Danielle Messler


  • On this episode, we introduce you to Nigel and Julian— two very important Thunk characters.
  • Nigel and Julian represent two parts of the creative process, and we get into how they’ll help you create more.
  • Andrew talks about the importance of building for yourself.
  • Andrew and Danielle talk about the powerful idea of digital gardens, and two key resources to learn more.

Episode Transcript

Andrew: Welcome to another episode of Find the Net. I'm Andrew, product designers, CEO, and creator of Thunk, a journaling app that lets you find patterns in your thinking.

Danielle: And I'm Danielle, a self-conscious creator and content strategist building Thunk's audience alongside Andrew.

Andrew: This podcast is an inside view of what it's like to build, launch, iterate on and grow a consumer application from the ground up.

Danielle: We're on a mission to get a thousand people using and loving Thunk, and we want to bring you along for the ride.

Andrew: As you listen to Find the Net, you'll learn from our mistakes and our wins. And you'll find new ways to approach your own creative journey. 

Both: Let's get into the episode!

Danielle: So, do we want to dive into our week in Thunk land?

Andrew: Yeah, let's do it.

Danielle: What happened for you? What was exciting?

Andrew: I'm really excited by the progress we're making in the tool. I think I finally feel really good about the direction we're going in. It's like coming full circle to the first document I ever wrote about what we're working on. And I'm sure we'll go into that at some point in the episode today. But that's always a good sign when you're like, oh, the fundamental thing that I started with, we're going back to that and we're refining on that. That's usually a good sign. So I'm really excited about that.

Danielle: Back to basics.

Andrew: And we've got this back linking thing which I think is the foundation of something that we're going to build a ton of value on top of. So I'm just thrilled that's alive.

Danielle: Yeah. It's really exciting to be going in that direction too. Especially this space just feels like it's getting so much bigger and there's so much room for different people to come in and find their place.

Andrew: Yeah, and it's the foundation upon which we can build the value and the direction that we believe, and the direction of the joy and the beauty and the fun, the delight. If we can infuse that on top of this core insight and that'll be different. It'll be our own take on it and it'll be fun.

Danielle: And that's actually where we left off last week. We were talking about Nigel and Julian and you know why they even exist, these two adorable little foxes. So maybe that's something we can talk about this week, why the fox is? What the fox, if you will?

Andrew: What the fox? Yeah. This is funny because the foxes we did really early in the process of branding, it was very quick that I went out and said, "Let's go hire someone to build us some really cute foxes."

Danielle: I remember you were sending me different styles from artists you were choosing from.

Andrew: Oh yeah, I sent you to all the artists that I was considering. I don't even know, where did that ... Did I tell you where that came from? The idea to do that? I honestly don't even remember.

Danielle: Weren't they going to be something else first? Not foxes. And then we liked the foxes.

Andrew: Oh, sheep.

Danielle: Yeah. It was going to be sheep. Because it was going to be the black sheep.

Andrew: The black sheep. Yeah, we had that whole conversation. And then gosh, did he create? I think he might've created a couple of different versions. He did a sheep and he did a fox, and the fox was just so strong. It was just really apparent that was the way to go.

Danielle: I feel like people really love foxes too. I do.

Andrew: The foxes are just the best animal ever. We did such a good job. We are the best. Maybe it comes down to an approach that I've always had, and it's a way of infusing my own self into what we're doing. I think probably the people that are attracted to be around me, and work on this thing also find this stuff appealing. Where we just have a little bit of fun with what we're doing, and that's really what Nigel and Julian are. And some of the marketers that I really admire, or they're not really marketers, but people who do marketing in a particular way, like Johnny Cupcakes really inspires me. There's this guy, Elan Lee, who did all the work on exploding Kittens, the campaign that they ran on Kickstarter.

Danielle: Oh my God, Exploding Kittens is so much fun.

