Six Ways to Get Smart and Stay Smart

People who want to influence the world in intelligent and meaningful ways need to continually keep their knowledge up-to-date. You will rarely find someone who successfully leads organizations and people who does not also do a lot to consistently to drive their own learning.

Several colleagues have asked me recently where I get knowledge on such a wide variety of topics, so here are six things that I do in order to get smart and stay smart…as well as some of the struggles I’ve had in keeping it that way.

1. Read Books
I have a love-hate relationship with books. There is no better way to keep one’s knowledge current than by reading a good book, especially one that relates to your work and by an author that has really done their homework on the topic. You get the in-depth coverage in a book that you’ll never get in a magazine, newspaper article, or podcast. And yet, I struggle with getting what I consider to be “enough” books read.

Like many things in life, there just seems to always be something more urgent than making time to sit down and read a book…laundry piling up, the toilet that needs to be fixed (still haven’t done that), and email to answer. Reading books takes time and many of us have many demands on our time. That said, I have every intention and desire to read more books than the 8 books I completed last year.

Six Ways to Get Smart and Stay Smart 1

Here’s a few ways that I’ve upped my book reading this year. First, I set a specific goal of reading 20 books in 2011 so I can more easily track my progress. I track my reading on so that I know what I’m currently reading, have read already, and plan to read in the near future. I’m a bit behind my goal at the moment (I’ve finished 5 books in 2011) but substantially ahead of last year’s pace. You can see what I’m reading at:

Second, I listen to audiobooks as often as I can. I’ll search iTunes for the book I want and, if available by audio, consider listening to it that way. Then, I can make great use of driving time or exercise time in filling my mind with new information. I know audiobooks don’t work for everyone, but for me it’s a great way to learn.

Bonni and I also joined a book club this year, which has helped me get a head start on reading more in 2011. For me, it’s a big incentive to finish a book in a timely way when I know that I’m going to be meeting people to discuss it in detail. It’s also been a good way for me to challenge myself with books that I wouldn’t normally have picked up on my own.

Finally, I record notes of what I’m reading that’s significant in Evernote so that I can come back to points later that I know I’ll want for future reference. See more on Evernote below.

2. Listen to Podcasts
Podcasts are essentially on-demand internet radio, and most of them are free. In addition, other than an occasional sponsor announcement, they are generally commercial-free. The easiest way for most people to access podcasts is via iTunes, where you can click on the Podcasts tab to see what’s available. Once you subscribe to one, it will sync with your iPod or other music device so you can listen at your convenience.

There’s literally a podcast for everything and, like everything on the internet, there are awful podcasts right along with some of the most amazing podcasts and learning that you can find anywhere. Most of them are in the 20-60 minute range and many reputable organizations publish great content as podcasts. More often than not, I’m listening to a podcast in the car instead of the radio. Here are a few of my favorites that keep me up on what’s going on in the world:

  • HBR IdeaCast
  • Marketplace from American Public Media
  • NPR’s Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me
  • Business Tech Weekly

I also subscribe to our church’s podcast so I can catch all the sermons when we’re gone for the weekend. I’ve even recently partnered with my friend Sandie Morgan at the Global Center for Women and Justice at Vanguard University to produce the Ending Human Trafficking podcast.

You can’t get everything from podcasts, but you’ll be amazed at how much expertise is out there in the world that is completely available for free. Check it out on iTunes and give a few a try.

3. Increase Your Vocabulary
Most people only work on their vocabulary when they are studying for a standardized test like the SAT or GMAT. However, building your vocabulary over a lifetime will help you greatly increase your ability to learn about the world.

You don’t improve your vocabulary in order to impress people…you do it so that you understand the words you see in print and learn from those who are respected in your field. While it’s admittedly been a bit since I did this formally, I have at a number of points in my life completed vocabulary lessons and refreshers that have helped me to learn and communicate with a lot more confidence.

I’ve used the Princeton Review Word Smart a number of times over the years to refresh some of the best words to be able to grasp in professional conversations and reading. The audio versions in particular helped me to really get lots of words down. Some people think the stories they use to teach the words are a bit cheesy, but I personally loved them since I think it’s a great way to remember new words.

These days, you can also find tons of vocabulary builders for devices like your iPhone and iPad. I haven’t used any of these yet, but I see that Princeton Review now has Apps as well for vocabulary building. Just search for Princeton Review on the App store and you’ll find lots of other options too.

