A person’s mind is their most powerful tool. Yet very few people take intentional steps toward “upgrading” their brain and trying to become smarter. Here are some scary statistics from an article in The Economist:
- In 1991 a worker with a bachelors degree earned 2.5 times as much as a high-school drop out.
- In 2010 a worker with a bachelors degree earned 3 times as much as a high-school drop out.
There is an obvious trend toward paying people who have “upgraded their brain” more money. This probably isn’t too surprising, but consider this:
- 42% of people who graduate from college never read another book.
Wow! 42%!? To me that says that a good number of people get out of college and just assume they have arrived–no need to work on getting any smarter. Obviously there are ways to learn other than reading books, but books have traditionally been and still are one of the main ways you acquire formal knowledge. If you aren’t reading, it is very unlikely you are growing. It is even less likely that you are actually getting smarter in ways that have value outside of the tasks you do on a weekly basis.
In this post, we are going to look at seven ways to upgrade your brain. They are:
- Get a degree
- Seek out new experiences
- Do things that are hard
Reading is the primary way we educate ourselves. If you aren’t reading, you are doing yourself a huge dis-service. With only a few exceptions, I’d go as far as to say that if you aren’t reading your brain is dying. Reading is the fundamental bedrock of upgrading your brain and becoming smarter. You have to read regularly.
Not all reading methods and not all reading contents are equal. There is a very big difference between reading on a computer and reading a physical book. A few months ago I read a study that compared reading on an iPad or Nook to reading a book and the researchers found that people remembered less when reading from the iPad. It had something to do with the way we perceive a lighted surface vs. a reflective one. Perhaps because we associate lighted surfaces with TV and are less engaged.
Reading on the Internet is also quite different from reading a book. A book presents a clear start and end point. There are also more barriers to publishing a physical book than getting something up on the web. Chances are a book will have more thought behind it than an article published on a web page. In addition, it is much easier to jump from place to place on the web so Internet articles don’t typically require or inspire the same level of concentration as what you might need for an intense book.
I’m not saying that reading from the Internet is bad. The web is an incredible tool and gives us access to information that would have been impossible in the past. However, we need to take care to not let it crowd out our traditional reading. We also need to be careful to use the Internet for things that the Internet is good for and use books for things books are good for. The Internet is great for looking up a single fact–something that can take a very long time with a book. Books are great for deeply studying a subject. (Obviously there are exceptions depending on what you are researching, but this is still true in general.)
So what should you read? Here are some suggested categories:
- Classic books
- Books related to your area of your current expertise.
- Books related to the expertise you will need to be competitive in 10 years.
- Books on topics from a completely different field.
For example, a computer programmer might read The Scarlet Letter for category 1. A book on advanced features of their programming language for category 2. A book on business management for category 3 and a book on neuroscience or physics for category 4.
An entry level accountant might read:
- Moby Dick
- A book on best accounting practices
- A book about preparing for the CPA exam
- A book on social media
This type of approach will help make sure you are getting a well rounded reading experience that helps prepare you for today AND tomorrow. Obviously there is nothing to keep you from reading other books like current fiction, etc. However, if all of your reading falls outside of these four categories, you probably are reading more for entertainment than for upgrading your brain.
Get a(nother) degree
If you don’t have a college degree, get one. However, keep in mind that not every degree is equal. You can get a diploma without necessarily learning very much just like you can become very smart without getting a diploma. You need two things from a degree:
- You need the recognition that comes from having a formal college degree.
- You need the knowledge that comes from having worked hard at an academic pursuit.
Society has decided that everyone should go to college. Because of this people without a degree have a much harder time at getting jobs. Colleges have responded by lowering standards so a degree doesn’t mean as much as it use to–particularly from some institutions.
This is why it is worth putting the extra effort into getting a degree that is well recognized and that will give you the best educational experience. We will discuss choosing a good school later on.
If you already have a degree, the same thing applies. Get another one. To be competitive in todays job market, most people are going to need the training and recognition that comes from studies beyond the bachelors level. Usually a master’s degree is a good choice, but there are graduate certificate and citation programs that can be excellent options. Even if you are pursuing a master’s degree, a graduate citation can be an excellent stepping stone that gives you a way to quantify your education as you pursue your master’s degree. A resume that shows a graduate citation in X is better than a resume that shows you took some random classes.
When you get a degree, you are taking on the reputation of the school where you studied. The expectations that people have from a Yale graduate are different than the expectations of someone from a small community college. These expectations can strongly influence how people perceive you. If people think you are smart you will appear smart and they will think your ideas are good. (See this experiment for a better explanation of this phenomenon.)
