Many of us believe that smartness comes from learning skills in our own field
And yet, that's only partially true. We can never be as smart as we want to be if we only have tunnel vision.
So how do we move beyond? And how do we find the time to do all of this learning?
Amazingly it all comes from limits.
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Re-release: What Does It Take To Get Smart?
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Last month I got an invitation from a group asking me to dinner
The dinner it seems was a group of startups. They wanted to spend the evening with Renuka and I and have a conversation about how to get started and to keep that momentum going.
What they wanted most of all was the promise of the “Three Month Vacation.” Yes, they were start ups, but what would it take for them to get going and then not spiral out of control. What would it take for them to become successful without being sucked into the mantra of “more, more and even more.”
The answer to their question was relatively short
But as I chugged on my mojito, I got another question that people tend to ask all the time. The question: how do you get really smart? Is there a shortcut? And how do you stay smart? That's what I would like to cover in this piece.
In my opinion, there are two ways to get smart—and one tool to make sure you get there efficiently.
The three elements we'll cover are:
– Learning all you can in your own field
– Learning all you can in an area where you have no expertise
– Working with limits
1) Learning all you can in your own field
I wasn't always a copywriter. I didn't always write sales pages or articles.
While I was in university, I decided to earn some money by selling my cartoons to newspapers. A newspaper called the “Indian Post” had just started up in Mumbai, and I was encouraged to meet the features editor, Reena Kamath. Reena, or “Chips” as she was called, was this incredibly kind and educated person.
I was, in my own head a cartoonist, but not a very confident one. What Chips did was to give me enough confidence to push my art a lot more. She encouraged me to learn how to cartoon even better, so much so that I soon published my work in other magazines and newspapers.
By the time I was headed to graduation day, I had two daily comic strips in two big newspapers.
All of this confidence didn't mean a thing when I joined an advertising agency
“Yes, you're really good at cartoons,” said the creative director at the Leo Burnett agency, “but you realise that advertising and cartooning are completely different, right?”
Once again I was back in newbie land. I didn't know enough to get going in the world of copywriting. Fortunately for me, I was given the honorary title of junior copywriter, a small stipend and left alone to do pretty much anything I wanted.
Which is when I found the agency library
If you're in advertising, you'll fondly remember these massively thick books called the “One Show.” These doorstopping books contained hundreds of real-world advertising.
And so began my education in the world of advertising. Which brings us to the first point in this article: learning all you can in your own field.
The very concept of learning everything is, as you know, impossible
Yet, what choice do we have? Everything seems to rush along madly and just to keep on top of things is quite a task. But do we have a choice? Back when I was in the Leo Burnett agency, the library was enough to keep me busy for months on end, and today we have more in a folder of our computer than we had back then.
Armed with little choice, here's what I do
I read as much as I can. I'll plough through as many books as possible. Right now I have eight books sitting on my desk and at least four-five unread on the Kindle.
There are months when I'm reduced to reading books at a snail's pace, so I find it smarter to read magazines articles instead. However, my secret weapon is audio. If I'm standing in a queue at the supermarket, I'll be listening to audio. I go for walks every morning and chomp through an hour of audio.
Even while I'm making breakfast, I'll be listening to a podcast in one earbud. I'll tell you why. On the road, while walking, it's easier to focus on the podcast.
However, when I get home, my wife Renuka will suddenly pop in from the garden and want to give me some news. When I have both earbuds in, it feels a bit like “I'm busy, don't disturb me” and so I have just a single earbud on whenever I want to keep listening, without completely tuning out the world.
Does this mean you have to be learning all the time?
No, it doesn't. You can listen to music, watch videos that go nowhere or simply bounce back into Facebook. Even so, one of the key elements that make people smart is that they don't believe in inborn smartness.
The greatest champions on the planet aren't great because they were born that way. The gold medalists keep pushing themselves long after the silver medalist has gone home for the day.
I was pretty hopeless at cartoons
If you've seen my cartoons, you might not believe me, but I've seen some of the work coming out of the Psychotactics cartooning course. I can tell you quite categorically that even while drawing for the newspapers back in Mumbai, I wasn't as good at some of the work I've seen on the course.
So what makes a person better? It's constant learning. I was an aspiring copywriter, an aspiring marketer, an aspiring-everything you can think of. And this is the first piece of advice I gave the start ups.
What makes you great at your skill isn't some bolt of lightning coming down from the heavens. What makes you stand out is being super-knowledgeable in your field. Learning the pros and the cons of your profession instead of fluffing around trying to impress everyone else.
Is it obvious advice?
