I treat my brain like a muscle. I (try to) use it every day.
Some days, I make the effort to use it so much, it actually feels tired. I have a headache. It’s a good feeling.
It’s the nerd equivalent of “runner’s high.”
I treat my brain like a muscle because it behaves like a muscle — if I don’t use it, it gets weak. And then, when I need it for something — when I’m dependent upon it, to respond to a question from an executive in a meeting, or debug some code, or calculate a tip — if it’s not in shape, it lets me down. I’m “winded.” I can’t “lift the weight.”
Is your brain in shape?
When I was in my 20s I didn’t need to do brain exercises. I was in grad school. I read engineering and science textbooks every day. I worked in a research lab with people much smarter than I was (and am). I was constantly exploring the limit of my intellectual ability. Also I could do all of this while sleeping 2 hours a night. I was a professional brain athlete.
Well, now I need to exercise to stay in shape…that applies to everything in my body that has a blood supply. And it especially applies to my brain.
So what is a “brain exercise” anyway?
Brain exercises are easy. They are free. There’s only upside to doing them. Sudoku, Crossword puzzles, Kenken (my favorite), all those things are great. Those puzzles can help you with problem solving. But they have one limitation: they are structured.
Structured things have guaranteed solutions. You know this before you start. Knowing there is a solution makes it easier to persevere. You know, in advance, there’s a path to a clear resolution. Is that ever true in business? Is it ever true in life?
Structured problems won’t help you with resiliency. They won’t help in situations where you’re unsure of what the solution is — or if there is a solution at all. What do you do when you’ve tried everything you can think of, and you’re convinced there’s no path forward? I’m going to tell you the one brain exercise I do that helps more than any other.
It wasn’t my idea. I have stolen it without remorse or humility. This exercise helps where the puzzles cannot because it greatly expands the set of things that comprise “everything you can think of” — it stretches that from 10 things, to 100, to infinity things.
The exercise is simple: Making lists.
To start, I make a list of lists. Some of the items in that list, inspire more lists. So then I have a list of lists, where each thing in that list, is itself a list. (i never was very good with recursion)
I’m always thinking of lists. Every item in a list is an idea, and every idea has the potential to be something, or change something.
As i said: I didn’t come up with this. Linus Pauling (very smart) said “The best way to have a good idea is to have a lot of ideas.” (This is from a guy that had a lot of good ideas, so you can trust him)
Also, James Altucher (also very smart) advocates coming up with lists as part of his “daily practice.” If you haven’t read James’ work, please follow that link and read everything he’s ever written. (do that after you’re done reading this article though)
Ideas are the currency of the knowledge economy. People may think that money is the currency, but I think it’s ideas. Here’s why. One dollar is worth one dollar. But an idea has the potential to be worth infinity dollars. I would rather have infinity dollars than one dollar.
Also: pretty much every success, promotion, or good “work-thing” that’s happened to me, has been the result of good ideas (either mine, or someone else’s that I was fortunate enough to be a part of).
Also: there is nothing physical about software and business processes — they are just ideas that are reduced to practice. They are ephemeral. You can’t touch them. And yet, there are trillions of dollars (euros, pounds, lira, etc) generated annually based on these ideas. And they’re supplanted all the time by better ones, because people like you are thinking of better ones. all. the. time.
Also: Lots of people say “ideas don’t matter, it’s execution that matters.” Guess what execution is? It’s a bunch of smaller ideas that, when strung together, achieve or implement some bigger idea. Execution = ideas! So saying “ideas don’t matter, it’s execution that matters” is like saying “ideas don’t matter, it’s ideas that matter!” What?
I think the reason that people don’t get their big ideas done is because the big idea is easy to come up with (let’s invent a time machine!, or lets standardize everything across the company!), but it’s hard to come up with the small ideas that get you there.
It’s much easier to come up with excuses. So, that’s what people usually do.
Come up with ideas instead.
Also: It takes a lot of ideas to give something shape, form, and meaning. A painting is the result of a million brushstrokes. The big idea collects, organizes, and applies the smaller ones…the big idea gives the smaller ideas meaning. A million small ideas make a “big idea,” also known as a business, or a movement, or a revolution, or a vision.
How many ideas are in this article? I don’t know. Can you count them and tell me?
Maybe the next trillion dollar idea is buried in one of the lists of ideas you haven’t written yet…?
OK, time to start coming up with ideas. It’s exercise. That means it’s hard to get started. But, it becomes much easier very quickly (I promise). If you need a seed then take a look at the twenty list ideas below. Steal these, make these lists. Start with one list. Then make two, then four. At some point you will be a fountain of ideas — a “brain athlete,” or an “idea marathoner.” And I promise this will result in goodness for you.
|10 productive ways to spend the morning commute|
|10 dinner topics with a difficult relative / friend / coworker|
|10 nice things to do for my wife / husband / partner that are free|
|10 people whose careers I could help somehow|
|10 games to play with my son/daughter in the bathrub|
|10 side businesses I could start that would take less than 10 hrs a week|
|10 skills I could aquire in 1 year or less|
|10 ways competitors could establish or take market share from my company|
|10 online courses I could teach|
|10 productive ways to spend the 2 hours right before bed|
|10 stocks I would invest $1000 in (and why)|
|10 podcasts I should start listening to|
|10 ways to shave 10 minutes off of my morning routine (free time!)|
|10 meals that taste good, are good for people, and take 10 minutes or less to prepare, and cost $10 or less|
|10 ways I could improve my house that would take 1 hr or less|
|10 macroeconomic and cultural phenomena that are driving the economy|
|10 areas I have a basic understanding of that I wish I had a deeper understanding of|
|10 personality traits I have that I would like to change, and how to change them|
|10 things that happen to me every day that I should be grateful for|
|10 ways that we could turn competitors into partners|
|10 things that are illegal right now that will not be illegal in 10 years|
|10 things that were illegal 25 years ago that are legal now|
|10 things that are illegal that people do anyway|
OK! that was 23 (no extra charge).
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