I am a first-generation American, born and raised in Orange County in Southern California. I grew up in a mixed Brazilian and Filipino household with two brothers and a sister. Our home was filled with culture and the arts for as long as I can remember. My mother is a talented musician and singer who exposed us to the distinct rhythms of Brazilian music and the Portuguese language from our earliest years. My father is a professional artist who covered every wall of our home with his paintings and sketches.
We grew up in an evangelical, non-denominational Christian church, spending multiple nights a week at various services and Bible study groups. My mother sang in the church band, and I remember seeing her on stage singing every Sunday. While my father was known for his figures and still lifes, his true passion was Biblically themed art. Vivid scenes of Biblical stories like Cain and Abel, Jacob and the Angel, and Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden looked down at us from large-scale canvases throughout the church. As a young child I got used to seeing my parents’ artistic talents admired and appreciated by hundreds of people every week. It left a deep impression on me, seeing how rewarding it could be to use art to serve others.
From my father I learned important lessons about the value of making things.
First, he has always been extremely prolific in his artwork, producing thousands of paintings over his career. His productivity is an essential part of his creativity. People often see his impressive works and ask “How long does it take him to paint one of these?” But that question makes no sense. At any given time he is “working on” potentially dozens of different paintings, ranging in size from 12 inches to 12 feet wide, at every stage of completion from a sketch in a notebook to a gigantic mural on a wall, and sometimes spanning many years of tweaks and adjustments. Working on so many things in parallel allowed him to switch to something new any time he got stuck, and provided many opportunities for cross-fertilization between subjects. My father didn’t just paint – he managed a creative pipeline that ensured he always had something interesting to work on. This wasn’t just a creative necessity, but an economic one, considering he was supporting four kids in one of the most expensive places in the country.
Second, my father always used both sides of his brain, left and right. Art had been his passion all his life, but he also had a keen side interest in mathematics. He loved music and followed his intuition, but also possessed a sharp analytical mind. Being questioned by him was like being deposed by a lawyer, every excuse quickly deconstructed and, usually, destroyed. He believed in the traditional humanities and in classical education, but also saw the potential of technology early on. We had an Apple Performa computer in our house in 1994, when I was just 9 years old. And to my amazement, in spite of his frugality, we were one of the first families in the neighborhood to have broadband Internet, once we made the case for its educational value.
And third, my father wasn’t just an artist in the backyard studio where he painted. He was an artist in everything – making sandwiches, planting a garden, buying clothes, or planning a vacation all presented themselves as opportunities for creativity. I learned early on that everything was subject to change, that everything could be reinvented or redesigned or reframed with my imagination as the only constraint.
My father was all about extremes, and from him I gained my drive and my will. From my mother, I was fortunate to learn the qualities that made those extremes manageable, that checked my determination with something softer and more forgiving. My mother had great patience, always willing to let us come to our own conclusions and make our own decisions. She was immensely gracious, that rarest of qualities in the modern world, never calling unwanted attention to our mistakes and our faults. Most of all, my mother always had a profound emotional intelligence, able to sense intuitively what was happening underneath the surface of others’ emotional lives. And to use that knowledge to help and to heal. She is a sensitive soul, and inheriting that sensitivity has helped soften the intellect that always insists I am right and know best.
The seeds of my current work are to be found scattered across my childhood years. I was always a collector, of everything from baseball cards (though I never played baseball), to coins, to Star Wars cards. But my favorite thing to collect was knowledge. I had a monthly subscription to “animal cards” – encyclopedia-style printed cards with interesting facts about different animals, which I kept organized in a cardboard box. I guarded this collection of knowledge zealously.
I loved organizing things, and saw the world through the lens of principles and systems. There is a famous story in my family of how I would sit in the bathtub playing with my Micro-Machines (miniature toy cars). Except I wouldn’t really play with them. I organized and reorganized them according to different criteria – by size, by color, by shape, by category. I was always captivated by the patterns that seemed to underlie the world around me, and by categorizing things I found a way to explore and experiment with those patterns. I developed a fascination with any subject that seemed to shed light on that underlying reality – religion, physics, biology, and science. My mind always saw things at different levels of abstraction, as a series of intertwined principles. This made it easy for me to grasp complex ideas quickly, but left me with little common sense. I was known as a daydreamer and a klutz.