Sure it is. Everyone knows that you need to learn a lot in your own field. However, making the most of your time is where it counts. If you can read a transcript while standing in a queue at your supermarket, make sure you do just that. If you can make dosas for breakfast while reading a transcript, then go right ahead.
If on the other hand, you find you're struggling to keep up with your learning, add a bit of audio in your life. You don't have to remember everything you hear and I frankly don't. I have to put down the learning into an Evernote file so that I don't forget. To be brilliant, you have to find the ways t do things that seem impossible.
But do you have to pay attention to everything?
No, you don't. You want to get rid of the braggarts. The people who put those dollar signs on their site to entice you. Those people who make you feel like your subscriber list is so puny and how they're sending tens of thousands of subscribers through their funnels.
Even in the world of everything, you've got to pay attention to the people that fit your life and your philosophy. Which means that having an ear bud in your ear all the time may not suit you at all.
You may well be happy with learning a lot less so that you can be who you are. Even so, remember that the learning is non-negotiable. Do whatever it takes to learn a ton of stuff in your field, and you'll find that's what clients pay for.
Incredibly, tunnel vision learning won't get you as far as you could go. For that, you need to diverge and learn about areas where you have no expertise.
Part 2: Why You Need To Learn In Areas Where You Have No Expertise (And Have No Intention of Having Any Expertise).
In July 2013, I went through a life-changing experience.
My niece Marsha wasn't doing too well at school and as usual, everyone blames the student. I'm not a fan of that school of thought. I don't believe in bad students; I believe the responsibility of the student lies with the teacher.
It's one thing to make a statement and quite another to work through the problem. In this case, my goal was to make Marsha as good as, or better than any of the students in her year.
What I hadn't counted on was the fact that she was going to give me the lesson of my life
Before I started working with Marsha, I knew a lot about copywriting, about marketing etc. What I didn't know didn't bother me because I was in that tunnel focus trying to learn more about the things that affected my business.
When Marsha came along, she brought a thousand questions along with her. How are clouds formed? What are the names of all the types of clouds? Why can we see Venus so clearly at night? These questions led me down a road from which I have never recovered.
Do you know how Prussian Blue got into Hokusai's painting of the “Great Wave off Kanagawa”?
How does Google predict the common cold with astonishing accuracy? Why do wildebeest feast on one area of grass while ignoring the other? And what role does the volcano Oldoinyo lengai play in this epic migration? What are cyanobacteria? Why do geologists find the “boring billion” years not boring at all?
These questions have nothing to do with your business
Sitting down with Marsha—and we always sit down on the ground—near the sofa, taught me so much about the world around me. Then it went a bit further. My ability to write became better.
My ability to tell stories and do podcasts improved radically. In a short period of three years, I realised that I was a walking dummy. I knew a lot about the world of marketing and business but precious little else.
Creativity is the ability to connect two disconnected situations or objects together
As a cartoonist, as a comedian or artist, this something you learn quickly or you're doomed to failure. You can't just go around connecting the dots on your sheet of paper. The dots have to join from another sheet or even no sheet at all. To be creative means stepping into a world that's not your own.
When we look at hundreds of inventions, we see this creative streak of the disconnect showing up time and time again. Velcro, the rubber tyre, popsicles, microwave ovens, Post-it even matches were the result of random accidents.
Being smart involves knowing the world around you
History, geography, culture, geology—it all makes a huge difference to your work. Instead of just showing up in Egypt and losing yourself in the Pyramids, you might well notice that almost every block on the Giza pyramid has marine creatures.
There also happen to be sea creatures at the top of Mt.Everest. While this random stuff may seem to make no sense in isolation, you can quickly map the sequence of how things unfold.
Over time you get far more confidence and your brain becomes somewhat like a walking Internet
You realise you can see “shallow oceans” and “tectonic plate movements” where others just see “blocks of stone” at Giza. If that's all you could see and experience it would be fabulous. For me it's amazing to look up at a sunny sky and know, based on the number of cirrus clouds that it's going to get cold and rainy in 24 hours.
Just the confidence it brings you, knowing the world around you is fabulous, but it also brings connections to your work in ways you can't imagine until you start to learn about things that are widely divergent from your business.
The question is: Where do you get all of this information?
It's always been in books and magazines, of course. The New Yorker magazine has almost always jumped madly from malaria to construction; automation to the Suez Canal; The Beatles to Vermeer. And today they continue to do so like so many other magazines that cover a range of extremely interesting topics.
Equally, though are books that you can get on Amazon. Books that explore the concepts of meditation, puppet masters, alongside the Masai. Books and magazines are only part of the mix and you can learn from podcasts of every kind.
