Great success in life is usually the result of taking advantage of rare opportunities. So success is most likely to come to those who are prepared to take advantage of opportunities. One of the most important aspects of being prepared for any opportunity is making an intentional effort to avoid becoming dumb. I know that sounds silly, but it is very easy to find people around you who haven’t kept themselves in mental shape. When opportunities come their way, they miss out because they lacked the right knowledge, frame of mind, or mental stamina.
Just like a muscle, your brain needs exercise. Far too many people get stuck in a rut of old habits and never really exercise their mind. Here are 9 things you can do to give you mind a workout.
- Learn to Notice — As adults, we often train ourselves to ignore “unimportant” details. In many situations, when faced with downtime, our mind basically shuts off because there isn’t anything interesting going on. If you can train yourself to consciously notice your environment you can keep your brain at work during these periods. Here are some examples:
- When stuck on the subway, notice the people around you. Can you figure out where they are going? Are they married or single? How much education do they have? What is their income level?
- When waiting for your order at a fast food restaurant, can you tell which worker has been there the longest?
- Listen to Classical Music — Music from the classical period has well defined structure. Spending a little time each day really listening will help your brain expand in pattern recognition and concentration skills. Mozart piano sonatas are an excellent place to start.
- Listen for similarities and contrasts. Classical music usually repeats large sections. Try to identify these.
- Think in terms of overall form. Did the piece follow an ABA form or AABA?
- Try to go see live music. A local college is likely to have several concerts for free or a very low price. Also, senior recitals are an excellent way to hear music.
- Read Well Written Books — It can be difficult to tell the difference between a book that is popular and a book that is truly well written when dealing with books that have been published recently. I would suggest spending at least a little time reading classics that have been recognized for over 100 years. Here are some tips to get the most out of reading.
- Look up a summary of the author’s biography to better understand the context from which the author writes.
- When faced with an unfamiliar word, look it up in the dictionary. Better yet, keep a notebook of new words to help expand your vocabulary.
- If you don’t enjoy a book, stop reading and move on to something else–no matter how famous it is. Life is too short and there are too many books to spend time reading things you don’t like. I spent way to many hours trying to force myself to read The Sound and the Fury before I realized that I just wasn’t going to enjoy it. Give each book a fair chance, but keep in mind that there are more great books out there than you will ever have time to read, so don’t get stuck on one that you just don’t enjoy.
- Learn a Different Culture — We all have a number of assumptions based on the way we were raised and where we live. Spending time in another culture whether it is across town or on the other side of the globe is a very valuable way to help clarify values and better understand your life purpose.
- Study Mathematics — There are few things that will stretch your capabilities like disciplined study of mathematics. If you want to grow your mind there are few things that will help you like taking a math class every few years. There are plenty of areas of mathematics to keep you busy for an entire lifetime. Statistics, set theory, logic, calculus, etc. are all disciplines that will open your mind in new ways. Some time back, I was trying to steer someone away from a very risky business decision. No matter how hard he tried, he just couldn’t grasp what I was trying to explain. I finally realized that my study of mathematics was allowing me to see things that he simply could not see. It would have taken him a considerable investment in time just to get to the point where he would understand the logic I was trying to use.
- Learn a Different Operating System — A new operating system forces you to think differently about how you approach common tasks. Stretching your brain in this way helps keep you from becoming stagnant in your ability to learn new ways of approaching problems. I’ve been told that doctors recommend that you should switch operating systems every few years if your family has a history of Alzheimer’s.
- Learn a new Language — Language is deeply interrelated with our ability to think. Learning a new language not only stretches our memory, but it gives us new ways to represent information. This “alternate” representation gives your brain a different way to frame problems and can help you grasp concepts that are difficult to represent in your native language.
- Play Games in Your Head — Sit down with a friend and play through a game of tic-tac-toe all in your head. There are only nine positions so it isn’t too difficult, but it will stretch your brain’s ability to visualize. Once it becomes easy, try switching to 3d tic-tac-toe, checkers or connect-four. With practice, you can even play a game of chess without ever seeing the chess board.
- Avoid Television — The benefits of television are rarely worth the required time investment. Even if you are watching a good educational program, the amount of mind numbing commercials you must sit through reduces the value of your time investment when compared to reading a book on the same subject. There are some very intriguing educational shows available, but keep in mind that they are generally aimed at the lowest common denominator in the potential audience. With few exceptions, television is unlikely to really stretch the way you think or challenge your mind.
- Meet New Smart People — Interacting with other people (especially people who are smarter than you) is one of the best ways to become smarter. I’m not saying that you should shun anyone with an IQ lower than your own, but if you are the smartest person you know, it is very unlikely you are achieving your full intellectual potential. This may even have a bearing on where you choose live. For example, Massachusetts and New Hampshire have a very high average IQ. Mississippi and Louisiana have a much lower than average IQ. (That of course isn’t to say that you can’t find smart people where ever you live, but it might determine how hard you’ll have to look.)
- Seek out New Experiences — New experiences give your brain the chance to grow and discover. Obviously things like moving to a foreign country or getting a degree in artificial intelligence would really stretch your mind, but making a conscious effort to seek out smaller, new experiences can be a great investment in keeping your mind sharp. Even just eating at a new ethnic restaurant, listening to a different type of music, reading a new magazine, or shopping at an unfamiliar store can help vary your daily experience and keep you sharp.
I agree with most of these. Some TV shows like Star Trek do stretch the mind.
Thanks a lot for the article. One of the things I would really like to avoid in this life is letting my mind / brain turn dumb. Your tips come at a good time.