Thinking Smarter

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I’ve been thinking a lot about thinking lately.

I know, that’s very "meta" of me. When was the last time you spent five minute thinking about not only how you learn, but where it’s all taking place? People often laugh when they hear that I am reading all of my books exclusively on my iPhone with the Amazon Kindle and Apple iBooks apps. In fact, most people scoff at the notion (as if I’m doing some kind of retinal damage or that it’s heresy). The truth is that technology has not only facilitated our ability to learn but it has sped it up. I read over thirty books last year, and it would have never happened if I had to carry them all around with me in my backpack.

It’s too bad that most people don’t realize this and/or take advantage of it. 

I love our local library. They have everything there  – from books, magazines and newspapers to CDs, movies and activities for the kids. I wouldn’t want it to go anywhere, but the truth is that I have most of the information available in that massive space in my smartphone. An exaggeration? Hardly. Do you know how many books I’ve looked for to no avail at the library, only to pop open my iPhone and buy it through one of book apps that I use? Instead of trolling through the pages of Harvard Business Review, Fast Company or Wired Magazine, I simply subscribe to their feeds and I’m able to not only know when an new issue is on the newsstand (and, for the record, I’m starting to prefer the digital versions of the physical magazines), but their websites are complimented with additional reporting, Blogs, Podcasts and more.

The Internet is nothing new.

…But every day new content comes online that can (and will) make you smarter. Most people don’t even know about iTunes U, where you can download, watch and/or listen to some of the best lectures from the most prestigious universities in the world… for free. I can understand why people don’t take/make the time to go to their local library to learn, but really, what’s the excuse now?

Thinking smarter.

Education is your own problem. I sucked at school (from the beginning until I dropped out of university). It just wasn’t for me. Thankfully, my parents instilled in me the importance of education from an early age. That being said, I was much better at playing video games, watching TV and reading comics books than I was at delivering a book report to my teacher’s on time. Thankfully, I didn’t let my lack of motivation for school interfere with my education as I got older. Yes, you can take courses, add some degrees to the old resume or attend conferences (all powerful and useful ways to keep educating yourself), but you can also set your own curriculum like never before. From text and images to audio and video and it’s all (mostly free). Curious about physics? Modern literature? Architecture? Marketing innovation? It’s all here. Right here. Just waiting for you.

The brutal truth. 

People will often tell me that they can’t wait to go on vacation so that they can catch up on their reading. They’ll also talk about the sabbatical that they’re taking to spend time learning. Here’s the truth: you can’t catch up on reading and you don’t need a sabbatical to learn. In our hyper-connected and competitive business world, you need to be thinking about getting smarter as an iterative and critical part of your day-to-day regiment. Every day that you’re not reading or learning something is a waste and you can’t "catch up" on vacation. If you make time for the gym, you better make time for the brain too. Thanks to the Web, mobile and touch, it’s never been easier.

What do you do to get smarter?


  1. For me, it’s a mix of inputs and curated content… podcasts, blogs, Zite, Pulse and Twitter. I find audio to be the best when it comes to continuos learning, while driving or walking the pup. Outside of podcasts, the iTunes U is AWESOME. Not many people use it, and the programs are hit and miss, much like regular podcasts. However, I found “Great Ideas in Psychology” and “Arming the Donkeys” really great.
    Zite is an app I can’t recommend enough! It’s an absolute must for every iPad owner.
    And… With MIT and other universities opening their courses and content… the world’s your oyster!