Andrew: Yeah, and those guys just have some of the most awesome and fun, creative ways to market something. Elan, he worked with Nine Inch Nails and they did this thing with a CD where they put heat sensitive ink on it. So when it went into the CD player it looked one way, and when it came out it spun around and heated up and it looked different. I thought that was such an incredibly inventive way to handle a CD. He did this whole program for Halo, where they told a story of her payphones. And so these payphones around the country would just ring and you'd pick it up and some fan would listen to this story. And they were like forums as they try to reconstruct what they were telling. Johnny Cupcakes is a store that sells T-shirts, but it's called Johnny Cupcakes, and people are confused all the time and think that it's cupcakes. And they get really pissed off and he thinks that's hilarious. And so he will talk about.

Danielle: Except on April 1st, they actually do sell cupcakes.

Andrew: Yeah, even better. That's so funny.

Danielle: One day a year they actually have cupcakes in the shop.

Andrew: Totally. But that guy, he's just so fun to listen to and high energy, creative. So there's just so many fun things that I think you can do. And in software, I just feel like that isn't done as frequently. I wanted to have some a fun mascot for us and we were really big on morning pages and stuff like that at the time. But I think that that comes up, that idea of morning pages. But I think it's fundamental maybe to our customer, is this idea of creating. And this idea that there are these two parts of yourself, this critic and this inner child. And that in order to create we have to follow this sequential process.

It's like, first the inner child gets to hang out and the critic has to go somewhere else. And the inner child just gets all his ideas out and comes up with them, and then at some point that critic does need to come back and look at all the work and be like, "This is the good stuff and maybe this is the not so good stuff." And you have to trade in and out of these personalities. And shutting up the critic is one of the hardest things to do. I don't know, have you ever come across any difficulty with this in your work?

Danielle: Every day. Yeah, because it just comes in before you even realize it. I was even doing this in my morning pages this morning where I found myself stopping and staring out the window, thinking of the way to freeze something. And it's constantly checking yourself, just let it flow. Let it flow. Let it flow. And been reading the, Getting Things Done, book right now.

Andrew: Classic.

Danielle: David Allen.

Andrew: The front of that is so funny. He's wearing that ridiculous suit. It's so funny because it looks like it's going to be the worst business book, but it's actually really thoughtful about, yeah, yeah. It's not like a suit guy thing, it's a really thoughtful approach to just work in general.

Danielle: Yeah. And it's very honest about where people are. I feel like a lot of business books, they really more speak to this ideal human being that doesn't exist in real life. So anyways, I was reading, or I am reading, Getting Things Done, and there was a passage when I was reading earlier today, actually, that was talking about that in a section on when you're starting a project you need to brainstorm.

And it was saying in the book, if you even care slightly what your critic thinks, and this is even in the context of other people, if you're brainstorming different ideas, you stop focusing on the ideas and solving the problem and you start editing yourself, which is what we've been talking about. And that actually limits your capacity for ideas. And if you really need to be in that other state of mind, which is Julian, the inner child who's playful and just curious and asks why, and doesn't think anything is a bad idea inherently because kids don't.

Andrew: Yeah. There's this book. Gosh, I think it's by the folks that founded IDEO, I can't even remember the name of it. It's something about creativity. But there's this funny part of that, which really resonated with me, where they talk about going into a kindergarten and laying a bunch of paper and crayons and watercolors on the table. And if you do that and you just step back, these kindergartners, they'll just grab the paper and start drawing stuff and painting. And they will have zero hesitancy to start creating. That is the inner child just literally being children and living through their own existence.

If you were to do the same thing, if you went to any conference room at any business and you laid out the exact same paper and the exact same crayons and the exact same water colors, and you left the room, everyone would just sit there patiently waiting for instructions about what to do. Nobody would grab the paper and just start drawing. And that's because that critic gets pretty loud over time, and yeah. So these guys, these little characters, I think, are a really fun way to personify that, talk about that.

I personally am having an awful lot of fun just going into our Slack channel and just saying stuff as these characters. Because they are a part of us, right? There's this part that wants to just have a good time and play and then there's this critic. The funny thing is it's easy to look at that critic and think, God, I hate this person. They're the problem. If we could just have no critic, everything would be great. And of course that's a lie, it's not really true. That part is your taste. That part is the part that makes things, really separates the things that are worth pursuing versus the things that are not, and we absolutely need it. But it actually has this really funny use for us which is we can joke as a team when we're being really particular about something like, oh, Nigeling so hard on this. Like, I'm being a total Nigel on this.

