Like most everything else in your body, your brain is comprised mainly of tissue and blood. If you sit on your leg for a while, it falls asleep and serves no purpose other than to slow you down. If you fall asleep on your hand, you can’t pick anything up. Think of your brain in the exact same manner and you’ll stop forgetting your PIN number, stop struggling to finish a project on time, and stop boring your friends to death when you go out to eat (seriously, we’re all sick of it).
People often ask me “Justin, how are you so smart yet so cool?” All right, that’s not nearly accurate at all. But I do get the “how in the hell do you know that?” question a lot after pulling some obscure miracle answer out of thin air, whilst watching a game show. Now I feel compelled to share some tips for how I – and others I’ve observed – manage to retain knowledge (both trivial and worth knowing).
There’s no excuse not to have this one in your arsenal. You’re looking at the television anyway – just mix up the rotation. I promise: it’s really easy to keep up with your world and how it works without boring yourself to death. A person’s intelligence (see also: the retention of thousands of semi-useful facts) is directly related to how many hours per week they dedicate to watching The Discovery Channel… or, at least, that’s what I’m telling myself as I sacrifice showering for the ninth straight day.
Instead of fifteen syndicated hours of Home Improvement this week, try to learn a little something while eating your Subway lunch; Cash Cab, Dirty Jobs, How It’s Made, How Stuff Works, Man vs. Wild, Mythbusters, and Survivorman are just the tip of the entertaining-yet-sneakily-informative iceberg. The Travel Channel and The Science Channel are also fantastic resources for learning – check out No Reservations with Anthony Bourdain and Deconstructed. You also need to make sure to watch Jeopardy!, as there is no greater daily 30 minute express Master’s course on history, culture, and vocabulary. Avoid shows like Wheel of Fortune and Are You Smarter Than a 5th Grader, however, because they are not helping you better yourself at all – they’re the game show version of playing your 7-year old cousin in basketball.
As far as news programs go, the best choices for reasonably honest and healthily cynical/entertaining political discourse are The Daily Show and The Colbert Report. And when you need an injection of sports, flip over to ESPNEWS for thirty minutes and you’ll be up-to-date on everything (with a lot less frustration, theatrics, and commercial time).
Further, try to watch more feature-length documentaries. Michael Moore is good for getting people talking and March of the Penguins is cute but there is a whole genre of film out there absent from the local Cineplex; instead of renting You Don’t Mess With the Zohan, try something like Why We Fight or Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room. You’ll walk away with valuable information and less Adam Sandler-induced confusion/disappointment.
Another surprisingly good place to inform yourself is the bonus section(s) on your DVDs; while plenty of movie/TV releases offer absolutely nothing noteworthy in their “supplemental features,” a bevy of worthwhile releases are readily available and they can legitimately educate you on the Hollywood processes that you merely pretend you know about at present.
I know, I know – science gave us the miracle of television, so why even bother with the printed word? Well, let me just say this: it’s not a coincidence that most smart people spend a lot of time reading. And when I say “reading” I mean actual non-fiction books… without illustrations of men in capes (not that there’s anything wrong with graphic novels).
We live in a world with accessible ingenious authors like Malcolm Gladwell, Chuck Klosterman, and Thomas Friedman, who can entertain while simultaneously changing the way you look at your world. One new book per month is a very reasonable goal to set for yourself, not to mention it is something you can do for free (even though you haven’t been to a library in fourteen years, they do still exist).
Sometimes your mind needs to do more than stare at a screen or words on paper; get your hands in on the act more frequently. Carry a notebook around and write down questions or ideas that hit you throughout the day. Oh, and doodle. A lot. Once you’re done with formal education, there are so few chances to stare at a blank piece of paper and stimulate the animation department of the mind while ignoring everything else in your world — doodling inspires creativity and right brain thinking, which will benefit you in most every aspect of your daily life.
Start attempting to do one crossword puzzle per day (and contrary to what anyone drinking a latte might tell you, you are absolutely allowed to do them in pencil) to improve all areas of your brain.
One of the easiest ways to learn (or at least trick yourself into thinking you MIGHT be learning) is merely to speak with people. And when I say “speak,” I mean ask questions to which you legitimately do not know the answers. You won’t get smarter discussing yourself (you already know all about that topic). You won’t get smarter discussing subjects with your friends that you’ve discussed a dozen times. You won’t get smarter arguing semantics like why college football should have a playoff system or why Entourage isn’t worth watching.
Everyone enjoys answering questions and if you would get over your unfounded fear of asking them, you can actually become much smarter in a very short span (plus, people are going to really like spending time with you because they enjoy talking about themselves).
The Internet makes it easier than ever to educate yourself quickly. Spend some time on Wikipedia answering the questions from your pocket notebook. Add a variety of news-synthesizing blogs to your daily Internet routine (like Boing Boing or Gawker Media Network’s stable of blogs). Register at the New York Times website and customize a personal “My Times” news frontpage to keep up on the news that matters to you, in a nice and concise portal. Stop by ffffound! and marvel at some of the most obscure and intriguing images on the internet.
Oh, and obviously you must frequent Primer everyday to learn how to be a better man…