  2. ” Every day that you’re not reading or learning something is a waste and you can’t catch up” on vacation.”
    Absolutely agree with you Mitch. I’ve always been a fan of setting your own curriculum. This is a valuable lesson that I learned from my Dad. As a cardiologist, he spent every evening studying the latest medical journals, making sure he was always learning; on top of information. I carry this same philosophy with marketing. With the web innovating at the speed of light it is our duty as marketers to read, and keep learning. When you think you are done learning, pick up a book and learn some more.
    My one caveat is don’t just read – put it to action. Read an article and craft a thoughtful comment on a blog, or share a tweet, or have a conversation with your friend, or apply what you learned to your job at hand. Each time I read something that sticks, I make sure to take action. Action = Retention.
    I dedicated 2012 to teaching myself basic HTMl and CSS. I got myself a 600 page “Head First” book and every single night I spend a little bit working on it. Learning a new technical skill has added a valuable skill to my toolbox. Will I ever be a terrific developer? Doubt it, but I better understand the goop that makes up the web, and can bridge the technical gap where many digital marketers fall short.
    “Think Smarter”
    Preach on brotha. The Internet has made education more affordable and easy to access. Regardless of the fact that someone out there probably has a blog you can digest on the go, there are countless websites like,,, that are using the interactivity of the web to make education sexy, fun, and effective. Take a quick online course during your lunch break or right when you get home. Make time to learn, feed your brain, and heighten the quality of your work.

  3. I’ve been thinking about thinking, too, and how to apply it to content marketing for thought leadership. I have been thinking that if I really want to be known as an expert, I should use tools like Google’s keyword tool to make sure I’m covering the bases in my field. Then I put all those keywords into Google Reader and feed myself a study diet of the best thinking in my area of expertise. Then I curate that content using Twitter or blogging combined with other social media tools so that people can find me when they are looking for an expert with my skills. Google Reader is my secret weapon, but I have to be careful about what I let into my Google Reader world and effective in how I manage the content I find…

  4. I would debate that technology and it’s ability to open our world to anything and everything and provide us an on-demand repository of anything and everything doesn’t make us smarter at all. It makes us more aware/inter-connected/collaborative, most definitely… but not smarter. You still rely on your personal ability to profoundly and sometimes accurately interpret what you are absorbing. Bullshit is bullshit and if you can’t identify it, you’ve got problems. I’ve said many times to friends and colleagues that I am amazed at the sheer volume of awesomeness on the web and what the hell did I do before the Internet. Has it made me ‘smarter’? No. But I sure as hell am way more informed. Now if I could just more effectively connect all the dots.

  5. This instantly becomes required reading for my students. I love the fact that I can disappear to the gym or on my bike to mountains or through crazy Asian city travel while learning from MIT, Mitch Joel, This Week in Tech, Media Hacks, John Jantch, and learn a little language without even having to manually manage the individual podcast files. I also refuse to waste a taxi ride.
    My iPhone pays for itself every month if consider that access to great education without being glued to a screen.

  6. Check out:
    “The Education of Millionaires: It’s Not What You Think and It’s Not Too Late” by Michael Ellsberg. An eye-opener and a re-thinking of modern higher education.

  7. Fair enough. I may be interplaying the words “smart” and “more informed.” I think it has made me smarter, though. I’m interested in topics I would have never uncovered and have met people who have pushed me to do more and be more. If I think back to a world pre-Internet it seems a lot more barren in terms of my own, personal, smarty-pantsness 😉

  8. Yeah, you call it “success” I call it “chaos”…. I wish I could get the tools to actually do what I need them to do. Instead, I keep jumping around 🙂 All, the clutter of new media (ain’t it grand)?

  9. Curation is a double edged sword… On one hand you get the news, updates, articles and links that you prefer and that pertain to you… while on the other hand, you may be oblivious to other new items or learning opportunities that lie just outside of your curation scope. JMO
    – Ernest

  10. Actually, I’ve worked very hard to get it down to a minimalist toolkit that interacts quite well amongst itself. You were actually influential in getting me to include Windows Live Writer, although I use it in Windows. I sent a pdf of the workflow to your email address and I’d be happy to discuss it with you further…

  11. Too many people still equate learning/education with schooling which obviously is the wrong, and increasingly outdated, approach to modern life. Back in the pre-Internet age one had to put in a little bit of effort to learn something new, but now we have knowledge coming at us from all directions. As such formal schooling may come to an end but learning certainly does not if you want to succeed in whatever it is that you are doing in your professional or even private life for that matter. Moreover, I agree with Mitch that the idea that one can somehow ‘catch up’ on all this stuff during one’s vacation is false because the knowledge continuum never stops. You can’t just dip in and dip out once or twice a year. That said, time management skills are becoming extremely important in order to digest and practice what one learns. Clay Shirky talks about this idea of ‘cognitive surplus’ in his book by the same title. People need to be aware that we all have this cognitive surplus all the time, not just when we take vacations, but it’s something that we have to work at (ie. time management). Thankfully I am lucky that I’ve always loved reading as far back as I can remember, therefore the web is a heaven of sorts for me.