I always loved learning, but was only an average student. I read voraciously on my own time, especially science fiction, historical fiction, and fantasy, but found the homework readings comparatively boring, and avoided them. I wasn’t very self-disciplined in doing my classwork, but I had a vivid imagination. I’d spend as much time as possible during class, at recess, and on the bus to and from school staring off into space and imagining stories. This often caused me to miss homework assignments or important announcements. I got into the habit of going up to the teacher at the end of every class to confirm the homework, since I assumed I hadn’t been paying attention. I was good at tests because they required abstract logic, but otherwise found it very difficult to memorize facts or pay attention to topics I wasn’t interested in. I was lucky that the experience of formal schooling didn’t taint my love of learning. To me, school was a distraction from learning, something to get over with so I could escape to my books and my games.
The most pivotal year of my early life was 1998, when my parents reimagined our education and took the four of us out of school, moving to a small town in the mountains of southern Brazil for a year of cultural immersion. My mother was Brazilian, from São Paulo, and my father had developed a deep love for the country. They wanted us to learn the language and connect with our heritage, and knew that immersion was the only way.
All the school administrators in the U.S. told them they would ruin our education. Instead, that year ended up being the most educational of my life. I learned to speak Portuguese, which set the stage for a love of languages and travel that eventually took me all over the world. It was during this year that I started writing, sending out mass emails to friends and family back home recounting our adventures through the Brazilian countryside. I reconnected with my Brazilian roots in a way that shaped my identity as a global citizen, which later on inspired my nonprofit work. It seems crazy to move a family of six to a developing country, yet that act of creative courage made me into who I am today.
My earliest memories of doing work that I was passionate about are of volunteering. From about the age of 10, I would travel to Mexico with a team from our church on “service trips.” We would spend the weekend building houses, providing medical and dental care, and distributing donated clothing and books to poor communities near the border. As an insulated kid from a wealthy suburb, these experiences were eye-opening. I saw deep poverty, up-close and personal, in a way that I couldn’t ignore or distance myself from. Through to the end of high school I went on several international mission trips – running a basketball camp in France, putting on plays and film showings in Ethiopia, and building a schoolhouse in Belize. I decided very early on that I wanted to live a life of service. Not just because it was needed, but because it was so fun and deeply fulfilling.
My first paying jobs were fixing computers. After years of fixing my parents’ computer problems, I realized this was a service that many others needed. I made it into a business in college, driving around in my beat-up Honda Civic to rescue ailing PCs. Sitting with people in their living rooms and studies, I heard firsthand about their struggles with the technology that was supposed to empower them. I began with hardware and software fixes, but soon moved on to teaching them how to use their devices in the first place. The knowledge of how to properly operate and maintain a computer is what made the biggest difference – not only in keeping the computer running, but in enabling people to better communicate, create, and learn on the web.
I continued on this path, getting a job working at an Apple Store in San Diego. I switched to Macs, but the lessons were much the same: how to navigate the operating system, how to install new programs, how to diagnose and fix errors, and how to navigate the web. I soon started teaching classes on Apple’s iLife suite, which included software for editing photos, making videos, building websites, and recording DVDs. I can still remember the look of amazement on the face of an elderly woman as I showed her what her computer was capable of creating. As soon as she had some basic training, I saw that she quickly switched from frustration and disappointment to excitement and creativity.
While studying international business at San Diego State University, I embarked on a period of overseas study and work. I studied abroad at two universities in Brazil, learning how difficult and backward business could be in countries racked with corruption. I heard story after story about government officials demanding payoffs or relatives’ companies winning contracts. After finishing my studies abroad, I took a job at a nonprofit in Colombia, working on a microfinance crowdfunding website that facilitated donations to micro-entrepreneurs from poor communities. It was my first experience using technology for social good, and I started to get a sense of its immense potential for connecting people across borders.
