I’m not sure if you can become smarter, but I think there are things we can do to be more effective thinkers. Here are things that have enriched my thinking ability in my own life:
Value thinking and Give Yourself Permission To Do So:
I write about this a lot, but the pervasiveness of smartphones, email obsession, and information portals often diverts our minds from actually thinking. Many people these days correlate digital activity with “getting ahead”. They assign value to it. “I’m going to respond to emails faster. I’m going to be more engaged on social media. I’m going to read more blog posts, thus absorb more information. If I do all of this I will be a better entrepreneur! YAY!”
This is a reactive existence. I can’t recall an entrepreneur crediting his success to reading blog posts all day. Sure it might warm your mental muscles up on the treadmill for a bit, but it pales in comparison to intentional, focused thinking in conjunction with execution.
So instead of lauding digital stimulation, assign value to thinking and give yourself permission to do so. This means being okay with not looking at something on your cell phone every free minute.
Again, I can’t recall many great minds that attribute their success to their ability to answer emails faster and consume more tweets. Rather, they credit the ability to focus, out-maneuver competitors, and think outside the box.
Write Your Thoughts Out:
Focusing is hard. There are usually no less than 10 things I want to be getting done at any point in time. If I’m not careful, I find myself jumping from one thought to the next to the next. Before you know it, I’m bopping back and forth between 10 different thoughts. In this state I find myself thinking about a lot of things, but never thinking really hard about one thing.
Putting my thoughts on paper allows me to focus on one thought or theme at a time. It serves as a guide to stay the mental course. The mere fact that I’m looking at a string of characters acts as a potent reminder that I should be thinking about them. This helps me avoid or extract myself from the state of cognitive belligerence I outlined above.
Carry A Notebook:
I have a moleskin notebook on me at all times. Partially for utility, partially because I want people to think I’m a some kind of mad scientist when I break stride in the middle of the sidewalk to whip out my notebook and feverishly write something.
In terms of thinking, this practice sets the conditions for me to be an astute observer of the world around me. It enables me to keep a repository of my fleeting thoughts as I go about my day. Instead of focusing on remembering something, I can quickly log it and direct my mind towards something else. Again the goal is to avoid juggling a million things to have purposeful, crystal thoughts.
The presence of my moleskin in my back pocket is also a gentle reminder that my time is best spent thinking instead of entering digital stimulation euphoria. Also known as looking at my cell phone.
Note, I’ve found taking notes on your phone to be highly ineffective compared to putting ink to paper. The last thing I want to do be doing is dangling distractions (email, twitter) every time I have a thought I want to remember. Do you scatter peanut butter cups around your house when you’re on a diet?
Notebooks are like cleats. I don’t need them to play football (or a notebook to think effectively). But man, I sure play better with them on.
Power Hour: Notebook Review
I usually have a lot of thoughts throughout a day that are disconnected. During the day I write the ones down I think I might want to remember and every 1-2 evenings I review them.
When all of my fleeting thoughts are laid out, I have a bird’s eye view of my mind. This makes the review very powerful. I see connections between things I never saw. I develop more cogent reasoning.
Think about the person trying to get somewhere by walking the streets using solely their intuition. Now juxtapose this with a guy whose got google maps. That’s what its like.
Reviewing your thoughts at a later hour is also awesome for creating new thoughts/ideas. The context of which I’m recalling these thoughts is different; more things have happened and I’m usually in a different physical location. All of these factors are great for idea generation.
*Note: The moleskin practice, and note taking in general, is far enhanced if you actually review your notes. Otherwise you’re just doing all of this work for far less return. Taking notes to make yourself feel better because the person next to you is, is not a good reason to take notes. Stop doing this.
Observe The Context of Your Best Thinking:
I try to be observant of the conditions I do my best thinking so that I can replicate this over and over.
I do my best thinking engaging in intermittent writing and reading. I read a page or two and every time I have an interesting thought I put pen to paper and just start riffing on that thought. Sometimes that means one sentence, sometimes it means a full page. It just depends. In a given “reating” session there usually ends up being an even split time wise between writing and reading. For some reason, I experience the highest levels of mental stimulation here.
I like to do this in the morning with a cup of coffee. At this point, I feel much less mental atrophy than at the end of the day.
Other random things I’ve noticed: Doing work in bookstores or on this bench by a fountain near my place seem to unlock some additional focus and creativity. I also notice the same thing with classical music.
In general, try to capture of the context of when you feel like you’re at your best. Find places and things that inexplicably unlock creativity. Once you find the NOS boosters for your mental horsepower let it fly! Dry, rinse, and repeat.
Surround Yourself With A Variety of Influences:
The things we decide to consume (inputs) directly effect what we say and think (outputs). If you read the same books and blogs everyone else does you’ll most liklely think like everyone else. If you only hang out with people that only talk about tech, you’ll spend more time thinking and talking about tech. Aside from this being mentally limiting, you also risk becoming the tool who has nothing more to talk about outside of who just raised money. This is bad.
I think trying to consume the same thing that everyone else is a losing strategy. Some people think the answer is more. More tech blogs does equal better entrepreneur! If anything, this equals lazy and/or fearful entrepreneur.
I’ve found that what really stretches my brain is consuming content and interacting with people that come from different sides of the tracks. This really pushes me to think and question things. That’s why I try to surround myself with content, people, and things from all walks. Its also why my social agenda stretches far beyond just tech parties.
The CEO of the company I work for Wiley said something to me about building a company that I think is really intelligent and in alignment with this notion. He told me that he’s not looking for people that think and act exactly like him. He wants people that think differently because these people bring new ideas to the table that he may have never thought about.
I agree with this strategy and think it says a lot about his humbleness, maturity and character.
I can’t claim this these things will work for anyone or that if you apply these concepts you’ll be churning out brilliant business ideas manana. All I can say is that they’ve had an awesomely positive effect in my own life and that I wish the same for anyone reading this.