  12. Mitch…timely stuff.
    What I do to “attempt” to get smarter?
    – rss smart blogs via google reader (limit to 10 in key categories)
    – follow smart people on 2-3 lists via twitter (each list has a 20 person limit)
    – try not to follow too much how-to, tactical content in nature, but rather “big thinking” approaches and philosophies
    – do things that are creative just for the sake of doing it (making music, writing, etc.)
    – experiment, fail, then experiment some more (i.e. do stuff instead of just reading and consuming stuff)

  13. That’s all great stuff, Mitch. Did you know you can follow people in Twitter via Google Reader? That way it’s all in one place and you can use Google Reader to manage it all…

  14. I do my best to ask myself this one question when I find myself doing anything: “would this ‘free’ time be better spent reading or writing?” You won’t be surprised at how often the answer is “yes.”

  15. I don’t like reading books but love listening. Thanks to Toronto traffic, I get to listen for hours each week. I learn and also develop my listening skills.
    I don’t like reading books but love presentations (live or recorded).
    When I read a book, I prefer using my Android smartphone. The small screen makes reading less daunting. Plus, my phone is the gadget I’m most likely to have with me.
    I’m amazed to see people — smart people — who consume content but don’t create any. You learn much better when you share with others.

  16. I like what you said about education being your own problem. With technology making information so readily available and much of what schools teach out-of-date in a matter of a few years, we have to take responsibility for our own education.
    I also love reading full books on my iPhone. To stay current, I also spend some of my spare time finding interesting new posts like this one through Flipboard and listening to audiobooks when I’m on the move.

  17. Nice Mitch! I’ll bring out the Garage Band app on the iPad to provide you with some background beats!
    Todd and Mitch…the best aggregation app out there has to be FlipBoard for the iPad…not only does it compile everything (facebook, twitter, reader, etc.) it does so in a way that’s amazing to look at.

  18. I also have to add audio books and kindle, BUT like the other comments, the key is to curate, limit the amount of content (key!) and time spent consuming, and only consume the info if it applies to putting it into action in the short-term.

  19. Mitch, I think it’s very easy to constantly “learn” these days, since we have streams of information pouring in from all sides. The challenge is to get past goals of quantity, and to push for quality. Think of the facts and ideas we pick up reading as a huge mountain of bricks and stones, with statues scattered here and there. The trick, which involves thinking, is to turn all of that into the Chateau de Versailles or maybe just a cottage that keeps out the rain. In any case, we have to synthesize the information. This involves putting down the Kindle. Yes, it’s much easier simply to go on to the next book or article, but I agree with Sean Zinsmeister (in comments), the information develops much more meaning when it’s acted upon. So I think the challenge is to choose just a few things to read, and then to spend time discussing or writing about them, or maybe just thinking about them.

  20. I try to focus on quality over quantity in the information I consume. As with everyone else that’s reading your thoughts I subscribe to or have access to parse way more data streams than I can process each day/week. So to make sure I’m getting the most out of a piece of information I try to spend time with it. The idea is to absorb it, think on it, act on it in some way. That means I’m reducing the amount or quantity of different information sources each week. But I think in the end I benefit more through greater depth of thought.

  21. I keep on reading if there is something new for me. My brain feels empty if I pass the
    whole day without reading books related to my work. With the internet today, it is easy to get all the information we needed.

  22. The hard part of curation is not limiting the content… it’s finding the ideal content in the first place 😉 I think that’s what overwhelms most people. Plus, with curation, you still want to ensure that there is a level of serendipity, so you can explore more areas.

  23. Without question: the hard work is really doing something with whatever it is that you have found/consumed. I know many people who take notes as they read, but never go back to them… what’s the point? I guess actions do speak louder than words 😉

  24. Another trick I use is to quit. If I’m reading a book (or article or listening to a Podcast) and it’s just not moving me (after giving it a fair chance), I dump it. Life is to short to read things that don’t inspire.