This means that where you go to school can determine your ability to get interesting work. Having interesting work can be one of the best ways to upgrade your brain because it keeps you mentally active. So choosing a school is about more than just the academics and the educational experience. It is also about what type of opportunities it will give you and how rich those opportunities will be.
In the same spirit, you need to choose a school based on what type of academic experiences you will have. Generally you want to attend somewhere that you will be in the middle to top 75%. If you are the best student, you won’t have the same push toward your maximum capabilities. It is very healthy to have at least a few people in every class who can outperform you if you don’t try very hard. However, you don’t want to go to a school where everyone is so far above you that you can’t take advantage of the special opportunities that surround the academic environment.
If you are getting your first degree and just starting college, I’d suggest getting it in person at a traditional university–especially if you are a recent high school graduate. State schools offer reasonable tuition and can be very affordable. There is a local school here where one can pay for everything without loans while working full time during the summer and part time during the school year making minimum wage.
For your second degree, you may find that online degrees or some of the programs like an executive MBA are more suited to your social, family, career and employment situation. You have to be a bit more careful in selecting a school for an online degree as their reputation can vary much more than that of established traditional institutions. I would highly recommend pursuing something like my Master’s Degree from Harvard. It was very cost effective, fairly flexible and Harvard generally keeps a good academic reputation particularly compared with the reputation of some other online schools.
The real “brain upgrade” value of a degree is the way that it will force you diversify. You can’t just study the stuff that comes easy to you. A degree from a good academic institution is a well designed package to give you a well rounded education including studying things that you might not study on your own. My undergrad degree is in music composition, but I had to take a lot of classes outside of the topic of music. At my school I even had to take a physical education class and run three miles each semester in less than 21 minutes. To graduate you also had to prove you knew how to swim well enough that you wouldn’t drown should you accidentally fall in a lake. Obviously making sure I could swim wasn’t directly related to music composition, but it is part of what the college decided a well rounded person should know how to do.
At Harvard, I was studying software engineering. One of the required classes was on computational theory. It studies the theoretical aspects of what type of problems can be solved by a computer and what type of problems can’t. For the most part, it isn’t something you need to know to write typical software. However, the real value is in the way it changed my thinking. It forced me to learn a different area of mathematics. I can point to turning point insights I’ve had in areas unrelated to software engineering that were only possible because of the different way of thinking I learned in that class.
Seek out new experiences
Our brains grow when we do something new with them. If you aren’t doing anything new, your brain is not growing. Reading new books, studying new topics, going back to get another degree are all things that can help give your brain new experiences. But what about more mundane things? Here are some ideas of simple things you can do that will help give you new experiences.
- Brush your teeth with your non-dominate hand a few times each week.
- Read a section of the newspaper or a magazine that you’d normally never touch.
- Go into a store that you’ve never had any desire to visit.
- Draw pictures
- Draw pictures with your non-dominate hand
- Drive to work a different way.
- Cook a type of food you’ve never had before.
- Watch a few movies that are in a different language.
- Attend a lecture on a topic you know nothing about.
- Spend a few hours in municipal court as an observer.
- Attend a city commission meeting.
- Go to a restaurant that is primarily frequented by people who aren’t in your age group.
- Learn to juggle. (I highly recommend this.)
- Do your work outside for a few hours.
- Strike up conversations with people you normally wouldn’t talk to.
- Visit a library you’ve never been in.
- Browse a section of a library that you’ve never been in.
- Attend an art display in a style you don’t particularly care for.
- Attend musical recitals for different instruments and a modern composer.
- Take the stairs in a building where you’ve only taken the elevator.
- Listen to a different radio station.
- Spend some time reading in the room in your house where you spend the least amount of time.
- If you have land or a yard, go stand in part of it where you don’t think you’ve ever been before.
- Try out a different operating system. (Many can run from a CD. See Haiku and Ubuntu)
- Go to a school board meeting.
- Go star gazing.
- Write a letter to someone you’ve never written to before.
- Ask an older relative about the things they remember when they were your age.
None of those activities are likely to be life changing. However, each one will change you just a little bit and each one will give you brain something new to think about and process.
We think all the time, but most of us don’t spend any structured, intentional time just thinking. We think just enough to start our next action. There is great value in taking the time to deliberately sit and think. One of the reasons we don’t do this is because it usually just becomes day dreaming. Day dreaming isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it isn’t as directed as what we are trying to achieve by sitting and thinking.
The funny thing about thinking is that there really isn’t that much information on how to go about doing it. There are books like How To Think Like Leonardo da Vinci that are interesting but tend to focus on how to be creative less than on how to just think. On one hand this is disappointing, but on the other it makes sense. Thinking is a huge category and it is going to be very difficult for one person to explain how they think to someone else. What I’m going to do here is to try to give you some guidelines for productive thinking that work well for me. Obviously you’ll have to find what works for you and adjust things to fit your personal needs, but these should give you a start.