Danielle: Or when I go down a rabbit hole in a thread on 10 different subjects, I'm just like, oh, that was really Julian of me.

Andrew: Very Julian. Yeah. I don't know, it brings humor to our interactions with each other. And I think that's such a hard thing to maintain in a company. It just so quickly can become this thing where it's not fun anymore and we're not enjoying ourselves. We're not seeing and playing with those different parts of our personality that come out throughout the course of what is ultimately a creative act, which is creating Thunk, putting it out there into the world.

Danielle: Even just if we zoom out for a minute in the space in general, we're still going through our positioning and what exactly is Thunk? What are we exactly creating?

Andrew: We're getting good. We're getting good though.

Danielle: We are.

Andrew: It's not done yet, but it's a lot better than it was.

Danielle: And in this space in general, this note taking, personal knowledge management, it's just been so sterile and academic. I'm writing my PhD and I am researching how molecules react to, I don't even know another word to go with molecules. And that's something we're doing like really differently. And I think Julian and Nigel are a really good example of that because it's more, okay, it's fun, it's learning, it's creating, rather than this really academic act. That's what sucked all the fun out of everything is writing those five paragraph essays and teaching there is one way to do things, and stop asking questions. And we're doing that really differently. It's even part of our mission that we want joy and beauty and delight.

Andrew: Yeah. It's a spirit that I want more for myself. It's a way of approaching life that I want more for myself, and for everyone, honestly. It is something that is sorely lacking in general adulthood, and even maybe in a very concentrated format, lacking in whatever we want to call this personal knowledge management space that's going on. It's it was born out of, I think a lot of very intellectual type people and that's a great thing. I'm glad that this is around and I am definitely a nerd, and I'd be lying if I pretended that that stuff didn't appeal to me.

But it is really true that there isn't a lot of fun happening. And there is a lot of very serious discussions about personal knowledge management. And sometimes, I don't know, here's a good question for you, D. I don't know if you think this is true, but I do, so I'm curious what you think.

Is it possible that the tools or the space has suffered from this thing where people are getting excited about the possibility of the tools? Which I think is real, like these network thinking and this different approach. It is exciting and powerful. But sometimes I feel like the entire industry is just noodling with information and not really producing anything. And that, to me is really contrary to what I want to do, which is help people create stuff. I don't know. Do you think that's happening? Do you see that differently or similarly?

Danielle: Yeah. It's almost like it's a race to collect the most knowledge, but I don't know what we're really doing with it, if that makes sense. And I get caught up in that too, where I'm like, oh, I read this article and then I did my notes and then I put them here and blah, blah, blah. And it has been helpful for me writing weekly because I'm able to use that functionality to remix those thoughts, but there's definitely more being produced around the potential of the tools than realizing, if that makes sense.

It's, look, I can connect all my thinking and I can do XYZ, and make this idea. And it wasn't even targeted at a specific tool, but it was the Collector to Creator course with Nuss labs that was the first thing I've seen that actually breaks down how you do it, and then gives you the outcome you want to find. Like you're remixing your ideas and you're curating, and then you're taking this information you've pulled and you're putting it into a different tool in your mind mapping. And then you get to these different ideas is what you then produce as an outline. And then you write that, that's what you ended up producing. But yeah, a lot in this space, I feel like, is very much just around, this is amazing you can link your thoughts. And less of, these are the thoughts I linked.

Andrew: Yeah. And the funny thing about that course you're mentioning is it's in the name, right? Collector to Creator. And that's what I believe in, and why I want creators, I want to help people be creators. I want to make more creators. I want more creators in the world. And I think that's something that we'll continue to strive towards with the tool is just, it's great if you're networking, you're thinking. It's great if you're connecting your thoughts and I believe in it. I obviously wouldn't be building a tool in this space if I didn't think there was value in it. But I really am most interested in it as a precursor to creating more, to putting more out there, to giving more to the world. And that's something that I think we want to think about a lot. Are we doing that? Are we enabling that? Are we letting people create? And I think we will because that's what we're trying to do.