After graduation, I left for the Peace Corps, serving for two years as an English teacher in a small town in Eastern Ukraine called Kupyansk. I taught English classes at a local school for students from the third to the eleventh grade, and worked on other projects to promote public health, youth leadership, and civic engagement in my off-hours. It was at this school that I began teaching basic productivity techniques to the youth of my Ukrainian village – how to make a schedule, how to formulate goals, how to identify existing resources, and other basic but useful skills. These lessons evolved into a summer camp program called Projects Bring Change, in which I taught a specially chosen group of campers how to plan and execute community service projects in their neighborhoods. We were featured in the local news, and my program was replicated at other camps for several years afterward.
I vividly witnessed that learning how to perform the most basic tasks – maintaining a personal agenda, identifying objectives, making meeting agendas, taking good notes – could completely transform the lives of young students. They graduated with life skills that made a meaningful difference in applying to universities and gaining well-paid jobs. These students used their skills to organize community service projects like trash cleanups and public art projects. I watched my group of students forge a new identity as doers and makers, and gain the confidence that they had control over their future.
I had to learn how to teach these productivity techniques in a way that made seemingly boring topics interesting and relevant, while overcoming barriers of language and culture. I researched active learning and communicative teaching, making my lessons into games, hands-on activities, and real-world exercises to make the learning stick. I came to believe that practical life skills were one of the greatest areas of need in youth education, but that they required new, more engaging ways of teaching.
Starting a career
I returned to the U.S. in 2012, settling in San Francisco for my first “real job” – as a Junior Analyst in a French innovation consulting firm. The firm helped its clients – typically large corporations – develop new products and services that would lead to new sources of revenue and even a new direction for the company as a whole. Working on websites, slide decks, and other digital products, I learned the power of good design to communicate a vision and the path to get there. I thought that I had left behind the days of cross-cultural communication, but instead found that the skills I had developed overseas – in empathy, adaptation, and problem-solving – were more relevant than ever.
As much as I was learning, I was also being overwhelmed by the demands of a fast-paced, technology-centric workplace. Struggling to keep up with the sheer amount of information and responsibilities I was expected to manage, I walked into a local bookstore and picked up the first book I thought would help – the best-selling book on personal productivity Getting Things Done by David Allen. GTD, as it is known, introduced me to the world of professional development, and gave me the tools to manage my overwhelming workload. The results I experienced were so immediate and profound, it sparked a desire to teach others the powerful methods the book had taught me. I started a book club with my coworkers to read through the book one chapter at a time, and discuss it over lunch once a week. The book club became a workshop, which I taught occasionally for the members of the coworking space where we worked.
I had discovered powerful demand for more modern, interactive, and flexible ways of learning about productivity. At the same time, the career path that stretched out before me became depressingly clear: I could expect a minor promotion and pay raise every year or two, at best, in return for my total dedication and effort. I saw that this path limited what I could achieve, not because of a lack of knowledge or skills, but because that was how the career ladder was structured. Instead of giving my creativity and ambition a wide open space to flourish, this path would pin me down in one specialized role after another.
But I still wasn’t ready to take the plunge into self-employment. I left the consulting job and started applying for various roles in the tech sector. But I couldn’t get so much as an interview for any of the positions I applied for. My skills and experiences were too random, too disconnected. There wasn’t any position I qualified for, and it was impossible to put my resume into any category besides “jack of all trades, master of none.” I knew that I had a lot to offer, but it seemed like the corporate world wasn’t designed to make use of it.
It was around this time that online courses caught my eye. I saw so much creativity and innovation happening at such a rapid pace, with people making an impact and sharing their ideas at the same time they achieved financial independence. I took my first online class, on the popular software language Ruby on Rails, in the spring of 2013. It was good, and certainly affordable, but I thought, “I can do better.” Drawing on my teaching experience, my newfound interest in visual design, my basic media skills learned at the Apple Store, and my passion for the GTD method, I turned my lunchtime workshop into an online course called Get Stuff Done Like a Boss. In the course, I taught people the GTD method via a series of short, easy-to-follow videos. The need for such a course was apparent – within a few months thousands of people from all over the world had completed it.
