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RIP: The External 🧠

CJ Chilvers
CJ Chilvers
2 min read

Last week, while everyone was arguing over who the next social media giant was going to be, Evernote laid off its entire U.S. staff:

“Evernote, the app that has sought for two decades to find a large paying audience for its ‘external brain,’ is moving its operations to Italy, home of its parent company Bending Spoons. It's yet another big shift for a company that's been useful, but not quite profitable, since at least 2004.”

The story of Evernote is about greed, not ambition. To summarize: Short term revenue goals betrayed long-term customer relationships. Then everyone just waited for years as it all wound down.

That’s not really what’s unique about this story. What’s unique is that Evernote is based on the outdated ideal of an “external brain.”

Evernote was the first “external brain” company. They coined the term. Tiago Forte’s “second brain” system didn’t come along until much later, along with Notion and the like.

Cal Newport ripped into the idea of “second brains” recently on his podcast:

“What we're missing here is that most people have not saturated their first brain. Let’s focus on that first before we care about how we need to cybernetically augment that with another system.
This is what I see as the difference between serious thinkers and others. To saturate your primary brain is to actually spend time with information — to walk and think, and talk it through, and to bat it around, and test it out in different types of essays.
The effort to get your primary brain to be as sophisticated as possible can be a lifelong effort.
Digital tools are great for supporting the human brain. But I am a big believer that most of us are so far from getting the most out of our primary brain that it’s not really time to think about outsourcing thinking yet.”

Hell yeah.

The industry of creators that has sprung up around some of these companies, selling robo-mind-creator-preneur hope to people, who probably need just need vacations and/or medications, is disturbing – but expected.

I won’t shed a tear for Evernote. External brains are rarely needed to create. Looking back, they’ve only been useful to me when writing reference material, which is pretty rare.

Cal is right. The most prolific thinkers aren’t thinking with external brains.

If you’re a photographer, take more pictures.

If you’re a writer, produce more text.

The tools will work themselves out.