Danielle: It feels really productive to collect all this information and process it and put notes in. So it's this idea of productivity porn, and I don't know what you would call this, knowledge porn, something like that? I don't know. Where you're just collecting all these thoughts and notes and ideas, and then that feels really productive so you're like, okay, I don't really need to do anything more. Like I get on Sundays and I'm like, all right, I've planned my week and I'm done. Right?

Andrew: Yeah.

Danielle: That was all the work.

Andrew: Yeah. This phase is fairly inundated with the productivity porn, as you put it. There are infinite YouTube videos of, here's how I set up my room. Here's how I set up my notion. Here's how my obsidian graph looks. Here's how, and there's all this conversation about how to use these things. And maybe that's part of the evolution that we're in right now, and maybe that's a great thing. I don't want to crap on what is an awesome, exciting thing that's happening, but it's a hundred percent the case that I think you can lose yourself in the fun of noodling with these tools.

And you can forget that it's just a tool. I love the tool analogy because it reminds you that it's just like a hammer. I feel like people are adjusting the grip on their hammer for three days straight, and they're not hammering any nails into place. You know what I mean? What good is the tool if you're just continually messing with the tool? We got to get to output and we've got to get to actually being better at what we're trying to do with the tool.

Danielle: Do you think that part of that is the intimidation factor of the space being more academic than it is, I think, playful or typical creator space? I don't even know what a typical creator space looks like.

Andrew: Yeah, there certainly are some things that we could call creative spaces like a maker-space would be an example. I think that the intellectual angle, what it might do is exacerbate an already existing, underlying fear. And we talked about publishing fear I think before that's an underlying fear that's just there whether you're getting intel or not. But if that exists, and then you have all these people trying to produce things, and there's this intellectual tone going on, it just makes the fear worse because you're thinking you're intimidated. And intimidation is just going to exacerbate the already existing Nigel inside of you. That's not right. That's not going to be good enough. Your notes aren't as good as an [inaudible] notes. Tiago Forte wouldn't do that. That's not that interesting. And that voice, I think, gets a lot louder when the tone of this space is intellectual, and when the tone of this space is everyone's acting really smart.

I think we talked last week about the expert and how that's the comfortable place to be. So the scene is these intellectual experts who are telling you here's how to do it. And that's cool, we need those people. But I do think that the energy, it does inhibit. It does get in the way of things because we don't have a underlying maybe culture of openness and play. There are communities and people that give that off, like it's okay to play here. And maybe that's what we need. Like somehow an energy that just says, it's okay to play. It's okay to have fun. It's okay to publish things that are not done. That's what the digital gardening thing is.

Danielle: Yeah. I feel like we've talked a lot about this idea of a digital garden and I think, is it Maggie Appleton who has the really good overview?

Andrew: Yes, she does. Anne-Laure also has some great stuff. But Maggie has some very strong stuff and Maggie's stuff goes to the next level of visualizing it.

Danielle: Yeah. I'm going to have to check that out. It's on my to read list. Going, because I just collect.

Andrew: The best part is you don't even have to read. You could probably just go and look at her pretty pictures and you'd take something away from it.

Danielle: We should bring back more picture books for adults.

Andrew: Yes. We should bring back picture books. We should bring back all of those fun things.

Danielle: I feel like it's also easier for our brains to handle because we think in concepts, we're just translating it into words. And sometimes concepts resonate much more fully when you see it drawn out and you can imagine the whole picture of what something is and get that context.

Andrew: Yeah, totally. I was reading one of her articles that was about metaphor, and she gave the examples that our brains actually interpret everything through metaphor. And that metaphor is perhaps, not so much what we learn in school, or at least this is the way I learned it. That it's this literary flourish that you can do.

