers might see it. Quote or summarize their ideas, and link your readers to the original source. Compare and contrast their offerings with their competitors, which helps filter for people most likely to be served by them. Convert their content into new forms and share them, which will help it reach new audiences.

Established experts often care most about seeing their ideas spread and have an impact. They’ll often bend over backwards, share their audience, and even actively promote you if you help them do that. They usually started as curators themselves, and will want to pay it forward however they can.

5. Always be pitching something

In the past, the job of a salesperson was to provide useful information. Because the information required to make good decisions was so hard to find, they became gatekeepers of this knowledge and faced little competition.

But with the abundance of information available online to anyone with a smartphone, the playing field has been leveled. The customer walking in the door may very well know more than the salesperson about the product. Salespeople must now be skilled at curating that abundance of knowledge with honesty and skill. They earn their commission when they restrict the options in a way that makes them less overwhelming to the customer.

You may be thinking, “But I’m not a salesperson…”

Think again. In a world of fragmented attention, every email, text message, and phone call is a pitch for someone’s attention. Every action you want someone to take – to give you feedback on your draft, brainstorm solutions to a problem, design a website – is a pitch for their precious time, in competition with hundreds of other pitches they receive every day.

The first time you ask for money for something you’ve created is an exhilarating experience. It feels like the sky is going to fall, or the authorities are going to call and accuse you of fraud. But long before, you’re ready for that, you can practice by pitching other things.

You heard me right: pitch other people’s products and services that you’ve tried and enjoyed; pitch books and articles you’ve found valuable; pitch people on trying new things or pursuing their interests; pitch them to rethink or improve an aspect of their lives. Every time you write an article, post a social media update, or meet someone for coffee, try pitching them on something you know will benefit them.

By the time you’re ready to make pitches of your own, you’ll be a sales pro.

6. Feed and tune your network

It’s easy to see the world of influencers and thought leaders and to think it’s a solitary affair. The spotlight of “personal branding” shines only on the individual, but in reality it is a community of creative people that produces great ideas and great works.

Take Leonardo da Vinci’s famous drawing Vitruvian Man, depicting the essential symmetry and proportions of the human body. It is a symbol of individualism, yet Da Vinci was heavily influenced by multiple others in creating it: the Roman architect Vitruvius, Renaissance architect Giacomo Andrea de Ferrara, and Sienese architect Francesco di Giorgio.

Don’t see yourself as a solitary curator lobbing your ideas into the void. Think of yourself as the Head Gardener in charge of an “ecology of talent.” It’s not your job to make everything happen. It’s your job to synchronize an interesting group of people who are passionate about something, and to help them create something together. Your content is just an excuse for this group to form. Doing this work in collaboration with others who can appreciate it is the only thing that makes it sustainable or worth doing.

Howard Rheingold calls this “tuning and feeding your network.” Share the things you love and value, and the people that love and value those same things will find you. Do the work, and share the best nuggets with your audience in a format they can easily digest and apply. You don’t want the most followers. You want the best followers. Before you have fans, you must be a fan yourself.

As artist Wayne White says, “Sometimes you don’t always know what you’ve got. It really does need a little social chemistry to make it show itself to you sometimes.”

7. Curate for yourself

Let’s loop back to the beginning, to curating a collection of knowledge for yourself. As much as I advocate providing value to others, I believe that for this process to truly be sustainable, it has to be inherently enjoyable for you.

The harsh reality is that you probably won’t succeed. It’s just a numbers game. Statistically speaking, you probably won’t keep going past a few weeks, probably won’t find an audience, probably won’t ever create your own content, probably won’t make any money, and almost certainly won’t ever build any kind of business out of this activity.

At the end of the day, it has to be something worth doing anyway. You have to inherently enjoy most of the experience of diving deep into a small niche, of immersing yourself in its questions and communities, of trying things and failing again and again, of pulling a nugget of insight out of the chaos to bring back to your tribe. This is why the job of curator is reserved for the truly passionate, who would do what they do even if no one was listening.

You can view the curation process as a conversation you have with your future self. Whether it’s writing your reveries in a diary or choosing photos from a family vacation, you are sending these like packages forward through time. Your future self will most likely receive them, and there will be an impact. It might make them happy or sad, nostalgic or grateful, excited or somber.

Use this conversation across time to learn to tell your story. Use it to understand your own evolution. Use it to map your patterns of learning and thinking over time. Personal curation is the pursuit of self-understanding, using tangible or digital artifacts as mirrors into our deepest selves.

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