If you prefer books, 30 Days to a More Powerful Vocabulary is another classic that I’ve read before and found extremely helpful. It’s not quite as fun as the above options, but the content is invaluable.

4. Listen to NPR
Don’t listen to commercial radio. Almost half of any hour of commercial radio is filled with advertisements that generally are a waste of your time. When you want to listen to music, grab your iPod or try satellite radio if feasible. When you want to learn about the world and you’re not listening to an audiobook or podcast, listen to NPR.

NPR, like public television, is funded primarily by the public and not by advertisers. That means that they have more editorial independence than most news organizations since they are not beholden to what advertisers want them to air. Also, no commercials either (unless you count the twice a year they ask you to support the station during the pledge drives – and yes, Bonni and I are members).

Great shows like Morning Edition, All Things Considered, and Marketplace (a daily business show) will keep you up-to-date on what’s going on in the world. I get tons of information that I constantly use in interactions with clients by listening regularly to NPR. Plus, NPR publishes lots of podcasts (see above) that are a great way to keep up when you miss a live show.

What I like best about NPR? They actually recognize that you are an intelligent human being and don’t tell you what to think. They generally present each side fairly and let you come to your own conclusions. Personally, I want to hear both sides of a story or issue – because I need to be able to understand the perspective of clients (and others) who view the world differently than I do.

5. Read Industry Publications
Decide what’s important to learn and seek out the publications that the leaders in your industry are reading. If you don’t know what those are, then keep you ears open at conferences and professional conversations for the publications that people cite and refer to. Even better, ask the people you respect in your field about what they are reading. In my industry, these are the ones that I feel are most critical and see referenced a lot:

  • Harvard Business Review
  • Chief Learning Officer
  • Talent Management Magazine
  • Leader to Leader Journal
  • Wall Street Journal
  • Fast Company

So, I subscribe to all of the above either physically or electronically and make time to incorporate them into my reading…and what works best for me right now is not letting myself take them off my desk at home until I’ve at least skimmed each issue. I don’t read every article, but I do at least look at every article so I know what conversations are going on. When I do read an article and I believe it has something of value for me, I either scan or save it into Evernote, my personal knowledge center for articles and blogs.

Evernote allows you to scan in PDFs (and many other formats) and then categorize articles/notes into folders and tag them according to content. This way, I can search for tags like “employee engagement” and “studies” when I’m looking for ideas on engagement that have research backing when designing content for a client or writing a blog. Plus, you can save audio and picture notes as well. I like to save notes on dry-erase boards from client engagements into Evernote so I can reference them later.

I use the paid version of Evernote, but you can it for free as well and it syncs to many mobile devices. If you really want to know more about how to use it in detail, check out Michael Hyatt’s excellent blog post on Evernote.

6. Read Blogs
Yes, it’s true that there is a lot of junk on the internet. It is also true that there is amazing content out there on well-respected blogs that you can’t get anywhere else. In fact, in some industries, well-established bloggers have already set a new standard for industry news and discussion.

If you haven’t already, you’ll want to start using a newsreader in order to grab good blogs and content on websites you want to keep up with (again, ask around and observe in your industry if you don’t already know what blogs to be reading). A news reader will pull new content via RSS (real simple syndication) technology from websites automatically so that you don’t need to go visiting sites all the time to see if there are new posts. To learn more about RSS, check out Bonni’s brief video below.

I use the free Google Reader which then links to an app called NewsRack on my iPhone and iPad. Use whatever you like, but subscribe to blogs via RSS so that you save time and get all the content you want. Be smart about what you subscribe to as well. For example, if I find that a blog isn’t valuable or that I can’t keep up, I unsubscribe from it. I don’t want to be overwhelmed with content…so I try to only subscribe to things that I read regularly.

Regardless of what combination of the above six methods you use, you need to make a time commitment to get smart. For me, I budget at least an hour a day (more if I can) to do some combination of the above activities. That’s just barely enough for me to keep up, so schedule more time if you can and make it a priority – which is hard to do since the benefits to getting smart are rarely immediate – but can be profound over your career and lifetime.

Have other suggestions on getting/staying smart that I didn’t mention? Be sure to leave a comment below and add to this list.

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