  25. Reading is great, of course, but the way that I learn is to listen. I’ve stopped putting in earphones whenever I leave the house in order to listen to other people. What are they talking about? How are they talking? What do they look like when they talk? Don’t get me wrong…I don’t eavesdrop and follow people around. I simply try to catch a tidbit of what they are saying. I find it’s helped me become more open-minded, which used to be one of my weaknesses.
    Listening helps you avoid getting stuck in a bubble. People should do more of it. Trust me, it will make it easier to connect to others later on.

  26. I used to do that exact same thing when going for a run outside. I then realized that I would much rather listen to some of the smartest people in the world and that’s when I got seriously into Podcasts.

  27. I use audio on my iphone. I read when I am going places, waiting at places, and just about any time that a reading opportunity presents itself. I used to read a lot more than I do now; because audio is more effective. Listening and then re-listening brings out more of the content, and I can walk at the same time which my dog appreciates!

  28. “Getting smarter” is part of what 2012 is going to be all about for me. I’m an ever curious learning junkie and I have a problem: I always want to learn something new, and since the internet has… well… everything, it can be a struggle.
    That being said, and many experiments later on this subject (I’m also of a “meta” thinker on this, Mitch ;), I found out there are two main components to thinking and learning the smart way via the web:
    1) Find the time to do it — If you really want to invest in it, trust me, you’ll have time.
    2) Don’t get lost in it — don’t start subscribing automatically to the NY Times, Huff Post, 30 blogs, 5 podcasts and who knows how many newsletters… start with the basics, and don’t be ruthless enough to cut on a couple dozen feeds if you feel they’re not delivering truly new content.
    A little story to illustrate what I mean: back in August 2011, I came back from a two-week internet-free holidays and found more than 7000 unread items on Google Reader. My first reaction: panic. My second reaction: let’s solve this. So I started going feed by feed, and if any of those feeds did not deliver one single page of content I would think, “wow, I’d totally share this right now”, off with their heads. Unsubscribe. This made me go from 150 subscriptions to 47 or so in time, and you know what? I feel a lot smarter. Why? Because I stopped consuming so much trash and started having time to think about the content I consume with a true purpose.
    Another important note: segmentate your content. Know how you work in terms of reading. Know that you can’t stand to have 30 unread feeds/day PER FEED. I know I can’t, but I love to read my sources for marketing, technology, social media and web news. My solution? Three main platforms:
    1) Email newsletters for large-volume mediums (ex: The Next Web, Mashable, Huff Post)
    2) RSS feeds for personal/collective blogs with no more than 1 to 4 blog posts per day
    3) Flipboard for iPhone with their curated feeds for transversal interests I may have (ex: design, business, world news, photography)
    This way I have a method of not losing myself. It’s easier for me to read large quantities of headlines in a carefully designed newsletter, so I got that covered. Blogs, although timely, are not an issue if I don’t read for 2 or 3 days, I catch up relatively fast. And if I want to read something quite different, I take out my iPhone and there you go. (of course I have other content sources, but these are the main platforms I use)
    So, learning the smart way is about knowing how to set boundaries and method. It takes time to adapt but trust me, you DO not want to feel you have to dedicate 5 hours/day to read all your favorite content. I’ve been there and it sucks.
    Sorry for the long comment, but this is an issue I love to discuss and I thought I’d share my method with you all. All feedback appreciated. 🙂

  29. I am reading “The Thinking Life” by P.M. Forni. I agree with his assertion that the internet is a distraction because for me, looking online for one thing and ending up browsing many others, putting this article aside for later because it looks good, is not a good way to learn anything. I don’t read fast enough to need to carry more than one book with me at a time. Reading a physical book or article is more practical for me.
    That being said, I agree that technology has put all the knowledge we need at our fingertips so there really is no excuse. We can also find diverse perspectives and make our own judgements based on our findings as long as we understand that not everything we read is fact. But this ultimately leaves the responsibility of our learning in our own hands. It is up to us to take the time to fine tune the messages we receive from the vast array of information that is out there.

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