I listen to the New Yorker Hour of course, which tackles anything from Venezuela's crisis to a fascinating interview with Bruce Springsteen.
To be single minded in your pursuit of knowledge in your own field is a good idea
However, it's when you step out that you learn a lot more, become more confident and almost always make a connection that leads to a better life. You can almost guarantee that learning more in your field makes for some sort of advancement you can measure.
It's much harder to justify the time spent learning about volcanoes, clouds, Ayurveda and wildebeest. In fact, other than just random facts, it seems like a complete waste of time.
I'd advise you to go down the track of the randomness, even when your work-related learning already demands more time than you have.
To become smart, you need to learn. You need to implement
And sticking to the work-related stuff is already quite a task. Putting on the additional burden of learning stuff that's not remotely related to you may seem crazy, but I'd say take it on.
Which brings us to the most pertinent question of all: where do you find the time? Sure it's a great idea to learn about your work and about the world around us, but where's the time? And this was the most persistent question of all at the dinner. The answer is remarkably simple and leads right into the three-month vacation.
Part 3: Working with limits: the real secret to becoming smart
Imagine you had four months to write a book
Do you think given four months, you'd write the book in three months? This was the question we had to ask ourselves when we started Psychotactics back in August 2002. We were keen to run our business in a way that we had control over the business instead of the other way around. How could we take so much time off and still make our business successful? The answer, it seems, was so simple that it was hard to believe.
Put limits on your schedule—that's it
The most frequently asked question I get is: how do you manage to take three months off in a year? The answer is: we assume our year is nine months long. Yes, read that again: we assume our year is nine months long. Now imagine you've finally started up a business or let's assume you've been in business for a while. How long is your year?
The concept of limits is what makes you smart
If you look around the Internet today, you get two sets of people. People who seem to be working like maniacs to keep doubling their income or those who are supposedly living the Internet lifestyle but still check e-mail, do work at the beach etc while on vacation.
To each their own, I suppose, but hear me out. What makes your brain smart is downtime. Having time to rest allows all that connected and unconnected stuff come together. The brain works best when it's at rest. The way to give the brain a rest is to enforce limits.
Imagine you have only 90 minutes to write an article. What can you do in those 90 minutes?
Imagine you have only a limited number of ingredients in your pantry. How do you whip up a delicious meal?
And imagine you have only 9 months in a year. How do you finish all your work (and a lot more sometimes) without working every single day of the year? If you put limits on yourself, you start to become a lot smarter.
These limits don't have to stop at learning
Today we had a couple of people come around to give us new garbage stickers. The Auckland council is testing some sort of garbage system and as part of the trial we had to buy $20 worth of stickers that would last about 2 months.
When these guys came along to give us new stickers, we still had the same original bunch. In over two months we hadn't needed to use the garbage bin at all.
How's that possible, you say? Same as the three-month vacation, isn't it?
You think a three-month vacation would be impossible but we've done it almost year after year since 2004. The garbage situation takes a little planning. We take our own cloth bags everywhere. We take a container box when we dine out for takeaways (you may call it food to go).
We refuse all coffee in paper cups and have our own glass/plastic cups or we use the ceramic cups at the cafe. We don't take straws, plastic bags and will not buy stupid cucumbers wrapped in cling wrap. Ergo, little or no garbage. The rest of the stuff goes in the compost bin. Impossible? Of course not.
The key is to have a mind that imposes limits
If you really want to change your world, you have to believe you really have no time. Instead of a seven day week, make it a five day week and refuse to work on weekends.
Instead of a 12 month year, nine months should do nicely. Instead of trying to double your income all the time like some senseless woodpecker, try fixing your income to one that allows for tax, savings and a comfortable life.
Smarts come from limits
They also come from learning: both learning in the areas of expertise and totally outside the expertise range. The vast flow of humanity just amble along without really putting in the effort to make their work smarter—or even their breaks smart.
And so it goes, year in and year out without too much of change. It's easy to do average work and just be a hero on the Internet (or even off the Internet) today. It takes a smarter mind to do something really outstanding.
So what's the one thing you can do today?
Limits. Put limits on the world you live in and you'll see how you might never have much use for that massive garbage can. You may also be able to do almost all, if not more work in just 9 months of the year. You may be able to write, draw, sing and dance in a fixed time frame. And then you might have a much better life. A much smarter life.
All of this discussion came from that dinner with those startups. They set down the path of work; we went off tangent into this topic which was totally disconnected. And we could have stayed all night, but we had to leave. We had limits.