1. Decide what you are going to think about
To be really productive your thinking needs to be directed. Here are some things you might want to spend some time thinking about:
- Your career plans and how to get the most out of your current job.
- A business idea.
- Personal goals – clarifying what you want to achieve and life and how to reach those achievements.
2. Find a quiet place without a lot of distractions
What qualifies as a distraction is going to be different for different people and may vary depending on what you are thinking about. A distraction free environment for clarifying your personal goals might be a coffee shop, but if you are working on coming up with a mathematical theorem, the same coffee shop might be full of distractions.
3. Write down what you hope to accomplish
Without a plan you won’t know if you accomplished what you set out to do. Get it down on paper to make sure you are clear what you want to get out of this “thinking session.” Your goal can be as specific or as general as necessary, but try to choose something that you can tell if you succeeded or not. Writing down “think about businesses” isn’t something that you can really quantify as having done or not–or at least it is hard to tell if you really accomplished anything. “Come up with 3 ideas for a business I can run from home” is a bit easier to claim success.
4. Take notes
This may sound funny. Why would you take notes of your thinking? Getting something down on paper lets you see your though process much more easily than when it is just in your mind. Thinking is the process of interacting with information and getting some of that information out in front of you is a great way to focus and be creative. These don’t need to be formal notes. You can jot ideas, draw diagrams, doodle pictures or create mind maps to help clarify what you are thinking.
Musicians and sports figures constantly practice, but most other people never practice. If you can find a way to practice your skills, you can become better at what you do. Practice can make you faster, more efficient and better at your job. The trick is to find a small unit that you can repeat in a way that will increase your skill.
Here are some ideas of things you might be able to practice:
- If you are slow at typing, practicing typing for 15 minutes per day can have a great return on investment.
- Public speaking is something that can be practiced and good presentation skills are essential to many careers.
- Writing is a skill that can be practiced. Few people wouldn’t benefit from being able to write a bit better.
Some fields even have competitions setup to help you practice. For example, TopCoder lets programmers compete to solve short programming challenges. Other disciplines have competitions or other ways that you can potentially practice.
Writing is underrated. The discipline of getting thoughts from your head onto paper is very valuable and you can learn a lot simply by writing down your ideas and observations. Writing is the process of making your thoughts concrete and visible. it allows you to clarify what you are thinking and refine your ideas. Writing makes you smarter because it forces you deeper into a topic and shows you areas of your topic that you don’t fully understand. For example, I recently wrote a post about finite state machines to help clarify my understanding and make sure I hadn’t forgotten anything in the 5 years since I took a class on the topic. Not only was the exercise good for me by forcing me to think deeply about the topic again, but the interactions with people who read it and had suggestions, corrections or disagreements was personally rewarding.
I started Productivity501 in 2005 and the practice of writing on a regular basis has been extremely valuable to my career. I highly recommend starting at least a personal blog. A personal blog can cover pretty much any topic and gives you a way to get your content up where others can benefit from it and interact with you. It is a lot easier to have the motivation to write when you know someone might/will read it and a blog gives you that type of exposure without needing to do any type of extensive setup or expensive publishing.
Do things that are hard
I’ve talked about the importance of reading things that are hard, but the same concept applies to doing things that are hard. Doing things that are difficult raises your ceiling and increases your capabilities.
I’ve heard of basketball coaches that put a smaller ring inside of the basketball hoop during practice. This makes it a lot harder for players to make baskets during practice, but when the game comes and they are practicing on a normal sized hoop it seems much easier to make shots. They make practice harder in order to raise the bar on their performance when it really matters.
In some ways, this suggestion sounds like the suggestion to find things to practice and there is some overlap. However, doing things that are hard can involve doing big projects and larger scale work than finding something small that you can practice over and over again. If tackle writing a 100 page research paper, the 5 page papers you are subsequently assigned will seem trivial in comparison. A builder who completes a 10,000 sq. foot luxury home is probably going to find managing the construction of smaller sized homes much easier after they have stretched themselves to manage the larger construction project.
If you want your brain to be operating at its peak capabilities, you need to constantly be asking yourself, “When was the last time I did something where I felt truly challenged? When was the last time where I was seriously worried that I might fail?” If you haven’t had any of those experiences recently, you may need to seek out a difficult assignment or project in oder to make sure your brain isn’t becoming stagnant.
Your brain is your most valuable asset. Many people leave their brain’s development up to chance. If you want to safeguard against becoming stale and irrelevant you need to make a conscious effort to upgrade your brain, develop your skills and insure that you are moving forward–not backwards.