In this article, she talks about a book called Metaphors We Live By. In the book they make this assertion that your brain fundamentally understands almost everything as a metaphor. And that jives with this idea that we have this tree of knowledge and we're building on it and building on it, and we're relating things, and we're associating them. Also probably why these network thinking tools are so popular. But they give us these great concrete examples of this. So they talk about a couple of examples of metaphor, argument is war and time is money. And they prove actually very easily that we have these metaphors deeply embedded into our mind and our culture.

Danielle: Okay. I feel like I'm just going to have to read this book now because I'm thinking of, are there different metaphors in Chinese or Hindi or French or Spanish, or all of the other world languages that then shape those cultures like that too?

Andrew: I think there are and I'm hoping that the book goes into all that stuff because I literally just read the first chapter. They also point out, and Maggie gives some illustrations for this, that what metaphor does is it hides certain aspects of things and it emphasizes other aspects of things. I think definitely other cultures have different metaphors through which they view things, and in a way, that's hard for us to even get our heads around because our whole worldview is rooted in these metaphors. Our whole way of thinking is rooted in the blind belief that this is true.

Danielle: It's interesting because I'm thinking of an article I read from a woman named Paulina. She writes, The Profile, which is a really popular newsletter. And she wrote something, I forget where she grew up, I think maybe Bulgaria, I don't remember. She's bilingual, she speaks two languages and she wrote something on how her personality is slightly different in English than it is in her native tongue. And that's just so interesting to me that your brain can give you a different personality just because of the words you're speaking and using, and it's super interesting.

Andrew: No, I've heard people talk about dreaming in other languages and how their experience is different when they're dreaming in the one language versus another. And maybe to bring this whole thing back to Thunk and what we're working on, once I started to read this book and realize that, okay, we do really interpret the world through metaphor, and we do have this tree of knowledge that we just stack these metaphors on top of.

And then we have this idea of digital gardening. And then we have this idea of this thinking tool that's connecting stuff. And maybe we're at just the rudimentary level of, okay, A and B are associated with one another, these two ideas that I wrote notes about. But once I start to do that, I can really unpack my thinking in a very different way. We haven't really had a lot of tools that mimic this idea where I can state in the tool, here's an association, here's an association between these two things that might seemingly be different. And then there's the second degree things that are maybe not obviously, okay, yeah these two things are associated, but A and B are associated, but also B and C are associated. So are C and A associated with each other? Like maybe, I don't know.

Danielle: That was another part of something I was reading in, Getting Things Done today about this idea that you can only hold a certain amount of things in your working memory, and remember. So your ability to connect to those is pretty limited to do within your own control. If your mind makes the association, that's great, but when you get it all out onto paper, or paper pen or whatever, into Thunk, and you can start to make those connections a lot more easily because you're not like struggling to hold on to them all anymore too, which is such a power. Why this new tool, this new networked thinking space is so powerful because things aren't siloed in linear files anymore. They're all there, and they're connected, which is how our brains work.

Andrew: Yeah. Yeah. I want to go back to that idea of play and I almost want to think of it as, you write it down, you connect it, and then it's in the play space, and now you can play with it. Now you can see it. Now you can associate it. Now you can mess around with those things that were just ideas in your head at one point. They were just things that you were passing in your linear thing just randomly, or maybe even not jumping around, just spouting off ideas and stuff.

And if you capture that stream you can mess around with it. And once you've externalized it and put it in a place you now are interacting with your thoughts in this really different way. In this way where you can take 20 of them or 10 of them, or things that are really not seemingly related to one another, but you can see there's a vague association here. What if I play with that? What if I elaborate on that? What if I just draw a connection here and then make a new card that explains that new note? That explains that connection? That's something that is a really exciting idea, but I don't think has really been realized yet.

Danielle: And fundamentally it's so much of that fun aspect. I'm thinking of being a little kid and playing with Legos. And having all of the Legos of all these different sizes all scattered around and I have the instructions and I've made the thing, and then I'm like, okay, that's done. Great, I still have this bucket of Legos.