With the unexpected success of this first course, I decided to put off looking for a new job and pursue this opportunity full time. Thus was born Forte Labs, an online education company which as of 2019 has taught more than 20,000 paying customers to elevate their performance and personal effectiveness via online courses and live workshops. It has evolved over time, as I’ve created other courses and started offering services such as coaching to provide more personalized support. I started a blog, which gave me a public forum to begin exploring new topics such as habit formation, self-tracking, design thinking, and other fields like the theory of constraints, just-in-time manufacturing, and flow states. The blog became a testing ground where I could experiment with a wide array of ideas, and turn the ones that received the most interest into new products.
Around the same time I started my business, I was introduced to meditation. Picking up a book on the recommendation of a friend, I began a daily practice that has had a profound impact on my life. I don’t think I could have withstood the uncertainty and challenge of self-employment without a meditation practice. It helped balance my mind, calm my nerves, and gave me much needed perspective amidst the harrowing ups and downs of the entrepreneurial life. This experience sparked my interest in other kinds of personal and spiritual growth. I became a personal growth enthusiast, taking weekend workshops on self-empowerment, studying positive psychology, and investing in coaching to reveal my blind spots and limiting beliefs. These experiences were not only personally meaningful and rewarding; they also somehow led directly to breakthroughs in my work that I didn’t even expect. I began to see that personal and professional growth are deeply intertwined – that the expansion of the self is tied to the expansion of an audience or business, and that work can be the fuel for personal awakening.
Based on these realizations, I’ve made personal growth the central theme of my work. I believe that developing self-awareness is simply the most important and rewarding thing that humans can pursue. The possibility that the activity we spend most of our waking hours performing – work – can also be a path of personal growth seems like the most unlikely and fortunate coincidence. But it is a coincidence I am dedicated to exploiting to the greatest degree possible.
I’ve found that even highly educated knowledge workers in the most cutting-edge industries struggle with some of the same issues I saw in teaching my Ukrainian students – how to define goals, schedule their time, and manage projects to completion. I’ve seen how new technology, poorly applied and understood, can confuse and distract people rather than empower and free them. I’ve witnessed the spark of inspiration as people begin to see their computers as powerful tools of creation, rather than as burdens. I continue to discover the power of online platforms and good design in delivering paradigm shifts to a wide audience, which I first learned serving some of the poorest entrepreneurs and wealthiest corporations. And I’ve seen that all the material success in the world means nothing without the peace of mind that comes from self-love and self-understanding.
My mission is to radically improve the effectiveness of human beings while making their work a vehicle for personal fulfillment. I believe that work can be a profound source of creativity and pleasure, while at the same time enabling people to make a positive impact on society and the planet.
In pursuit of that mission, I write, speak, teach, and create products and services focused on helping people improve their productivity and personal effectiveness. I seek to introduce my followers and customers to paradigm-shifting new ideas about new ways of working. And to help them apply those ideas to add creativity and leverage to their workdays, build systems and habits for accomplishing more with less, and make their work a means of living a more fulfilling, more enjoyable, and more expansive life. I truly believe that if more people were able to turn their ideas into tangible outcomes in the real world, it could completely change the world we live in.
While the Internet has dramatically changed how modern work is executed, our mindset has failed to adapt. We were educated in institutions from the Industrial Era that taught us that information is finite, static, and scarce. But now we live and work in a world where information is infinite, dynamic, and abundant. Information is the fundamental building block of the world today, and our relationship to it determines everything from our quality of life, to the impact we’re able to make on the causes we care about.
My approach is “principles, not prescriptions.” Instead of doling out a stale list of productivity “tips and tricks” that ignore each person’s unique situation, I teach principles that anyone can adapt for themselves. I study diverse fields – including design thinking, behavioral science, user experience design, information science, and active learning – to identify both the latest research and the timeless principles that underpin human performance.
My goal is to synthesize everything I learn into practical methods that allow people to harness the power of technology. Now that technology is central to every company in every industry, we need new ways of managing our attention and focusing it where it matters most, instead of reacting to every interruption. Instead of being a constant source of distraction, I believe we can transform technology into a dependable source of learning, growth, and self-fulfillment.
Follow us for the latest updates and insights around productivity and Building a Second Brain on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn, and YouTube. And if you're ready to start building your Second Brain, get the book and learn the proven method to organize your digital life and unlock your creative potential.