And it's, what if I put this here? What if I tried to do this? Or what if I took this bridge from building Hogwarts over here to building this car over here, something. Clearly I've been playing with Legos recently. But it's that curiosity of, I wonder if this works. I wonder if this relates to this. I wonder. I feel like we get very limited in our own practicality in a way, and it's the critic, but it's also this idea that maybe some of our parents put into us of, you have to be practical. Like, it's practical to learn that. And we just don't have a lot of fun anymore for things.

Andrew: Yeah. Yeah. I don't know if we've talked about this on the podcast before, but at some point decided some of my friends who I love dearly are suffering from what I call, practicality bias. Which is when they're thinking of business ideas, or they're thinking of things that, particularly business ideas, it always has to sound good. It has to make sense when you say it to somebody out loud, that they're like, oh yeah, I understand that people need money so they're going to pay for this thing. Or people need this, that, and the other thing. And one of the most ridiculous things that, one of the first things I made was this ridiculous fake shaving app. This could not be farther from practicality. And one of my very good friends who I love, was just like, "What are you doing?"

Like, "Why are you spending your time doing this?" Not in a mean way. He wasn't being a jerk about it, he was just like, "I really don't understand why this appeals or has any interest." And then years later he said to me, he's like, "I did not understand what you were doing with that thing at all. And you showed me a different way of thinking because it worked." I saw how many people played with that thing and interacted with it. And I often think that because we play so little we don't value this entertainment and play. And we lose sight of the fact that Hollywood is this massive industry that's just designed to entertain us. Media is gigantic business.

Danielle: Even when all the shutdowns were happening for COVID and stuff, I remember seeing something that was just, it was some pithy comment about, your arts degree isn't essential now. And then someone was like, literally all you're doing is watching Netflix. Who do you think is making those? Scientists? No, it's artists that make all of your entertainment and most of the things we look forward to doing at the end of the day. Reading or watching Netflix, or reading an article or something.

Andrew: And those stories give us meaning too. They are the lens. They ended up being the lens through which we interpret our lives.

Danielle: I was having this conversation the other day. It's in everything. Marketing is stories. It's not like this has helped Andrew become X times more productive [crosstalk].

Andrew: Yeah. That's such a good example of ridiculous marketing. One of my favorite articles about this is actually about the Nest thermostat. Where they talk about the emotion of hardware, the decision-making. Really, really brings home a powerful concept which is that people make the decision to buy things with their emotional brain, and then they rationalize it. But we think that it works the other way around. We think that we make it rationally, but in fact, that's not what happens at all. The example within this thermostat that they give is that the Nest thermostat has the most rational copy that you could imagine. Nest helps you save money. That's the focus of a lot of their messaging. But their imagery tells you a very different story. Their imagery tells you no other thermostat in the world looks this good. This is for somebody who values aesthetics.

This is for somebody who has taste, who wants a beautiful home. And you're going to be the coolest bro in the block when do you get this nest thermostat. Which is how you sell it to your spouse. Like very thought out. Like that's the conversation that happens. You want to spend $250 on a thermostat, are you kidding? Yeah, but we're going to save money. This is an investment. Genius, genius, genius. To drive it home, they show you a Nest ad and then they Photoshop in like a Honeywell thermostat that's in that classic beige color that computers used to be made in before Apple sprung onto the scene. You know?

And it really shows you that if you just put that ugly thermostat in there, you probably wouldn't buy it. You probably wouldn't go for it. Because that decision-making is made in this part of your brain that's totally not rational at all. And it's fascinating to learn that and to see companies focus on telling you these stories as a way to market to you and get you to make a decision that makes you feel good. And I love the way that you put it, like connect with these things that we interact with.

Danielle: I love the idea of this practicality bias. I think we should dig into that next week because I think there's a lot to explore there.

Andrew: Great, let's do it.

Thank you for listening to this episode of Finding The Net. If you're interested in trying out Thunk, you can send us an email to We're in the midst of our beta program and we'd love to have you join us. We'll talk to you next week.

Danielle: Thanks for listening. And you can always catch us on Twitter @danielleismessy and @nalband. Exactly like it sounds.

Andrew: Bye-bye.

Danielle: Bye.